5. Mahogany Hammock
Within minutes you’ll reach Mahogany Hammock, a thick jungle alive with the strains of animal music: the bellowing of alligators, the dizzying buzz of mosquitoes, and the unmistakable ribbits of frogs. A boardwalk winds through the area, which contains one of the oldest and largest mahoganies in America, a towering tree dating back some 300 years.
6. West Lake
As the drive heads farther south, it reaches a transition zone where fresh water from sloughs and wet prairies mixes with salt water from Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting nutrient-rich “soup” nourishes not only many types of fish, but salt-tolerant mangrove trees as well. Those that surround West Lake (red, black, and white mangroves) are part of an impenetrable labyrinth, a web of tangled branches and high knotty roots that protect inland areas by forming a buffer against high winds.
West Lake is one of the best places here for observing the park’s premier predators—alligators. Kin to animals that lived alongside the dinosaurs, the are cold-blooded creatures who conserve energy by spending most of their time motionless. But when they pursue their prey, they can become sprinters, able to outrun even humans for short distances.
After alligators, the park’s most popular inhabitants are birds, and more than 400 species live here. One of the best bird-watching sites is just south of the mangrove forest at Mrazek Pond, which attracts, among other species, the rare roseate spoonbill. On winter mornings and evenings, listen for wood storks, pelicans, and pig frogs.
The key-strewn waters of nearby Florida Bay—40 miles wide and 25 miles long—appear more green than blue. As the drive approaches Flamingo, that color continues to dominate the scenery, which includes more than 100 different plant species.
The southernmost headquarters of Everglades National Park, this town—named for the pink long-legged birds that once frequented the area but now are seen only rarely—serves as a base for excursions to nearby bays, lakes, rivers, and tropical beaches. Its shore is anchored by a marina, a visitor center, and a utilitarian lodge. Flamingo is also the launching point for canoe trips along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, a well-marked backcountry route that provides an unrivaled tour of the region’s richly varied wildlife.