Build the Perfect Everglades Adventure – Lonely Planet

Build the Perfect Everglades Adventure - Lonely Planet

There’s a spectacularly adventurous yet oddly calming way to experience Southwest Florida: the Everglades. For adventurous outdoor enthusiasts, the Everglades is an adrenaline-pumping paradise, and at the same time, a place to reconnect with your inner self and experience quiet solitude.

What many people don’t realize until they visit this World Heritage Site is its sheer size. Everglades National Park alone covers 2,357 square miles, and the Everglades make up 1.5 million acres of southern Florida. It’s easy to feel like you’re on the other side of the world when you’re surrounded by sawdust grasslands and miles of beautiful mangroves in every direction, but in fact, you’re only one short drive to the city of Naples on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

That said, it’s important to plan ahead whether you plan to slough or simply enjoy the frontcountry walks and spot a great blue heron or roseate spoonbill. Here are seven of our favorite ways to experience this unique national treasure.

You’re unlikely to go a day without seeing winged or scaled creatures in the Everglades ©Getty Images

If you want to: Observe wildlife

You should: Step out into the Big Cypress National Preserve

If there’s one thing you can do just about anywhere in the Everglades, it’s see wildlife. No matter where you end up, inside or outside the national park, it’s unlikely you’ll go a day without seeing winged or scaled creatures. If you’re lucky, you might spot a Florida panther, red fox, or white-tailed deer.

If you’re starting your day on the Paradise Coast (west side), stop first at Big Cypress National Preserve, where you’re bound to see plenty of waders and maybe some river otters or bobcats as well.

For those with a bit of wiggle room in their itinerary and can budget a few hours of driving, the drive through Big Cypress on the east side of the park brings you to Shark Valley, where, contrary to the name, you’ve earned Je don’t see any sharks. You will however see an abundance of American alligators and a fair share of wading birds. And if you’re willing to hike even further south, the Anhinga Trail is a must for any first-time Everglades visitor. People have described this trail as “Disney-like” for the way wildlife hangs around latently.

Wherever you go, remember to leave enough space for wildlife.

Boardwalk along the preserve at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, Florida
Early morning along the tree-lined boardwalk at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary ©Getty Images

If you want: Enjoy a quiet walk in nature

You should: Explore Rookery Bay, Fakahatchee Strand and Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Most of Everglades National Park’s hiking trails are in the southeast portion, including the famous Anhinga Trail. If you look outside the park boundaries, however, you’ll find that the marshy side offers more ground than most can cover in a few days.

Fakahatchee Strand Preserve is Florida’s largest state park, offering a winding 2,500-foot boardwalk and more than 60 miles of paved trails through marl meadows and swamps. Rookery Bay, a 110,000-acre estuarine research reserve, has four interpretive trails on a

quarter mile each in length. At Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, transport yourself to wild old Florida on the 2.25-mile walk through ancient bald cypress forest, pine groves and wetlands.

And then, of course, there’s the sprawling Big Cypress National Preserve where visitors can wander along the more than 40 miles of trails and boardwalks.

Shoal of fish in the marshes.
Fishing in the Ten Thousand Islands is productive all year round ©Getty Images

If you want to: Cast your line

You should: Explore the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge

The vast majority of the refuge requires a boat to access, making it an angler’s paradise. These 35,000 acres of seemingly unspoiled beauty are home to many species including tarpon, snook, red drum, spotted sea trout, smalltooth sawfish and goliath grouper – including, fishing here is productive year-round. It’s no surprise that sport fishing is the most popular recreational activity at the refuge, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Harney River Chickee, Everglades National Park
Chicks are often readily available to frontcountry campers ©Getty Images

If you want to: Have fun with frontcountry camping

You should: Camp in tents at the drive-in or rest at the local KOA.

Everglades National Park itself only offers two frontcountry camping opportunities, and both are located in the southeast portion of the park. That doesn’t mean you can’t sleep in saw grass if your base camp is on the Gulf Coast, though!

Camping in the Ten Thousand Islands
From the Gulf Coast, you can access several backcountry campsites ©Getty Images

If you want to: Really think outside the box

You should: Set up camp at a backcountry chick or beach site

Frontcountry camping is great, but there’s no better way to experience the wilderness than to immerse yourself in it overnight. From the Gulf Coast, you can access several backcountry campsites, all of which are either chick, beach or ground sites.

day-of-day or day-ahead reservations: Jewell Key, Mormon Key, New Turkey Key, Pavilion Key, Picnic Key, Tiger Key, Crooked Creek Chickee and Sweetwater Chickee.

Airboat By Jetty In Lake Against Sky At Everglades National Park
Airboats, also called fanboats, are flat-bottomed vessels propelled by an aircraft-like aerial propeller © Westend61 / Getty Images

If you want to: Figuratively fly through the river of grass

You should: Book an Airboat Tour

An airboat ride is perhaps the ticket to the Everglades’ most exhilarating encounter. Airboats, also called fanboats, are flat-bottomed vessels propelled by an aircraft-style aerial propeller. Because there are no working parts below the waterline, airboats can travel relatively quickly through the shallow waters of the Everglades.

On the Gulf side of the Everglades, you can find several airboat tour operators in Naples, Everglades City, Marco Island, and more. Hop aboard one of these boats and you’ll cross the River of Grass on a wetland safari you’ll never forget.

Hispanic woman paddling kayak in Everglades
The Wilderness Waterway is an engaging way to see and experience the deepest and wildest parts of the Everglades © Tetra images RF / Getty Images

If you want: Embark on a multi-day backcountry tour

You should: Paddle the Wilderness Waterway

For the most intrepid paddlers, the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway is an engaging way to see and experience the deepest and wildest parts of the Everglades. This serpentine waterway has a branch at the north and south ends of the park. The North Launch begins on Chokoloskee Island, just south of Everglades City, and winds its way to the Flamingo Visitor Center in Homestead, Florida.

It’s a real endurance odyssey that shouldn’t be attempted without careful preparation. Extensive experience in paddling, boating, backcountry camping and outdoor survival is essential to undertake this trip. Even then, consider going with a friend or hiring a guide. You will need backcountry permits for this expedition.

Great Egret displaying breeding plumage in golden light
The lacy plumage of a great egret is displayed during a breeding dance, in the golden afternoon light ©Getty Images

put it all together

Logistically, planning a trip to the Everglades takes some time and research because there is so much to see and experience. In general, the winter dry season is the best time to visit the Everglades. The air is less humid and plans are much less likely to be affected by inclement weather and seasonal rains. Visitors are also more likely to see abundant wildlife during the winter months. Need more conviction? In winter, the sun isn’t as strong (sunscreen is always recommended) and mosquitoes aren’t as prevalent (insect repellent is recommended).

Once you have your travel dates set, make a list of priorities. It is useful to label the activities in three camps: to do, it would be good and not to be missed. Decide how you want to spend the night – in a rustic cabin, a cozy resort, or in a traditional chick among wildlife – and whether you’ll have a base camp or sleep somewhere different each night. If the latter, decide on these sites in advance and obtain wilderness permits if necessary. Once you know when you’ll be visiting, what you want to do, and where you’ll be laying your head, you can start booking activities and planning excursions in this magical landscape.

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Spotlight on: Everglades, Florida