Travel

The Most Adventurous Things to Do in Florida's Beautiful Everglades National Park

Cozy up with some alligators.

Editor's Note: While Everglades National Park is still open and entrance fees are suspended during the coronavirus pandemic, visitor centers, entrance stations, and Frontcountry campgrounds are closed until further notice. Ranger-led programs, concession tours, and other visitor activities are also currently cancelled.

If you asked anyone about the Everglades, they'd probably say, "You mean that giant swamp in Florida?" to which you might respond, "Close! It's actually a giant, slow moving river that sustains at least nine different, beautiful ecosystems." Then they'd say "Who are you and why are you quizzing me about the Everglades?" 

The Everglades is America's third largest national park -- behind Death Valley and Yellowstone -- and covers over 1.5 million acres. It’s now become the top natural attraction in South Florida. And once you arrive, the mangrove swamps, cypress forests, and sawgrass prairies of the River of Grass are some of the closest natural wonders to a major American city.

Though the Everglades’ unforgiving landscape may not immediately seem inviting, those who’ve lived here a while know how to make the most of this rare and delicate ecosystem, whether its exploring the natural environment, or meeting some of the Hiaasen-esque characters who call it home. So come with us on a journey down the Tamiami Trail and find the best things to do in the Florida Everglades. 

Shark Valley, Observation Tower | Mia2you / Shutterstock

Bike through Shark Valley

At first glance, “biking through Shark Valley” sounds like some kind of poetic euphemism for walking down South Beach on a Saturday night. But it is, in fact, the odd South Florida scenic bike ride through pristine nature, a 15-mile paved trail through sawgrass, tropical hardwoods, and deep, black water. Better yet, it’s not hard to find, with a clearly-marked turnoff to the visitors center about 25 miles west of the Turnpike on US-41. If you didn't bring your own ride, you can rent one from Everglades Bicycle Tours.

The name has nothing to do with marine wildlife you might find in the area, but refers to the Shark River Slough, the primary water source for the Everglades.  So now that you know Jaws won’t be popping out from the mangroves, you can take your time along the trail. Stop at viewpoints like the Bobcat Boardwalk, which extends back from the Visitor Center. Or the idyllic Otter Cave Hammock Trail, which meanders over footbridges past slow-moving streams. About halfway, you’ll find an observation tower, a perfect stop to climb up and survey the vast wilderness around you.

Hike through diverse ecosystems

Are there alligators and pythons all over the Everglades? Yes. But be reminded you're in a 1.5 million acre ecosystem where there are also bears, and panthers, and… well, a lot of humans. Put your fears aside, lace up your mud boots, and head out hiking through the most unique biological communities in America. You’ll be able to catch trailheads at both the Long Pine Key and Flamingo camping areas. Though you won’t encounter much in the way of elevation, you will be dealing with mosquitoes and humidity. So pack lots of water and even more insect repellant.

From Pine Island, you can take a number of short hikes over pavement and boardwalks, through mahogany forest, sawgrass marsh, and gumbo limbo trees. None of them are more than a mile long, so you can literally explore it all in a morning before it gets too hot.

At Flamingo, you’ll be closer to the water so hop on the two-mile Bayshore Loop Trail, where views of Florida Bay peek from behind mangroves. For something a little more challenging, jump on the Coastal Prairie Trail, a 7.5-mile path once used by cotton farmers and fishermen, lined with buttonwood trees. The journey ends at Clubhouse Beach, an isolated stretch of sand at the end of the Everglades you’ll rarely have to share. 

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Courtesy of MiamiLand

Endless Vitamin D and late-night foodie adventures are all great excuses to jet off to Miami this winter. But you’d be missing out if you didn’t explore the region’s outdoor adventure. Welcome to Miamiland, where snapping pics of wildlife in Shark Valley and winding through nature trails in Big Cypress Nature Preserve are all on the itinerary. This is the only “theme park” in Florida where the main attraction is nature. No standing in line required.

Safely view alligators in the Big Cypress National Preserve

The scenic highlight of your drive through the Everglades will be the Big Cypress National Preserve, where during rainy season a canopy of Big Cypress trees covers the Tamiami Trail. Egrets and herons soar through the sky creating an old Florida wonderland, giving you a rare look into the untamed landscape people (read: fugitives) once faced down here.

You’ll also likely see some alligators sunning themselves by the side of the road along US-41, and while it might be tempting to slow down and take a picture, remember: There are probably people driving behind you, and no one ever accused a Florida driver of being “courteous.” Your best bet at gator viewing is at the Big Cypress Visitor Center, where outside you’ll find a boardwalk next to a large canal where gators congregate for sunning and your voyeuristic pursuits. Keep your arms and legs on the boardwalk at all times and you won’t have a problem. Also, don't throw your sandwich at them. 

