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NPCA Expert Travel Insights

An Insider's Guide to Everglades & Beyond

Plan your future trip today. NPCA advises people to follow the guidance of public health experts and check for park closures at nps.gov before visiting the national parks.

NPCA Expert Travel Insights: An Insider's Guide to Everglades & Beyond

The greater Everglades area of South Florida is a biodiverse subtropical wilderness that rewards visitors with the chance to paddle through meandering, mangrove-lined channels, see egrets, alligators and manatees, or dive deep to experience a living coral reef. 


This Greater Everglades Regional Guide Covers:

Everglades National Park

The Everglades ecosystem once stretched across a mosaic of wetlands and subtropical wilderness from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. Unfortunately, by the mid-1900s nearly half of the slow-moving “river of grass” had been drained to make way for farms and urban development. The park was established in 1947, after decades of activism, to preserve a treasured 1.5 million acres of the ecosystem.

The Everglades is a complex mix of salt and freshwater wetlands, hardwood hammocks, and pine rocklands that support a wide variety of flora and fauna. The ecosystem functions as a giant water purifier, filtering and cleaning water that drains from farms and impervious surfaces before reaching Florida Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands. The Everglades also contributes to South Florida’s climate resilience, naturally absorbing the impacts of hurricanes and minimizing coastal erosion and flooding.

This ecosystem is home to hundreds of species of birds, including 16 different species of wading birds (from the great blue heron to the roseate spoonbill) and more than 200 threatened and endangered species, such as night-blooming orchids, American alligators and Florida panthers.

Where to Begin

Shark Valley Visitor Center and Gulf Coast Visitor Center are located on the north end of the park, while Ernest Coe Visitor Center and Flamingo Visitor Center are located in the south end. All four centers offer ranger-led programs that do not usually require a reservation.

This is a vast park with no public transportation options within its boundaries and limited services. You’ll want to rent your own car and plan for significant drive time. It’s hard to see everything unless you have several days, so prioritize the important experiences and plan around those. Conversely, plan your itinerary based on your closest park entrance (Everglades City to the west, Homestead to the south or Miami to the north).

There is an entrance fee that varies based on the number of people with you and the vehicle that you are driving. You can use your America the Beautiful pass or consider visiting on one of the fee-free days. Visit the park website for necessary fees, passes and potential closings.

Highlights

NPCA AT WORK: EVERGLADES

A century ago, NPCA spearheaded the effort to protect this primeval world of giant trees, expansive grasslands and idyllic blue waters as Everglades National Park. From building coalitions with partners to restore Florida Bay at the southernmost point of the Florida peninsula to protecting threatened and endangered species like the Florida panther, NPCA has been working to preserve the wildlife and habitats of the Everglades ever since.

LEARN MORE: Restoring fresh water to Florida Bay in Everglades National Park.

  • Shark Valley: This section of the Everglades promises abundant wildlife, such as alligators, turtles, snakes and birds. A 15-mile paved loop, Tram Road offers opportunities for walking, biking or taking an interpretive tram tour. The midpoint of Tram Road features a 45-foot-observation tower with views to the horizon. Bike rentals are available from the Shark Valley Visitor Center.
  • Snake Bight Trail: Just north of the Flamingo Visitor Center, this path follows a canal to Snake Bight (a bay within a larger bay).
  • Long Pine Key Trails: Hike or bike a system of 22 miles of connecting trails running west from the Long Pine Key campground. Explore a globally imperiled habitat amid the pine rocklands.
  • Flamingo Marina: Site of the Flamingo Visitor Center and Campground and access to boat tours, canoe, kayak and bicycle rentals, and hiking trails. Ensure you have a full tank of gas before driving south to Flamingo!
  • Wilderness Waterway: If you’re feeling adventurous, plan to paddle a portion of this 99-mile waterway along the western edge of the park. The waterway includes many interconnecting creeks, lakes, rivers and bays for endless opportunities for exploration.
  • Chokoloskee Bay: Pack a lunch and your favorite beverage, then rent kayaks in Everglades City for a lazy day on the Chokoloskee Bay, or branch farther afield and tour the fringe of Ten Thousand Islands (but only if you’ve got a reliable GPS!).

