Location: Homestead, Florida and Everglades City, Florida
Webpage: National Park
General Description: While the Everglades National Park is over 1.5 million acres, it encompasses only 20% of the historical extent of the Everglades. Much of Central Florida is in the watershed of the Kissimmee River which empties into Lake Okeechobee. During the summer rainy season there is rain somewhere in Florida just about every day. Lake Okeechobee would fill up and overflow the southern banks providing a continuous flow of very slow moving water that makes it way to the south and west. This in combination with frequent thunderstorms over the area creates a very wet environment. A combination of the relative youth of the geology emerging from the sea only 15,000 years ago following the Wisconsin ice age and the drop of only 8 feet in elevation all the way to the coast creates a vast slow moving sheet of water. Most of the Everglades is under a few feet of water for 9 months of the year, but also consistently dries out during the dry winter months. Unlike most swamps which are characterized as stagnant water, brown with tannic acid, the water in the Everglades is constantly moving very slowly and is crystal clear, except for the cypress domes scattered throughout the landscape. The most extensive ecosystems are freshwater sloughs and marl prairies of sawgrass, known as the “Sea of Grass” due to the slow moving water (only 100 feet a day). In the marl prairie, blue green algae and other micro-organisms form a complex called periphyton that cover the water. During the dry season the periphyton forms a moist mat on the ground helping to conserve the environment. Interspersed throughout the landscape are hardwood hammocks which are a few feet higher in elevation that can flood for a few months of the year, but are relatively protected from fire by natural moats that are formed ringing the hammock by erosion of the limestone caused by tannic acid from decaying leaves. Those areas that are a little bit higher and frequently burned have developed slash pine flatwoods. A few feet lower in elevation creates conditions that can remain flooded year round, thereby favoring the growth of bald cypress domes. As you near the coast the water becomes more brackish, favoring extensive mangrove forests that can live in brackish and the salt water of the Gulf. The recent history of the Everglades is a combination of sanctuary and development. Forming a natural boundary, two tribes of Indians settled the east and west coasts from 10,000-20,000 years ago. The Tequesta Indians on the east coast at the Miami River and the Calusa Indians along the west coast. Shell mounds still exist in the Park giving archeological evidence. The Calusa Indians were fierce warriors towering over the much smaller Spanish and successfully resisted the Spanish for hundreds of years. Through war, disease, and migration the Calusa and Tequesta Indians were gone by 1800. In the early 19th century, Creek Indians displaced by the Creek Indian wars, escaped slaves, and the remained of the Tequesta Indians eventually combined to form the Seminole Nation of today. After the end of the Seminole Wars in 1842, most of the Seminole Indians were moved to Texas and Oklahoma, however, about 200 continued to live and hideout in the Everglades. The Everglades continued to be a preferred location for those escaping society throughout the years. In particular, Flamingo and Everglade City on the coast were havens for those living outside society. During Prohibition, Flamingo was a center for rum trafficking with shipments from Cuba and many illegal stills in the area. Also during the 1870s it was central to the bird plumage craze for ladies hats that nearly wiped out the egret population in the Everglades. Many attempts were made to drain the Everglades to provide farm and ranch land beginning in the 1880s. The early attempts did not harm the Everglades as they did not drain very much. However, in 1904, Governor Broward ordered the drainage that took place from 1905-1910. The population boom in 1920 led to the Florida Land Boom which drained much of the area south of Lake Okeechobee. The hurricanes in 1926 and again in 1928 killed thousands of people when the levies around the lake broke leading to the creation of a four foot stone wall, named the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounded Lake Okeechobee and cut the water out of the Everglades. Following a severe drought and wildfires in 1939, extensive logging, and the hunting of alligators, frogs, birds, and fish the Everglades were changed drastically. The growing populations in Miami on the east coast and Tampa on the west coast made huge demands on the water supply in the aquifers, allowing salt water to intrude. Water is the lifeblood of the Everglades, not only quantity, but also quality and timing. The fertilization of the farm lands to the north is adding nutrients, especially phosphorus, to the water flowing into the Everglades, further changing the ecosystems. The battle for water in Florida is only going to become more intense over time and the survival of the Everglades is in doubt. Since its creation in 1923 and expansions over the years, the Everglades National Park has sought to balance the needs of society with the preservation and restoration of the Everglades. In 2000, the Park began a long range restoration effort called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) to restore the water flow into what remains of the Everglades. In addition to being the third largest National Park in the continental US, it has been named an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance, one of only three sites to be on all three lists in the world.
1) Being over 1.5 million acres, the Everglades National Park cannot be seen in only a single visit. There are four Visitor Centers in the Park, each with their own programs and points of interest. In addition, there are numerous hiking trails of varying lengths and canoeing/kayaking opportunities. Visitors should start at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center at the Park Entrance Station where you can get good information about all areas of the park before paying the entrance fee. They have a few well done exhibits about the natural environment and water controversy, as well as, a short and very informative movie.
2) The Royal Palm area has a small gift shop and parking lot for two of the best known trails in the park. The Anhinga Trail is a combination road bed and boardwalk along a small canal that was created to build up the road bed and a small wetland. Both areas are deep enough to maintain water throughout most winters, so they attack many birds and other wildlife. We say Anhinga birds swimming and catching fish in the water, egrets, ibis, herons, and a lot of alligators. If you want to see a LOT of alligators at one spot be sure not to miss the end of the road bed where there are over 20 large alligators sunning during the winter. We took advantage of the Ranger Walk along the road bed and learned a lot about the wildlife.
