Mangrove estuary of Everglades National Park — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
At Naples' eastern doorstep, Everglades National Park covers 2,200 square miles – roughly twice the size of Rhode Island, across the southern expanse of the Florida peninsula. It ends in the east just short of Miami. There are two entry points from its eastern side and only one on the west side at Everglades City, a 35-mile drive from downtown Naples.
“There are no other Everglades in the world,” wrote Marjorie Stoneman Douglas in River of Grass, the 1947 work that prompted Congress to preserve the region as a national park. Hers was no overstatement. The Everglades truly is one of a kind.
Before it became a national park, the Everglades was settled by Seminole and Miccosukee Indians, farmers, outlaws, plume collectors, gator hunters, drug smugglers, and other characters unscrupulous and law-abiding. The 10th largest national park in the United States, it's also the largest designated wilderness in the Southeast and the only subtropical preserve on the continent.
Everglades National Park was the first national park set aside purely for its ecology rather than its scenery. (The Everglades’ beauty is subtle; it requires a close look.) It is home to 600 species of fish, 347 species of birds, 50 species of reptiles, 40 species of mammals and 43 species of mosquitoes. Headlining the critter roll call are the alligators, crocodiles, Florida panthers and beautiful and rare birds that inhabit its diverse ecosystems.
Many consider the Everglades a swamp, but it's actually a river – one of the slowest-moving rivers in the world. Its rivers are technically known as sloughs. Its other habitats include mangrove estuary, hardwood hammocks and vast Florida Bay.
In Everglades City, visitors find the Gulf Coast access and one of several park visitor centers, from which boat and canoe tours and other interpretive ranger programs depart. Local outfitters also organize tours. Paddlers can enjoy short day trips or embark on the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway that ends at the Flamingo Visitor Center to the south, with camping stops along the way. A backcountry permit is required.
Winter is the best time to visit, when the mosquitoes are at their scarcest (still, don’t forget the bug juice) and wildlife at its most plentiful, thanks to migrating birds and concentrated water supplies during the dry season.
A number of state- and federally-protected lands buffer Everglades National Park while providing extensive opportunities for more biking, hiking, paddling, boating, camping and wildlife watching. The park is currently undergoing a multi-million dollar project to save and restore the unique and fragile habitat from depletion by years of misuse.