Wintering in the Everglades

Florida’s vast ecosystem showcases amazing wildlife

We love our national parks. Nine visits to Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, five to Yosemite, four to Yellowstone, three to Great Smoky Mountains and Glacier. But until recently, we had never prioritized visiting Everglades National Park in Florida.

We packaged together time in Everglades National Park with the more opulent beach island of Captiva and punctuated the trip in Disney World theme parks. Quite the contrast!

Our arrival in “The Glades” (that’s how hip, cool people refer to this region) coincided with the end of the government shutdown, purely coincidental in our planning. I could sense that park staff were relieved. This last week in January featured morning temps in the 50’s and afternoon highs in the 70’s. And few bugs. We’ve heard horror stories about spring and summer mosquito hoards, but only rumors, no actual experience with the flying assassins.

Everglades outfitters dolphins
What’s better than leaping dolphins? Maybe nothing.

Alligators galore! Dolphins and manatees, too

We didn’t encounter any manatees in the Everglades, so that’s a “to-do” for our next trip. Just unlucky, I guess. Dolphins showed up during our boat trip. And we saw plenty of alligators along hikes and easy-to-stroll boardwalks in both The Glades and adjacent Big Cypress National Preserve.

Gators weren’t on our bucket list. We’ve enjoyed seeing a lot of them at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, SC. But it was evident during our trip that most tourists, especially international ones, searched for sightings of the famous American alligator and were giddy when they spotted one. It was fun to watch people’s enthusiasm. Did you know that gators are closely related to birds? That’s the type of tidbit you learn at visitor centers, along with best places to hike, bike, see birds, get a mosquito report and view a majestic sunset.

Everglades boardwalk Glossy Ibis
Boardwalks provide great viewing of birds like this Glossy Ibis.

Boardwalks and hiking trails reveal great birds

Most people don’t hike a lot in The Glades. Boating, canoeing, fishing and kayaking are the popular activities. For reasons mentioned above related to reptiles, swimming and wading aren’t encouraged.

I highly recommend several areas to walk just off the main park road in between the Ernest Coe and Flamingo visitor centers. All are short and easy and give you great access to wildlife and flora: Anhinga Trail, Pa-hay-okee Overlook, Mahogany Hammock, Mrazek Pond and Eco Pond. We easily walked all of these in one day and saw a great collection of gators and birds, such as roseate spoonbills, avocets, black-necked stilts, purple gallinules, osprey, bald eagles, anhingas, herons and egrets.

We didn’t visit the Shark Valley area on the park’s north side. We’ll explore that area during our next visit. Shark Valley includes a visitor center, guided tram tours and bicycle rentals.

Nearby Big Cypress National Preserve

It doesn’t receive the hype of Everglades National Park. This ecosystem is our country’s first national preserve. Big Cypress is managed differently than national parks, but this fresh water swamp covers 730,000 acres of important wilderness.

There are a lot of ways to explore this preserve: on foot, with a bicycle, in a kayak or canoe or by car. The preserve’s website lists more details. If you have just a day, I’d recommend several areas: stopping at the Oasis Visitor Center and boardwalk, exploring the short boardwalk at Kirby Storter Roadside Park (our favorite), driving the Loop Road or strolling the boardwalk at nearby Big Cypress Bend State Park where we enjoyed viewing eaglets in their nest. There’s also a nice drive that starts on Turner River Road and loops back on Upper Wagonwheel and Birdon roads.

Mangroves protect Everglades
Mangroves help protect the Everglades from storm damage.

Hundreds of outfitters and concessionaires

Besides exploring trails and boardwalks, we wanted to take a guided tour into a more remote part of the Everglades. The number and variety of outfitters are overwhelming, so I encourage you to use TripAdvisor to help sort through them.

Airboat rides are popular but we were looking for something quieter. We chose Tour the Glades and a small boat trip – just my wife and our guide – into Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge in the Everglades. Our guide Rob tailored the excursion to our interests. We really enjoyed the day with him, especially when the dolphins raced along our boat and leapt through the wake.

Also in Ten Thousand Islands, just east of Big Cypress, I highly recommend the short walk to the observation tower along the Marsh Trail. It’s a great spot for viewing the mangroves and its wildlife. And most maps of the area show this trail right off of Highway 41.

J.N. “Ding” Darling NWR

After our time in the Everglades, we stopped for a morning visit in J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. What a great experience! This refuge is more upscale than most wildlife refuges managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In addition to a large visitor center, the refuge features a four-mile paved wildlife road that we drove through twice. In addition, a passenger tram runs through the refuge for a 90-minute tour with a naturalist. There’s also hiking, biking, canoeing and paddle boarding in designated areas.

We’re going back

We only spent three days in the Everglades, so we’re returning later this year to explore parts we missed, such as the Loop Road, Shark Valley and any place we might see a manatee in the wild.