Time spent outdoors has never felt more necessary after so many weeks of sheltering in place. Miami residents have the perfect place for an outdoor interlude (it covers 20% of southern Florida) only 45 minutes away from the city center. Everglades National Park has opened in a limited capacity and plans to carry on opening more facilities as restrictions continue to ease. High-traffic areas such as visitor centers, Shark Valley, the Nike Missile Site, and campgrounds remain closed at this time. However, the Royal Palm and Flamingo areas are open to the public. Some of the Flamingo areas have even waived entrance fees temporarily so everyone can get a much-needed breath of fresh air.
A Brief History
Everglades National Park will be celebrating its 86th birthday in 2020. Before it became a park, the southern part of Florida was an intricate ecosystem comprised of ponds, sloughs, sawgrass marshes, hardwood hammocks, and mangrove forests. The human footprint began to threaten this unique habitat and the government stepped in to protect the area, both it’s animal inhabitants and tropical flora. The park has continued to expand over time as it as acquired new parcels of land. The most recent acquisition was in 1989 bringing the current protected area to over 2,300 square miles.
Hiking a Unique Landscape
One of the most beloved features in the park, the Coastal Prairie Trail, is reopening to the public. The trail is 17 miles roundtrip and traverses a variety of habitats. The trailhead is easily accessible near the Flamingo campground and continues briefly through subtropical forests before opening out into prairie land. The trail is relatively easy because it doesn’t gain much elevation but can be very muddy and slick if it has rained recently. Panther tracks (from the endangered Florida panther) have been spotted in the grassy sections of the trail further from civilization.
Beginning hikers may find the Anhinga Trail more appropriate to their skill level. The trail is short (less than a mile) but is, for many, the introduction to the Everglades. Alligators serve as the welcoming committee in the water next to the trailhead. The trail continues past the aquatic habitat to a boardwalk that terminates on an observation deck. The deck is the best place to observe cormorants, nesting egrets, and spoonbills.
Paddling the Waterways
The paths that outline Everglades National Park barely scrape the surface of the available wilderness. More adventurous visitors take to the water and launch watercraft from the Flamingo marina. Explore the mangrove isles and grass marshes on your own, or follow the marked canoe trails. There’s a lovely 5-mile loop that goes through Nine-Mile Pond; it’s a favorite for daytrippers. The waters are murky and caution should be exercised. However, the most common disturbances to paddlers aren’t alligators at all. Mullet, a local breed of fish important to the food chain, schools in the protected mangroves. Scientists aren’t sure why, but the mullet like to leap out of the water. The sudden splash often startles visitors. Perhaps the mullet have a prankish sense of humor.
Fishing in the Park
While it may seem taboo to fish in a National Park renowned for protecting its wildlife, there are 70 different species that visitors are allowed to catch. The freshwaters near the grass marshes are perfect for light tackle. Anglers frequently catch mullet, catfish, and bass. There are some catfish that need to be avoided, however. The Asian walking catfish is an invasive species in the area. Known for its ability to “walk” overland to infest other nearby bodies of water, they’re considered a threat to the delicate ecosystems. If one of these beasts is caught, it must be either thrown back or killed. Anglers are not allowed to leave the park with these creatures to prevent breeding and further infestation. Please secure the appropriate fishing license before trolling the waters.
Whether hiking the trails, strolling the coastline, or paddling the waters, Everglades National Park is one of the premier Florida sites to observe nature. There are over 360 species of birds that live or migrate to the area. Endangered species such as alligators, crocodiles, manatees, and Florida panthers all call this region home. Visitors are encouraged to view animals from a safe distance and are warned against feeding them.