Tips for Visiting

Plan Ahead

Take advantage of one of the many ranger-led programs, including starlit hikes along the Anhinga Trail, guided paddles, slough slogs, full-moon bike rides in Shark Valley, and early morning bird walks.

Exploring by boat is a guaranteed way to enrich your park experience. Take an airboat tour through the sawgrass prairie via a park-approved concessioner, or rent your own kayak or canoe to explore on your own. If you plan to visit the Ten Thousand Islands area near Naples, bring your own GPS with good reception. It’s easy to get turned around when all you see are mangroves and stretches of water.

Don’t forget to pack your binoculars if you’re interested in birdwatching — there are ample opportunities in the park. Also, bring sunglasses, sunscreen, a hat, bug spray (DEET-free, please!), plenty of water, your own food and a full tank of gas, as there are not many opportunities to fill up your tank in the park.

Stay Overnight

The only overnight accommodations available in Everglades are eco-tents for “glamping” at the Flamingo Campground. Reserve an eco-tent in advance since availability is limited, especially during the peak season. In addition, more traditional camping facilities are available. While primitive camping is available throughout much of the park (and requires a permit), the only drive-in campgrounds are Long Pine Key and Flamingo, both accessible from the Homestead entrance and offering potable water, restrooms and picnic tables. Long Pine Key Campground is first-come, first-served, while Flamingo Campground accepts reservations for some of the sites during the winter months. Sites can fill quickly, so consider reserving in advance.

Weather

November to May is the best time to visit. Known as the “Dry Season,” it brings mild and pleasant temperatures, and the humidity is usually low with clear skies. This season significantly reduces the mosquito population and draws in many animals to gather around remnant water holes for easy and frequent viewing opportunities. The warm Florida winter months also offer birders the chance to view overwintering migrants.

The “Wet Season” is between June-October. These months, which coincide with hurricane season, are often extremely hot and humid with high temperatures of 100° F. Afternoon thunderstorms are a daily occurrence with heavy rainfall, but they tend to subside quickly. Wet season conditions make water levels rise and animals search for drier grounds. This makes viewing wildlife a little more challenging. If you travel during the wet season, be sure to bring clothing to protect from biting flies and mosquitoes.

Beyond the Boundary

  • Deering Estate: Pack your own picnic and visit Deering Estate for a great view of Biscayne Bay. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it also protects some of the largest remaining pine rockland habitats outside of Everglades National Park.
  • Homestead, Florida: Support one of the local restaurants or visit the Robert is Here Fruit Stand — a must-do conveniently located near the park’s main southern entrance — for area produce and a fruit milkshake to get a taste for the local flavors.

Biscayne National Park

Welcome to Biscayne, one of the only places to see a living coral reef system in the continental United States. Just a one-hour drive south of Miami, it’s also the largest marine park in the National Park System and boasts the longest remaining stretch of mangrove forest on Florida’s east coast. Calling all swimmers, boaters, paddlers and anglers: 95% of this park is under water.

Where to Begin

The Dante Fascell Visitor Center is the only visitor center in this park. It provides a virtual journey through the park’s four ecosystems and a gallery that showcases the works of local artists who find inspiration in the beauty of the park. No entrance fee or passes are necessary.

From the nearby city of Homestead, visitors can hop on the Homestead National Parks Trolley to access Everglades and Biscayne National Parks. Check the city’s website for operating times.

Highlights

NPCA AT WORK: BISCAYNE

NPCA has been working hard to protect Biscayne’s threatened marine wildlife by promoting the creation of a no-fishing marine reserve and fishing regulations aimed at achieving sustainability.

NPCA is also focused on increasing ecosystem resilience by working to rehydrate Biscayne’s coastal wetlands and improving protections for coral reefs both within Biscayne and in nearby marine protected areas.

