You’ve heard of the Everglades, but is it on your bucket list? Let’s me show you how and why it should be a must-visit spot on your family road trip. At two million acres, the Everglades at the southernmost tip of Florida is the United States’ third largest national park. Essential to the ecosystem, the grasslands of the Everglades encompass many different ecosystems and water areas.
Look at a map of the Everglades. This one shows all the different colors – each is a different ecosystem. Isn’t that amazing how many there are? You will see the difference as you drive and the trees change completely. Also, look at the bottom at all the islands under the tip of Florida. This is why you need a boat to fully appreciate the size and importance of this part of Florida. Maybe if I had really stopped to consider this, I would have approached my trip differently.
As you approach a trip to the Everglades, there are two major road options: the northern route straight across the top of the park or the longer path down to the southern tip of Florida. These are two very different roads, entrances, and experiences. Due to the size of the park, you will need two different days if to you want to see both routes, both visitor centers, and both trails. When not specified otherwise, I am talking about the southern route because we didn’t do the other one.
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Option 1: Northern Trail
Tampa to Miami across Florida is called the Tamiami Trail (clever name, huh?). This path goes past the Everglades and Big Cypress Preserve. If you’re already headed on this route, consider adding these to your day.
This northern portion of the Everglades is a very difference experience from the other. If you don’t have time to make a full-day trip down south, definitely do this northern portion and head to the Shark Valley Visitor Center. The Shark Valley Tram Tours will take your family out to the viewing tower over the sea of grass; this is not a cheap trip BTW. We chose not to add this to our itinerary, so I can’t add personal recommendations.
If you’re passing by and only have an hour, you should check out Big Cypress Preserve. After briefly exploring the Nathaniel P. Reed Visitor Center and watching a film about the estuary, the kids and I took the boardwalk out into the hardwood swamp. At the time of our visit, the Oasis Visitor Center location was not open, so make sure you check the hours.
Option 2: Southern Trail
Not knowing that the two roads weren’t connected, my kids selected this path because they wanted to get closer to the ocean. I still think is the better option if you want to have a full Everglades experience. While you aren’t going to get a ranger to admit which portion is better, this route takes hours to explore and passes through ten different ecosystems along the drive.
- After an hour long drive south from Miami, we entered the park from the Homestead entrance at the Ernest P. Coe Visitor Center.
- Royal Palm Visitor Center – If you are unable to drive the entire length of the park, this would be a great place to explore and hike a trail. Park at the big parking lot, slather on your sunscreen, and head to the Anhinga Trail. This boardwalk makes a small circle and offers the chance to see your first alligators. Of the trails we took, this one was the most water we saw – stop here if you want to see alligators. If you still have the energy, head back to the Gumbo Limbo trail before moving on.
- The Pa-hay-okee Overlook is a super-short boardwalk trail that takes you out over the prairie. The trees have changed from pines to cypress.
- Keep driving to the Mahogany Hammock Trail. Before you have to go look it up, a hammock in this context means a little island of hardwood trees. You will walk over the boardwalk through the prairie into a little isolate forest of tropical trees which houses the largest living mahogany tree in the US. It really feels like you’re in the jungle for a minute. And you get to cool off in the shade!
- There are several other little picnic areas and canoe trail, but we skipped them. It really does start to blend together. You don’t have to see everything!
- Flamingo Visitor Center – At the time of our visit in 2022, it was closed for reconstruction. We walked around the marina and saw a few manatees. Looked out at the water and wished we had a boat. Even though some people talk about how they drive further down, I didn’t see a way to do this as the campground is closed unless you are camping there. Plan to stay awhile here wandering around, having a picnic, looking at the water, and looking for the alligator. Hopefully, more will be open for you.
- Get a cold drink and head out of the park. There are so many touristy places and alligator farms. If you still want more of an experience, check out one of these before you stop for a fun (and expensive) milk shake at Robert Is Here Fruit Stand – it’s been around forever and is the place to go! You might even grab some tropical fruit or see some animals.
Know Before You Go
- It will take an hour for you to get to the end of the park without any stops. Add into that a couple hours of hiking. That’s a long trip to not have any gas stations. There are restrooms at least!
- You most likely won’t have cell signal in the park. It’s pretty hard to get lost, but make sure you grab a map at the visitor center.
- Register your 4th grader for Every Kid Outdoors for a year-long National Park pass to get in the park free.
- It’s going to cost you $30 for 7 days of entrance to the Everglades; if you have more traveling planned this year, go ahead and get you a National Park Pass for $80 (free if you’re military!)
- There is very little shade on the trails. Bring your sun hat, sunscreen, and water bottles.
