Top ways to experience Florida’s Everglades

CNN  — 

Before the theme parks and the towering beachside condos, before the headlines about zombie cats and jokes about retirement homes, Florida was a wild (literally) place.

Foremost among its feral stretches was the area now known as Everglades National Park, which covers 1.5 million acres of marshes, lakes and sawgrass prairie.

Here crocodiles, alligators and manatees still swim in miles of rivers and streams, and more than 300 species of birds make their nests among the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere.

The Everglades was the first U.S. national park set aside for its biodiversity.

Nine ecosystems, ranging from coral-lined bays to oak tree islands, support a network of plants and animals that can’t be found anywhere else on Earth.

The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, right up there with the Grand Canyon and Stonehenge.

Here are the best ways to explore Florida’s proverbial “river of grass.”

On foot

The Anhinga Trail is a 0.8 mile-long paved path that slinks through a sawgrass marsh and the Taylor Slough (pronounced “slew,” if you’re not from around here).

This is one of the most popular Everglades trails because of its accessibility – “It’s easy access for all skill levels, even those with disabilities,” says Linda Friar, the park’s chief of public affairs – and because of the wildlife.

Alligator sightings are practically guaranteed, especially during the December through April dry season.

The trail is named after the anhinga, a bird that nests in the pond apple trees along the path.

This South Florida native tree produces an apple that’s tasty to raccoons, squirrels and alligators, but not humans.

“There are some who say you can cook them up and make them tolerable,” Friar says. “But I think they’re nasty.”

The Anhinga Trail, 40001 State Road 9336, Homestead, Florida; +1 305 242 7700; entry into the park costs $10 for cars and $5 for pedestrians and bicyclists. The ticket is valid for seven consecutive days.

By bike

Shark Valley’s 15-mile tram and bike loop cuts through a flat-as-plywood freshwater ecosystem of sawgrass marsh and tree islands.

No need to worry about the hills.

There are no shortcuts so park officials recommend you come prepared with water, sunscreen and the desire to devote up to three hours to biking the trail.

Along the way you’ll see four pits where stone was dug out to build the trail.

These man-made “gator holes” are refugees for turtles, alligators and wading birds.

Rangers recommend bikers stay at least 15 feet away from the alligators to avoid ending up as meals on wheels.

That’s not always easy considering gators like to bask on the warm pavement.

Shark Valley Visitor Center, 36000 S.W. 8th St., Miami; +1 305 221 8455; bike rentals cost $9 per hour per bike. Access to the trail is included in the $10 park admission fee.

By canoe or kayak

You could spend a few hours or a few days paddling among the Everglades’ marshes, mangrove islands and orchid-lined canals.

Simple living, Everglades-style.

The Flamingo Visitor Center marina, which sits in between the Buttonwood Canal and the Florida Bay, is a convenient spot to rent canoes and kayaks.

From here you can paddle to inland lakes and ponds, or launch into the open waters of the Florida Bay.

Park officials recommend you check with staff about the weather and water conditions before setting sail.

Flamingo Marina Rentals and Boat Tours, 1 Flamingo Lodge Highway, Homestead, Florida; +1 239 695 3101; canoe rentals start at $16 for two hours

By airboat

Coopertown, population eight, isn’t technically a town.

But since 1945 it’s been home to Coopertown Everglades Airboat Tours, the first commercial airboat operator in the Everglades.

Down here, being shallow is a good thing.

These amazing boats, which can float on water just a few inches deep, are a convenient way to access the more remote parts of the park.

While some airboat operators offer a wilder ride, Coopertown’s mission is more educational.

You’ll still hit top speeds of 35 miles per hour and stop at plenty of gator holes, says owner Jesse Kennon, but you’ll also learn about the plants and animals you pass along the way.

“We want people to understand this is a very special, very unique ecosystem,” says Kennon.

Coopertown Everglades Airboat Tours, 22700 S.W. 8th St., Miami; +1 305 226 6048; regular tour prices are $23 for adults, $11 for ages seven to 11, free for children under seven


You can spend the night on a private Everglades “island.”

Throughout the park’s mangrove estuary and the Florida Bay are 17 chickees, raised and covered platforms accessible only by boat.

The chickees have a toilet and not much else.

Some campers pitch a tent on the docks; others just bring their sleeping bags.

The chickees can be reserved day of at the Flamingo Visitor Center or the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.

Rangers recommend you review the park’s wilderness trip planner before spending the night in the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States.

Flamingo Visitor Center, 1 Flamingo Lodge Highway, Homestead, Florida; +1 239 695 2945;

Gulf Coast Visitor Center, 815 Oyster Bar Lane, Everglades City, Florida. +1 239 695 3311; during winter, roughly mid-November through mid-April, there’s a $10 permit fee and a $2 per person per day camping fee. Fees are waived during the scorching summer.

Helen Anne Travis is a Florida-based writer who specializes in food, drink and culture. She blogs at