LEARN MORE: Protecting marine wildlife at Biscayne National Park

  • Boca Chita Key: Climb the historic Boca Chita Lighthouse with fantastic views of islands (known as keys in South Florida), bays and the Miami skyline.
  • Elliott Key: If you’re an experienced paddler, consider kayaking the 17 miles roundtrip across Biscayne Bay to reach Elliott or Boca Chita Keys.
  • Adams Key: Only accessible by boat, this key provides a day-use area with lovely lagoons and a few short hiking trails.
  • Homestead Trolley (from the City of Homestead): Hop on the Homestead National Parks Trolley to access Everglades and Biscayne National Parks.
  • Maritime Heritage Trail: Explore the Maritime Heritage Trail, the only underwater archaeological trail in the National Park System, and look for the ghostly remains of shipwrecks. You can snorkel along this trail and check out underwater plaques marking the different sites.
  • Convoy Point: Take a stroll from the visitor center to Convoy Point and then walk the boardwalk that juts into beautiful Biscayne Bay.
  • Jones Lagoon: Paddle this lagoon for a chance to see marine wildlife, such as stingrays and jellyfish.

Tips for Visiting

Plan Ahead

The Biscayne National Park Institute provides guided adventures for learning about this unique ecosystem, including snorkeling at a shipwreck on the Maritime Heritage Trail and above vibrant coral reefs. The institute also offers sailing trips on the picturesque Biscayne Bay, cruises to Boca Chita Key and lighthouse, and explorations of Jones Lagoon. We suggest you book your reservation in advance by calling or visiting the Biscayne National Park Institute website.

Stay Overnight

The two campgrounds within the park are accessible only by boat. Both are first-come, first-served and have limited amenities. Elliott Key Campground has toilets, cold-water showers and picnic tables. Though potable water is available, the Park Service suggests you bring your own drinking water in case the system is down. Boca Chita Key Campground has toilets but no showers or potable water. Four Miami-Dade County marinas help provide boating access.

Alternately, the City of Homestead is nearby and offers several hotels and RV parks and additional campsites.

Weather

Despite the heat, summer is the best time for snorkeling and scuba diving. There is less wind, which means the waters are clear — perfect for underwater viewing. Be sure to wear plenty of reef-safe sunscreen or a long-sleeve SPF rash guard while snorkeling, and stay hydrated during South Florida’s hot summertime weather.

Travel Responsibly

Always practice Leave No Trace when you visit the parks by packing out everything you pack in and leaving everything you find. The coral reefs are delicate and rare, so view from a distance. Park waters are shallow, so if you’re boating, pay attention to the tides and be careful not to run aground on delicate seagrass ecosystems. Do not anchor on coral reefs (look for mooring buoys instead) and comply with slow speed zones.

Beyond the Boundary

  • Bill Baggs Cape State Park: Tour a historic 1800s lighthouse, relax on the beach, pedal or walk the multi-use path, and learn about the area’s fascinating history. The cape served as a stop on the Underground Saltwater Railroad for enslaved people trying to escape to the Bahamas. Rentals of kayaks, bikes, beach umbrellas and chairs are available. Located on the southern end of Key Biscayne.
  • Miami-Dade County’s Crandon Park: For a daytrip near the heart of urban Miami, tack on a visit to this park with its two-mile-long beach, fossilized reef, native coastal habitat nature trails and recreational opportunities galore. Located on the northern end of Key Biscayne and highly accessible.
  • John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park: This park is a great option if you’d like to join a snorkel or glass-bottom boat tour or take advantage of one of their 47 full-facility camping sites. Located on Key Largo.

Big Cypress National Preserve

A mosaic of cypress swamps, marl prairies, pinelands, hardwood hammocks and estuaries, Big Cypress is the nation’s first national preserve (established in 1974) and offers more than 700,000 acres of wetlands to explore by foot, kayak or swamp buggy. The vast landscape, north of and adjacent to Everglades National Park, is home to a diversity of wildlife and plants, including some found nowhere else on Earth. It’s an ideal place for those seeking a reprieve from the hectic pace of modern life.

Where to Begin

Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center (to the West) and the Oasis Visitor Center (to the East) are the two visitor centers in Big Cypress. Stop at either to meet a ranger and get a park map. Keep your eyes peeled for alligators and manatees, both of which frequent the areas near the visitor centers. There is no entrance fee to the preserve.

Please keep in mind there are few services in the park.