Stop for a drink at Lucky Cole's

County Road 93 has often been called the loneliest road in Florida. It's a 23-mile stretch of gravel and pavement cutting through the heart of the Everglades, with nothing but bears, alligators, and birds to keep you company. Turn onto the paved section coming from Miami, and a little over 7 miles in you’ll see a red mailbox on the left, near a collection of old motorcycles and a Lucky Strike sign. This is the home of Lucky Cole, Florida photographer and host to curious travelers through the Everglades.

The locally-famous photog isn’t running a store or photo shop, but rather a funky gathering place to sip beer and wine on weekend jaunts into the swamp. At Lucky Cole’s you’ll find a collection of weekending locals, Everglades lifers, and pretty much anyone else who enjoys venturing this far out. He’s only open on weekends, and you’ll need to check his Facebook page to make sure someone’s home lest he be out on a shoot.  

Eat stone crabs in Everglades City

Everglades City is one of the great Florida oddities. It's a town of fewer than 500 at the end of the Everglades that was nearly all indicted in the late-1970s as part of the marijuana trade. The city makes a more legitimate living now, serving as the stone crab fishing capital of the state. Instead of dropping a fortune on claws in Miami, opt instead for a seaside lunch in Everglades City, where you’ll get stone crabs fresh out of the water with a waterfront canal view. Grimm’s Stone Crab, Triad Seafood Market, and City Seafood are all good bets. Pro-tip: start up a conversation with a local. You’ll be guaranteed a great old Florida story. 

Catch an alligator wrestling show

The first sign you’ve arrived in the Everglades will be the abundance of roadside billboards beckoning you to stop and watch an alligator wrestling show. Though the shows are mostly the same, the best place to stop is the Miccosukee Indian Village. Stopping here not only helps support the tribe somewhere other than the casino, it’s also an only-in-the-Everglades experience that makes for fantastic photo-ops.

The dead giveaway you’ve found the spot is the giant statue of a man in Miccosukee attire wrestling an alligator alongside the highway. If you don’t like taking your eyes off the odometer, it’s about 36 miles down US-41 on the south side of the road. Step inside and learn about the Miccosukee culture of basket weaving, doll making, and patchwork before getting to the main event. The alligator shows are a sight to behold, and sometimes you’ll get a chance to take your picture with a baby alligator afterwards. Also, don’t try and wrestle it.

Biscayne Bay Lagoon | Sandra Foyt / Shutterstock

Snorkel or paddle in the Everglades’ other national park

Few people know that the Everglades ecosystem extends not just through its namesake national park, but also onto the shores of Biscayne Bay and Biscayne National Park. The marine sanctuary just off the South Florida coast contains a pristine coral reef, and the snorkeling here is as good -- if not better -- than diving pretty much anywhere else in the country. You can only access the waters by boat, with tours leaving from the Dante Fascell Visitors Center east of Homestead.

Once aboard, you can visit this park that’s over 90% water by simply dipping your head underwater and looking down. You’ll see a colorful world of tropical fish and majestic coral, all protected in a precious marine sanctuary. It’s a far cry from the swamps of the mainland, but a seldom-visited tropical paradise nonetheless.

See the surreal settlement of Ave Maria

About 15 years ago, Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan had a vision of developing the Notre Dame of the South, moving Ave Maria University from its original home in Ypsilanti, Michigan. His Promised Land for this grand academic institution? The middle of an unforgiving swamp about 25 miles east of Naples, not far from the thriving metropolis of Immokalee.

The result was a fully-accredited law school with an enrollment of about 500. It sits in an eerily clean, cookie-cutter development surrounding a 120-foot cathedral, like a 12th-century Italian village with 21st century Florida suburban architecture. It’s part Truman Show, part Joel Scott Osteen, and altogether surreal. Though everyone you meet is friendly, you still get the feeling if you stay there too long you’ll never be able to leave. But it’s worth a stop for a bite, a drink and a few very bizarre photos.

Take an airboat tour…with a ex-drug runner

Driving into the Everglades, you’ll be inundated with roadside billboards offering airboat rides. While they’re all worthwhile, don’t jump the gun and take the first one you see. Instead, head all the way to Everglades City to Jungle Erv’s for the best rides in the state. Everglades City, as you may remember, has a bit of a nefarious past as a marijuana smuggling hotbed. The fine people of the town have paid their debt to society, and now use their intimate knowledge of the black water back channels to offer the most complete airboat rides on the water.

Though your captains may not tell you much about their past (unless you take them for beers at the Camellia Street Grill after) they will take you through magical mangrove canopies, going full throttle over mirror-flat water. They’ll also take you to see wild boars and alligators who devour Cheetos, telling stories about old Florida along the way. Jungle Erv’s rides may not be the closest, but they’re 100% worth the extra hour in the car, both for the water they go through and the people who guide you along.

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Curt Hollingsworth is a contributor to Thrillist who has a lot of old Florida stories to tell. You'll just have to buy him a beer first.