Length: About 50 miles.
When to go: Winter and spring, when wildlife watching is best.
Words to the wise: Most waters are unsafe for swimming. Beware of sudden weather changes. For protection against the sun, wear sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat; for mosquitoes, insect repellent.
Nearby attraction: Biscayne National Park, headquarters at Homestead.
Further information: Everglades National Park, 40001 State Rd. 9336, Homestead, FL 33034; tel. 305-242-7700, www.nps.gov/ever/.
The road to Flamingo, the southernmost town on the Florida mainland, begins barely an hour’s drive south of downtown Miami. Yet this route through the heart of the Everglades makes civilization seem a good deal farther away.
1. Everglades National Park
“There are no other Everglades in the world,” wrote conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 1947. She was referring, of course, to the unique natural character of these wetlands: the several distinct environments that combine to form a highly complex ecosystem; the web of life that is as fragile as it is fertile; and the “river of grass” whose original 50-mile breadth made it the widest river in the world. But perhaps what most impresses visitors to this lush, liquid realm is its incredible flatness. Indeed, the highest point in the park stands only 10 feet above sea level. Looking more like an African savanna than a wetland, this sea of saw grass, its tall stalks barely ruffled by the passing breeze, stretches from horizon to horizon, broken only by an occasional tree island, or hammock. Embracing some 4,000 square miles, the region is so vast that even 1.5-million-acre Everglades National Park (the second-largest national park in the lower 48 states) occupies a mere one-fifth of its total area.
2. Main Visitor Center
The remarkably diverse habitats and wildlife of the Everglades make it one of America’s most precious natural wonders. Mangrove forests, freshwater sloughs, cypress stands, pinelands, coastal prairies, freshwater marl prairies, hardwood hammocks, estuaries—all can be seen here. The park is also home to an astonishing array of animals, including more than 600 species of fish, some 300 types of birds, and at least 67 kinds of mosquitoes. Among the threatened or endangered creatures that find sanctuary here are the Florida panther, the American alligator, the southern bald eagle, and the Key Largo cotton mouse.
The park’s entrance is located 12 miles southwest of Homestead on Rte. 9336. Through a cluster of stately West Indian mahogany trees, you can glimpse the gabled roof of the main visitor center. Built to replace the one shattered by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the structure houses exhibits on the park’s history, habitats, and the hurricane itself.
Though it certainly wounded the Everglades—damage is most visible in the high, headless palms and the tall pines with missing limbs—Andrew, like all hurricanes, was part of the park’s natural cycle. These storms’ rains are critical, and while the fierce winds often topple trees, they also distribute seeds, open new windows for sun-loving flora, fertilize plants as they decay, and carve fresh habitats for other fauna.
3. Royal Palm Visitor Center
As you head west toward the Royal Palm visitor center (located off a spur road leading south), you may encounter sunbathing turtles, great egrets, and hordes of butterflies. The visitor center, a concrete oasis tucked beneath palms, serves as the starting point for two short but exciting nature trails, each one providing a chance to see wildlife up close. From the Anhinga Trail you might spy alligators, marsh rabbits, and of course, the animal that gives the path its name, a bird with a razor-sharp bill that it uses to spear fish. While walking the Gumbo Limbo Trail, you can study a wide variety of aerial orchids and ferns, along with the gumbo limbo itself, a graceful smooth-barked red tree once used for making carousel horses.
4. Pa-hay-okee Overlook
When the waters are high and the air is still, the shimmering saw grass looks as if it’s growing from glass. The tranquil glades then become an aquatic mirror, with clusters of green extending above and below the surface. In reality, of course, the mirror is moving. Flowing southward from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay, the water of the Everglades—only six inches deep in many spots—glide at the rate of less than one mile per day across porous limestone bedrock. At the Pa-hay-okee Overlook, some 10 miles west of Royal Palm, you can appreciate the sheer immensity of this expanse, a massive sheet of water whose movement to the ocean is all but imperceptible on most occasions.
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.
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