While the hordes of Spring Breakers flock — understandably — to South Florida’s golden shores, consider a trip down the not-so-beaten path, to Everglades National Park, the heart of which lies just an hour’s drive west of Miami, along the Tamiami Trail. A drive into the heart of the Everglades grants visitors glimpses of the diverse wildlife roaming the region, including loads of alligator sightings (stand back, and keep you hands to yourself!), great blue herons, colorful roseate spoonbills and ever-present white herons and ibises. If you weren’t a bird watcher, much less bird lover, before entering the Everglades, you will be when you depart.
“Everglades” literally translates to “river of grass,” and that’s exactly what you’ll find here: a subtropical wetland that begins in Central Florida at Lake Okeechobee as water leaves the lake and flows south, forming a slow moving river. The so-called river of grass is an astonishing 50 miles wide and 100 miles long, running all the way to the tip of South Florida and into the sea. Of that vast expanse, 1.5 million acres have been designated a National Park, protecting 20 percent of the Everglades and the extraordinary wildlife contained within.
Everglades National Park is split into 2 main entrances, Shark Valley in the north central section of the park and the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in the West. Start your foray into the Everglades in Shark Valley. This entrance has the most amenities for visitors, including a museum, bike rentals and tram tours, as well as an observation tower in the thick of the glades that affords striking views of the grassland. A 15-mile loop road winds through Shark Valley, and is popular for bikers and a few apparently cold-blooded walkers undaunted by the region’s high temperatures. If you’re not prone to exert yourself for the duration of a 15-mile bike ride, hop aboard a tram tour, where knowledgeable guides point out and explain in detail the Everglades’ flora and fauna — with frequent stops for photos.
From Shark Valley, make your way toward the Gulf Coast Visitor Center. This entrance lies tucked into the far western reaches of the park, where you’ll see a much different topography, chiefly mangrove islands and winding waterways. As you make drive west, you’ll have the choice to continue along the well-trodden Tamiami Trail, or pop off onto a Scenic Loop Road, and as I highly recommend, and great poets will agree, always — always — take the road less traveled.
The loop road is partially unpaved, though easily driveable, and winds through what may well be the region’s most spectacular and wildest scenery: a cypress forest, part of the Big Cypress National Preserve. These monstrous trees drip with Spanish Moss, and you’ll pass by alligators lounging at their bases, as well as countless birds — herons, ibises, purple gallinules and pelicans galore. The best part? In what turned into an hour and a half foray along the road (I stopped for lots of pictures), I passed a mere 4 other cars. This is as remote a space as you’ll find anywhere in Florida.
You’ll leave the Preserve and arrive in Everglades City late-afternoon or early evening. To get the most out of an Everglades National Park road trip from South Florida’s east coast, spend an overnight in Everglades City, just south of Naples, on the western edge of the park. The town is incredibly small, just a few hundred residents, and lies amidst winding waterways. Book a room at the Everglades City Motel, where the old-fashioned exterior belies the beautifully remodeled rooms inside. Grab a sunset cocktail and a platter of smoked fish dip at the iconic Rod and Gun Club, which sits along a scenic curve of the river. For dinner, meander a mile or so down the road to Camellia Street Grill, a true local’s hangout along the river. You’ll find kitschy decor, a welcoming outdoor deck, twinkling lights strung from trees, and if you’re lucky — live music and dancing.
The following day, head into the park’s western entrance, and book yourself on a boat tour of either the mangrove isles or Ten Thousand Islands. You can choose from a larger boat that winds through the islands or a smaller, 6-person tour that heads into the depths of the mangroves. After your boat tour, pay a visit to Chokoloskee Island, just a few minutes down the road. Here you’ll find the Smallwood Store and Ole Indian Trading Post, a former general store established in 1906 that’s now on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been turned into a museum featuring artifacts from the era, including newspaper clippings, medicine bottles, and furnishings.
Before you head back toward the 2-hour drive to Miami, refuel with lunch at the Havana Cafe, a Chokoloskee restaurant dishing up tasty Cuban food. Try the pork plate, traditional-style Cuban pork shoulder, serve with black beans, rice and a small salad. Ask to try the homemade hot sauce — you’ll thank me later.