by Karuna Eberl
Chokoloskee nestles up against Everglades National Park, the largest tropical wilderness in the country. With 1.5 million acres of alligators, storks, cypress domes, marshes and mangroves, it’s hard to know where to begin. Here’s some insight to help you decide.
Ecosystems and habitats: more than a thousand species of plants grow here, supporting thousands of kinds of insects, hundreds of types of birds and fish and dozens of reptiles, mammals and amphibians. There are seven main habitats within the park. The most obvious is the sawgrass prairie-marsh. The second-largest is the underwater world of Florida Bay. Elsewhere, four kinds of forests grow: tropical hardwood hammocks, cypress domes, mangrove swamps and pine rocklands. Deciding what you want to see will help narrow down which part of the park to visit.
Park entrances: There are three main entrances to Everglades National Park and four visitor centers. These are a wise place to start the day, ask for advice from rangers, explore nature exhibits, and get your National Parks Passport stamped. For more information see www.nps.gov/ever.
The Gulf Coast Visitor Center is the closest to camp, just a few miles up the road. It’s all about boating here. Paddling trails wind through mangroves and out into Florida Bay. Several kayak and motorboat ecotours start in Everglades City. See our blog on eco-tours for more about that. 815 Oyster Bar Lane, 239-695-3311.
Shark Valley Visitor Center is about about an hour from camp. This is the place to hop on a narrated tram tour or rent bicycles to explore the 15-mile loop path. At the halfway point, you’ll find the Shark Valley Observation Tower. The 65-foot-tall outlook is the highest point in the park, with forever views of the sawgrass prairie-marsh and distant tree islands of cypress domes and hardwood hammocks. 36000 Shark Valley Loop Road, 305-221-8776.
The third park entrance is near Miami and Homestead, about two hours from camp. At the entrance is the Ernest F. Coe is Visitor Center, with educational films and local art displays. Just down the road, the Royal Palm Information Station is a great jump-off for a guided tour or solo stroll at the popular Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo trails, both short loops. Also accessible from this entrance are tours of the abandoned Nike missile base, and the remote Flamingo Visitor Center, which is all the way at the end of the road, about an hour past Ernest F. Coe.
Just to the north of Everglades National Park is the Big Cypress National Preserve. This vast, swampy wilderness between Naples and Miami is part of the Everglades ecosystem. Stop at either of its visitor centers for exhibits, films, ranger tours, and a stroll down a boardwalk with alligator-viewing areas. Rangers here can also show you where to go for a scenic drive, hike, or bicycle. The closest to camp is the Big Cypress Oasis Visitor Center, about a 35-minute drive,
52105 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee.
Other Easy Wildlife Walks: The H.P. Williams Roadside Park is about 20 minutes from camp and has a free boardwalk with plenty of alligators, wading birds, and anhinga. 12580 Turner River Road, Ochopee.
Also about 20 minutes form camp, the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park winds a half mile through old-growth cypress, and is a good place to see orchids.
The wheelchair-accessible Kirby Storter Boardwalk, about 30-minutes away, winds through wet prairie and cypress sloughs. A bit further down the road, the Tree Snail Hammock Trail makes for a fun afternoon trying to spot the tiny, colorful, endangered liguus tree snails. It’s about 50 minutes away.
Other Wild Lands to Explore
The original Everglades ecosystem once reached all the way from Orlando to the Florida Bay. About half of it is gone now. Luckily many areas of the remaining wilderness are protected. Parks formed to preserve Everglades and related ecosystems include:
Everglades National Park
Big Cypress National Preserve
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
Loxahatchee Nat’l Wildlife Refuge
Fakahatchee Strand State Park
Collier Seminole State Park
Everglades Headwater National Wildlife Refuge
Biscayne National Park