An hour south of Miami, but an entire world away, is the main entrance to Everglades National Park. A great place to start your exploration is at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center [40001 State Hwy 9336, Homestead, FL 33034], grab a map and begin your journey. There is one central road running through this portion of the park 38 miles long that leads to Flamingo Visitor Center – which is the end of the line, be sure to have enough gas in your tank. Along the drive you will find vistas and trailheads for both hiking and paddling. The hikes in the park are flat, many are paved or use boardwalks, only a few are a natural ground. If you’re heading out on foot, here are my recommendations for which hikes to take:
The premiere trail of the park just .8 mile on a paved surface is for everyone! Before you set out, you need to do an obscure task to protect your vehicle. Vultures are abundant in this area and they have an odd attraction to the rubber strips that line your car.
Tarps and bungee cords are available to cover it up. You really should do this, because I noticed whole groups of the birds on top of uncovered cars pecking away – they can do some noticeable damage. Weird, but funny! Anyway, this trail is unbelievable gorgeous.
You will see plenty of gators basking in the sunshine.
A colorful array of birds that may include: the namesake anhinga, heron, purple gallinule, and grebe.
It was pretty cool to see the grebe carrying around vegetation, a behavior I haven’t witnessed elsewhere. There are also some sizable fish in the waters.
Best at dawn or dusk (possibly twice – once on your way in and out!), because the animals are more active. In the same parking lot is the short Gumbo Limbo trail, just .4 mile. Learn about the namesake tree and other flora of the Everglades.
A short .4 mile walk to see a different habitat filled with pines. More of a draw for me, this is a great place to go hunting for tree snails – there were once 52 variations of these colorful mollusks.
The informational panels will also show you what Poisonwood looks like – a plant whose name would suggest you steer clear of.
Meaning ‘grassy waters’ this may look like a prairie, but the shallow sheet of water is the Shark River Slough eight miles wide flowing slowly towards the Gulf. Just .2 mile to reach a vista where you may see gator and certainly some birds.
The boardwalk is surrounded by Bald Cypress trees – if you are visiting in the winter they are dormant and lose their needles to cope with seasonal drought.
I loved the aura of their spooky sleeping state, but am curious how different it would be in the wet summer season.
Another boardwalk .4 mile long, a good place to see larger trees and learn more about flora of the region – was not particularly active when I visited in the middle of the day.
West Lake Trail
More boardwalks and additional .4 mile this time to see a mangrove environment. Once again, not particularly active by midday.
Snake Bight Trail
It was hot and sticky by the afternoon, but I wanted my long sleeve sweat wicking jacket to protect from the bugs. DEFINITELY coat yourself with bug spray – even in the middle of winter. This trail is on natural ground 1.8 miles one way, an out and back design. Your route is beside a muddy creek lined with mangroves.
Keep an eye out for herons hanging onto the roots looking for prey.
Other than pretty air plants and an occasional butterfly, it was quiet.
And hot. After a bunch of previous trails on top of the weather, this was a bit grueling and I was really hoping for something spectacular at the end of the line – I wasn’t disappointed. You dead end at a vista which is very different from everything else at the park – almost a pink hue.
We saw some roseate spoonbills fly overhead, surprised by our presence. We had it all to ourselves except for one heron and a pair of horseshoe crab lovers rustling around in the muck.
Flamingo Visitor Center
When you reach the end of the line – the fun doesn’t have to stop. You can rent kayaks at the Flamingo Marina – you may want to make a reservation with them. We were unfortunately shut out because a whole troop of boy scouts got there before us renting the entire fleet! However, the employee said that is a rare occurrence. Lucky us ;). We did see an osprey in its nest though!
If you’re looking for more to do on the way back to Miami, you can have plenty of fun in Homestead!