Everglades National Park is the only national park in South Florida. It’s the largest subtropical wilderness area in the United States, and the Everglades themselves span an area much larger than the park itself, which only preserves about 25 percent of its original area.
The Everglades are, at their most basic, an area of wetlands connecting to Lake Okeechobee in central Florida, and spanning the southern tip of the state from its east to west coasts. As such, there are many different points within the park from which one can experience it, including those that lie technically within Monroe and Collier Counties. Several of the most popular and accessible destinations, however, lie within Miami-Dade County.
Though the largest expanses of the Everglades are sawgrass-type “grass rivers,” there are many other sub-climates within the ecosystem. These include tropical hardwood hammocks, cypress stands, mangrove forests, and coastal prairies, and the crystalline Florida bay to the west. The park is also home to several threatened or protected species of wildlife, including the West Indian manatee, the Florida panther, and the American crocodile.
A sighting of panthers or crocodiles is unlikely for the casual visitor, but nearly every point in the park offers a wide variety of fish, birds, small reptiles like turtles, and even alligators, particularly at the Shark Valley visitor center. These can be seen by foot from walking trails, or by bicycle on those same walking or off-road trails, or by kayak or other water vessel, depending on the park entry point you choose.
Here are the visitors’ centers accessible from Miami-Dade County, which must all be reached by car rather than public transportation:
This visitors’ center is the closest to the suburban sprawl of Miami, and can be accessed on the scenic route by just driving west on S.W. Eighth Street until you enter Miccosukee Indian territory. It offers about a 20-mile paved loop through placid sawgrass full of wildlife, making it a popular place to walk or bike. There’s an observation tower mid-point, as well as guided tram tours led by rangers, bathrooms, a gift and supply shop, and vending machines selling snacks.
Address: 36000 SW 8th St., Miami
Hours: Open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Related link: “A moonlight ride through Shark Valley”
Close to the Redlands, Chekika is a popular but relatively small visiting area with space for picnics and a short, self-guided hiking trail through a hammock. There are also paved roads and canal banks for bicycling. Amenities here are sparse; restrooms come in the form of port-a-potties. It’s also important to note that, because of seasonal flooding, Chekika is closed during the wet season.
Address: 24200 SW 160th St., Miami
Hours: Open daily from Dec. 1 through April 30, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Ernest Coe Visitor Center
This visitor center in far south Miami-Dade offers a mini museum full of ecological displays, as well as, usually, a separate gallery of related works by local artists. The center offers a number of orientation films, brochures, and other guidance to plan your exploration, and a number of walking trails are a short drive away.
Address: 40001 State Rd. 9336, Homestead
Hours: Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Summers are the wet and rainy season in the Everglades, as they are throughout all of South Florida. Bring deep-woods insect repellent, and even consider dressing in loose, long-sleeved or long-legged clothes. Also, with school out, this is the time when the park, and Shark Valley especially, can get crowded with families. If you’re planning to visit on the weekend, try the early morning — before 10 a.m. — or the late afternoon. Otherwise, parking fills up quickly.
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