While driving Tamiami Trail, know that years of work have gone into bridging sections of this road. When first built in the 1920s, the road acted as a dam, blocking fresh water from moving south through Everglades National Park. NPCA’s advocacy will continue until the entire road is bridged, ensuring that life-giving water once again moves freely across the landscape.


Highlights

NPCA AT WORK: BIG CYPRESS

National preserves are no place for damaging fossil fuel exploration. NPCA continues to oppose the destruction of the preserve by companies conducting seismic testing for reserves of oil and gas.

LEARN MORE: Protecting endangered wildlife from drilling at Big Cypress

  • Loop Road (aka County Road 94): This scenic route is a 24-mile detour off Tamiami Trail. Be prepared for gravel most of the way. In places where the road widens, you can park along the roadside and get out for a walk to view swamp life up close.
  • Gator Hook trail: This 5-mile “swamp walk” is accessible off Loop Road and affords ample opportunities for wildlife viewing. During the winter/dry season, much of this trail will be on dry ground, but be prepared for mud or ankle-to-knee deep water levels in the wet season.
  • Turner River/Upper Wagonwheel/Birdon Road Loop: This scenic loop provides a 16.5-mile drive through the western portion of the preserve.
  • Kirby Sorter Boardwalk: This offers a midway point on your journey through the preserve along Tamiami Trail. Its complete with picnic tables and a 1-mile boardwalk loop.
  • Florida National Scenic Trail: Feeling intrepid? Try hiking a portion of the 1,000-mile Florida National Scenic Trail, accessible off I-75 from the preserve. Be sure to fill out and drop off a backcountry access permit (download online) before heading out on the trail.

Tips for Visiting

Plan Ahead

Big Cypress is recognized as one of the few International Dark Sky Parks on the East Coast. Join the staff from the preserve, in cooperation with local amateur astronomy groups, for annual stargazing opportunities from December through March and see unobstructed views of the Milky Way away from light pollution and urban development. Check out the Big Cypress Institute website for more tours and booking opportunities.

The preserve also offers opportunities for canoeing, kayaking and backcountry buggy tours. Make sure to book ahead so you don’t miss out!

Stay Overnight

The dark night skies in this park are unreal and reason enough to give camping a try. Reservations for camping can be made for all campgrounds except for Pink Jeep, Mitchell Landing, Gator Head and Bear Island Campgrounds which are first-come, first-served. Check out the National Park Service website for listings, potential closures and booking information.

Back country camping is also available but requires a permit. Permits are free and can be filled out online and printed or completed manually at both visitor centers.

Travel Planning

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Weather

November to May is the best time to visit. Known as the “Dry Season,” it brings mild and pleasant temperatures, and the humidity is usually low with clear skies. This season significantly reduces the mosquito population and draws in many animals to gather around remnant water holes for easy and frequent viewing opportunities. The warm Florida winter months also offer birders the chance to view overwintering migrants.

The “Wet Season” is between June-October. These months, which coincide with hurricane season, are often extremely hot and humid with high temperatures of 100° F. Afternoon thunderstorms are a daily occurrence with heavy rainfall, but they tend to subside quickly. Wet season conditions make water levels rise and animals search for drier grounds. This makes viewing wildlife a little more challenging. If you travel during the wet season, be sure to bring clothing to protect from biting flies and mosquitoes.

Travel Responsibly

Always practice Leave No Trace when you visit the parks by packing out everything you pack in and leaving everything you find. Pets are only allowed on specific trails and must be on leashes of 6 feet or less at all times. Don’t feed wildlife and always view from a safe distance.

Beyond the Boundary

  • Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park: Florida’s largest state park offers wonderful cypress swamp boardwalks and scenery, is not far from Big Cypress, and is accessible by driving from Naples and Marco Island. The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk and Janes Memorial Scenic Drive inside the state park both offer beautiful experiences amidst native cypress and subtropical habitats.
  •  If you’re driving to Big Cypress National Preserve’s southern entry point (or the Loop Road inside Big Cypress or the Everglades’ Shark Valley) from Miami, consider stopping for some local flavor at Palacio de los Jugos, or “Juice Palace,” along Tamiami Trail. You can’t miss the bright yellow eatery that serves up fresh Cuban food, pastries and juices.
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