3) The Gumbo Limbo Trail is also located at the Royal Palm area which is a short walk through a tropical hardwood hammock. In the past this was known as the show place for the Everglades with many large and stately trees. Following a hurricane that destroyed most of the hammock in the past, it is now a younger forest, but still a very nice and easy walk with interpretive nature signs.
4) The Royal Palm road also provides access to the Nike Missile Site, NM-69. This is the western most missile site created following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 ringing and protecting Miami. Tours are given once every day, however, we did not realize this is the only way to see the site. You cannot see very much from the road.
5) The Long Pine Key is one of the primitive campgrounds in the park and also serves as the picnic area with a nature hike. Although we ate lunch in this pine flatwood, we did not take the nature hike.
6) The Pinelands Trail is a 1/2 mile loop through a subtropical pine forest maintained by fire. Due to a lack of time we did do this hike.
7) The Rock Reef Pass is a spot along the road to Flamingo in the midst of a dwarf cypress forest where the limestone rock has risen to 3 feet above sea level. We thought the sign was hilarious naming this a “pass” and we had to stop.
8) The Pa-hay-okee Overlook off the road to Flamingo is a 1/4 mile boardwalk that leads over the sawgrass prairie to an observation tower that provides excellent views of the “River of Grass”.
9) The Mahogany Hammock Trail off the road to Flamingo is a 1/2 mile boardwalk that crosses over the prairie and into a subtropical hardwood hammock. This particular hammock was missed by the extensive logging operations and has some massive mahogany trees that must be seen to be believed. It is also a good location to see the natural moat that protects these hammocks from winter fires.
10) Nine Mile Pond is a marked canoe/kayak trail through the mangrove trees as you approach the coast towards Flamingo. We signed up for a morning canoe trip lead by a Park Ranger at the Flamingo Visitor Center. The trip began at 7:45 in the morning and was a GREAT way to see a mangrove forest. The trip is only 6 miles of the 9 miles marked by numbered metal posts, using a short-cut through a very shallow area. We saw many birds on the trip along with a couple of alligators and a rare Florida crocodile which are usually found in saltier waters along the coast. The trip lasted hours and was well worth it, since you get the advantage of a knowledgeable guide and the cost is free.
11) West Lake Trail has restroom facilities, picnic tables, and a boat ramp for canoes and kayaks. You can take a canoe all the way out of the lake into Florida Bay and around to the Flamingo Visitor Center. The boardwalk through the mangrove forest surrounding the lake is one of the most picturesque boardwalks we saw as it wound through the mangrove and going out a hundred feet into West Lake.
12) The Flamingo Visitor Center is on the coast of Florida Bay at the old town of Flamingo which has its own rich history. We learned that many of the islands you can see are actually shell middens created by the Indians over thousands of years and with water depths of only a few feet it is a perfect habitat for wading birds, clams, and other invertebrates. In fact, Florida Bay and mangrove forests are the birthplace for many of the species of invertebrates and fish populating the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic seaboards. We took advantage of a Ranger led walk to the campgrounds that gave a great lecture about the history of the Everglades and Flamingo. We also took a short walk around Eco-Pond that is an old water treatment pond and today attracts a lot of birds, turtles, and alligators.
13) The Shark Valley Visitor Center is along US Highway 41, the Tamiami Trail, along the north boundary of the park. From the small Visitor Center you can walk the Bobcat Boardwalk, a 1/4 mile walk through the sawgrass prairie and a bayhead. There is also the Otter Cave Trail, a 1-mile round trip from the Visitor Center through a subtropical hardwood hammock where you can see some large seep holes in the limestone along the walk. The main attraction, however, is the 15 mile Tram Tour that loops through the sawgrass prairie to a 45 foot high observation tower that occupies the site of an oil drilling operation. You can also rent bicycles, however, unless you are going to take less than 3 hours to ride the 15 miles it is cheaper to ride the tram. You also get the advantage of a knowledgeable guide and driver that helps to spot and stop for any wildlife they see. Because of taking the tram we saw a couple of baby alligators with their mother and some immature anhinga chicks still in the nest. The observation tower is also impressive since you can get high enough to see a long way into the Everglades.
13) The Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City on the western edge of the park does not have much to offer the visitor unless you have a boat of some kind to travel with. The Visitor Center is very small with little to offer, however, we were able to get signed up for a canoe trip later that day. This was a surprise since we had previously checked at the Big Cypress National Preserve who were booked two weeks in advance. Once again, the cost is free for all the equipment and a National Park Guide. This is a great way to see the mangrove forests in the Ten Thousand Island are of Everglades National Park. The guide decides after seeing the group, that tide situation, and the time of year where the tour will go. It lasts about two hours and we had the pleasure of paddling out across a small bay to a ring of mangrove islands that had a lot of wood storks in them. The weather was pleasant without being too warm and the water was actually warmer than the air temperature.
14) As you can see from this list, we spent four days in Everglades National Park and got to see a good overview. We could have spent a lot more time, especially if we had our own canoe or boat.