Residents of South Florida are very familiar with the Everglades, even if we don’t traipse around Everglades National Park as often as we should. The land we call our backyard is actually reclaimed from the shallow, freshwater ecosystem dubbed by conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas as a “River of Grass,” filled in by early 20th century farmers and developers. It seems, though, that the native flora and fauna don’t always get the memo. So even on our little patches of suburbia, alligators and air plants can be as common as sunshine.
For enthusiastic birders, the mornings and early evenings are the best times to view herons, cranes and birds of prey — Photo courtesy of Jen Karetnick
How can a visitor to the region read the same signs and learn to tell the saw grass from the crab grass? Such an education usually requires at least one expedition to the true heart of the Everglades.
If you only have time to undertake one such journey, make it to Shark Valley Visitor Center, rimming the northern border of Everglades National Park. About 25 miles due west of Coral Gables, located along Tamiami Trail, this site offers some of the most thrilling, up-close views of wildlife, especially alligators, turtles, snakes and birds including red-shoulder hawks, ospreys, anhingas and an assortment of herons, in the region.
The dun colors of the Everglades are excellent camouflage for roosting birds of prey — Photo courtesy of Jen Karetnick
Despite its ominous name, however, Shark Valley has nothing to do with the Jaws set; it’s named so because it is the valley that connects to Shark Lake. Instead, Shark Valley is known for the number of gators that sunbathe and swim in drainage canals along the 15.4-mile pedestrian-, bicycle- and tram-friendly track.
Stop midway through Shark Valley and climb the tower, for a birds-eye view of the biggest gators Ââ€“ or some unwitting pedestrian — Photo courtesy of Jen Karetnick
If you choose to walk or bike (bring your own or rent there, and head counter-clockwise), it’s true that it takes some guts to maneuver around â€“ or over! â€“ what could be dozens, depending on the season, of seemingly comatose alligators.
Get up-close-and-personal with gators at Shark Valley — Photo courtesy of Jen Karetnick
Signs warn that you are to stay fifteen feet away from them, but the alligators lying directly across the path of lovely, warm asphalt certainly haven’t been informed. Or at least their very long tails haven’t. But if it’s any consolation, the reptiles only hunt when they’re in the water, so they’re little danger on dry ground unless provoked, which is, of course, prohibited.
Alternatively, you can take a two-hour tram tour headed by naturalists who live and breathe this fragile network of sloughs, ponds and hardwood hammock tree islands.
If you don't have the energy, or the nerve, to cycle fifteen miles among the alligators (and turtles and possible pythons and so forth) at Shark Valley, take the two-hour guided tram tour — Photo courtesy of Jen Karetnick
A stop halfway at the 45-foot observation tower provides a bird’s-eye glimpse â€“ the safest kind â€“ of some of the biggest gators in this part of the park. (An oil derrick once drilled in this area and the water tends to be the deepest here, thus the conglomeration of Fear Factor-style specimens.)
If stepping gingerly over somnolent reptiles isn’t your speed, check into any of the Indian reservations or privately run facilities that dot Tamiami Trail and step onto an airboat. A flat-bottomed vessel with a enormous outlying motor that looks like a fan perched atop it, airboats can maneuver over thick vegetation with only a couple of inches of water below them.
Everglades vegetation includes sawgrass and lily pads, underneath which lurk gators, bass and frogs — Photo courtesy of Jen Karetnick
Outfits that run tours on these boats include Gator Park (the closest one to Miami), Everglades Safari Park or Coopertown Airboat Rides & Restaurant, both of which supply drivers that double as knowledgeable tour guides. They also feature wildlife shows and allow visitors to pose with juvenile alligators for pictures. Airboats are best for viewing baby alligators, which rarely come up on land for fear of being eaten by adult males, skittering around the shallows and on lily pads like bugs.
Like all babies, American alligators are actually cute when they're young — Photo courtesy of Jen Karetnick
If you really want a taste of Old Florida, make sure to stop in the Coopertown Restaurant before departing. The place serves Everglades specialties: frog legs, fried gator tail and catfish. Likewise, the restaurant at Gator Park serves a number of ‘Glades delicacies, including alligator sausage. And for small corporate groups to large gatherings, the authentic Chickee hut at Everglades Safari Park â€“ a true way to dine not just on the wildlife but in the wild â€“ is available for rental.
Wherever you ultimately decide to go, be sure to bring bug repellent, sunscreen, sunglasses for the glare off the water and a hat that won’t fly off your head. Additionally, though most guides and operators offer cotton balls to negate the noise, you might want to bring earplugs for airboat rides, as the roar is louder and more consistent than that of any bull alligator.
Peak times for visitors in the Everglades runs from December through March, so it’s always wise to call ahead and book whatever reservations you can for tours, whether they’re by land or, well, swamp.