- Bring bug spray. Some areas need it more than others.
- Pack the extra water in the car, picnic food, and snacks. It’s a long drive especially if you stop at all the places.
- Consider binoculars or a zoom lens. I wished I had brought some to view distant animals and birds.
- Make sure you fill up on gas as it’s a long, isolated drive. If you run out, you can fill up at the marina.
Go On a Hike
It’s okay to not get out at every trail. Some of them look quite similar. The good news is that several of them are very short, so you could see all of them if you want.
The main trails are all relatively short. I wouldn’t worry about taking the backpack full of supplies with you. Grab your camera and water. Leave the rest in the car.
If you are feeling more adventurous, there are some off-the-path dirt trails that lead deeper into the grass. Many of these appeared to have special parking lots off the main road. Come prepared and come early; there is often very little shade and you will be hot. Pay attention to the color of the hikes though – a lot of these are boat only and not for walking.
Most importantly. Have reasonable expectations for your family, and remember this doesn’t have to be a “see it all” trip. For us, I have learned that we need to do the trails and see the sights on the way to the end. By the return trip out of the park, everyone will have cooled off, fatigue has set in, and we don’t want to get out of the air conditioned car.
Should I Plan for an Airboat Ride?
Hind sight? I should have planned for the airboat ride.
Although I had heard airboat rides are the best way to get the full feel of the Everglades, I did not plan to do this due to budget. There are so many factors to consider that it was easier to not make a decision. The problem of a perfectionist.
Do I hire a more expensive private naturalist? Schedule the trip through the national park or an individual company? Don’t use XYZ because you should choose a Native American local. Don’t go on a ride at all – it destroys the environment.
All the “don’t”s led to my concern of getting it wrong. So I scheduled nothing ahead of time and thought that would be good enough. Don’t be like me.
I figured we would be able to see anything we needed from the paths. While we did see a large part of the park by exploring the trails off the main road, a glance at the map of the Everglades shows the truly limited portion we saw. Once you view the light blue water of the coast, you will wish you had allowed for time and money for a boating experience. If this is out of your budget, arrive early enough to rent a kayak near the Flamingo Visitor center.
In my lack of preparation, I thought when we got to the southernmost tip, there would be a trail around near the water or a coast. We viewed the water from the grass near the under-construction visitor center, but other than walking around the boat docks, there isn’t a lot of wandering area that we could find. As of 2022, the original Flamingo Visitor center is still closed from hurricane damage. Information about the area can be found at the marina center along with snacks and kayak rental.
Make sure you stop in the marina store for a cold snack and ask about the alligator. The alligator that hangs out near the fish cleaning station stayed under water the whole time we ate our picnic. He was a highlight of our Everglades trip.
The beautiful turquoise water of Florida Bay will make you ever more excited for your upcoming trip to the Keys! Find out what you need to know before you go and plan an amazing chartered ocean adventure ahead of time.
Whether you invest in a boat trip or not, you will see beauty and had a great time exploring the Everglades. It was good enough for our visit; you may just want to come back again if you don’t get the “full experience”.
What Do I Wish We Had Done Differently?
To me, to really “do” the Everglades, you need more than one day. See part of the park, check out the Miami area for a few days, and go back and see the rest of the park. It’s a long road that I don’t want to drive two days in a row.
If you’re going to go on an airboat ride setting off from the Flamingo Visitor Center area, I would schedule it early and head straight there when it opens. You’ll probably be back before the park closes and would theoretically have time to go hiking. However, you and the kids will be burned and exhausted. Don’t make them stop and get out and see trees on the drive back – you’ll probably have to wake them up to do it.
On your second trip back, also set out early but plan to get out and hike before it gets too hot outside. Your park entrance pass will cover a full week, so you wouldn’t have to pay to get back inside. Maybe just go on a couple of trails without driving all the way to the end – you would have explored that part on your first trip with the boat ride.
Remember parents of littles, while there are areas “outside” here, this isn’t really a kid fun area. There will be no beaches to lounge and splash in. Swimming and snorkeling is prohibited in the park – remember the alligators and crocodiles? While the visitor center looks out over the water, there is no beach; it’s a concrete wall. Although there are trails, the trail are boardwalks to protect the grasses. This is not the kind of trail where kids get to wander off and explore.
Your kids have been stuck in the car for most of the day. They are tired and possibly bored. They need to get out wiggles – either plan for this or reap the consequences in the hotel room later! You still have time to make it to a beach for a couple of hours. Grab your swimsuits and towels before you leave the hotel room in the morning. You just never know.
Do you have any other tips for making an excellent trip to Everglades National Park? I’d love to know if you used my tips on your trip! Happy exploring!