We visited Everglades National Park last month on our way to the Florida Keys, and it’s such an amazing, spectacular, unbelievable, (insert adjective here) place, that we need to share it with you. Back on January 1st, 2014, I clarified that we would only tell travel stories if they’re of particular interest, and the Everglades definitely qualify.
Before I get to the Everglades, I’ll walk you through how we ended up in Southern Florida in the first place.
We’ve spent the winter bouncing around Central Florida. Our Thousand Trails campground membership is a great way to keep our expenses down, but unfortunately there are only 3 Thousand Trails ‘resorts’ in Florida – One in Wildwood, one in Clermont (near Disney), and the third in Wauchula. They’re convenient in the sense that they’re within an hour of each other which is important as our membership limits how long we can stay in each park.
[rich]I’ll be writing about Campground Memberships soon, but here’s how Thousand Trails works in a nutshell: We can visit any Thousand Trails Resort (TTR) for up to 3 weeks and then must leave that resort for 7 days before we go back, but we can go directly to another TTR as we have an upgraded membership – this is what they call park to park privileges.
Some parks are designated ‘high use’ at certain times of the year, and all 3 Florida TTR are high use in the winter, so we’re limited to two weeks per park but still have park to park privileges. That means we can bounce around the TTR indefinitely for free (after the cost of our membership)[/rich]
Central Florida is certainly temperate during the winter, but aside from the Disney & Orlando Theme Parks, miles of strip malls, retirement villages, and a few state parks there’s not a lot to see and do.
We wanted some of our time in Florida to be spent on a beach. Our Thousand Trails membership also includes reduced rates at Encore properties, so we did some digging and found that we could stay at Sunshine Key RV Resort in the Florida Keys for only $23/night. If you’ve ever visited the Florida Keys you know that’s an amazing deal – most campgrounds are $100/night in the Keys!
We booked 2 weeks at Sunshine Key, and invited family to visit, and the first taker was my (Rich’s) Mother. She lives in New England and was over the cold and snow as almost everyone is by February.
We arranged to pick her up at Miami International Airport and thought it would be great to see the Everglades while we were in the area, so looked into booking a campsite for a few nights. I wanted to stay in the Everglades, but forgot Florida State/National Park Campground rule #1.
Rule #1 – If a national or state park campground in Florida can be reserved it has been reserved well before February. Plan and reserve well ahead – Some of the campgrounds are reserved a year in advance.
That left us only one other option – find a privately owned RV park. There are very few RV parks outside of Miami, and even fewer that are what I’d consider affordable (less than $50/night), but I did find one – Gator Park.
Gator Park is really an airboat tour operator that happens to have an RV park on site for their employees. They have a few spaces open for tourists that are available first come first serve for $30/night. Considering the lack of amenities (not FHU) that’s a little steep, but considering how close they are to Miami it’s reasonable.
Gator Park is only 23 miles to the airport, and yet it’s in the Everglades, so in that sense it’s the best of both worlds. We hoped to stay for 3 nights (first come first serve) and planned to arrive the same day my mother flew in. I figured that would give us a chance to tour Miami (another post) and spend a day in the Everglades before we headed to the Keys.
We also figured that staying at an airboat operator would make it easy to take an airboat tour – something we’ve both wanted to do for a long time.
We arrived and got a site without issue. There were only 4 spaces available, and as I mentioned the spaces are first come first serve. We arrived on a Wednesday and by Friday all the spaces were full, so if you plan to stop at Gator Park target Monday-Thursday for best results.
My mother and I spent Thursday touring Miami, South Beach, and Coral Gables, and we all planned to take an airboat ride on Friday before heading to the Florida Keys on Saturday.
This is where I unintentionally derailed our plans for the better.
All you can hear at Gator Park during the day is one airboat after another firing up their very loud engines, and then the noise from their very large fans. The airboats that take tourists out seat 16 to 20 people, so they’re pretty big. Note that the airboats are a ways from the RV area and they’re still incredibly loud.
I have no doubt that people on airboats see wildlife, but I can’t imagine that most Alligators or birds enjoy the sound of an airboat any more than we did – especially considering the airboats run one after another all down the same course.
It seemed to me that the airboats would scare off all but the most deaf or oblivious of creatures, and that it would be more than a little difficult to take photos from a moving airboat assuming we saw anything in the first place. I should also mention that I get motion sick, and after watching a few airboats take off I was starting to rethink our plan.
The whole reason Kathy and I wanted to take an airboat ride in the first place was to see Everglades wildlife. It’s not like we were going to go walking into the glades on foot as they’re full of alligators, snakes, and mosquitos, and we don’t have a boat with us, so an airboat tour seemed like the right solution.
And an airboat tour may very well be a good solution, but we found something that’s much better and much quieter, and that brings me to the main point of this post.
Everglades National Park
The night before we’d planned to take an airboat tour, I was poking around on the internet looking at the Everglades. As this trip was a bit spur of the moment we hadn’t looked into the Everglades in detail, so didn’t do a very good job of planning.
I found that one of the Everglades Visitor’s Centers – Shark Valley – was only about 12 miles up the road from where we were staying. As I read reviews, people raved about the wildlife that was easily visible near the center, and talked about the 16 mile paved path through the Everglades which is open to Tram tours and bikes!
I felt silly for not reading about this sooner, but fortunately we had an entire Friday available to us so I proposed that we head to Shark Valley Visitor Center first thing in the AM, and if we still hadn’t seen enough of the Everglades we could take an airboat tour in the afternoon.
Shark Valley Visitor Center
As soon as you pull off the road into Shark Valley Visitor Center you see wildlife. It’s impossible to miss. There’s a large waterway adjacent to the parking area, and it’s full of alligators, turtles, anhingas, wood storks, great blue herons, ibis, spoonbills, and just about every other bird you can think of.
The bike path runs along the waterway for about 8 miles, and if you go the whole way you have the option of returning via a different path that winds through a different part of the Everglades. At the end of the 8 miles there’s a tower overlook, however we didn’t get that far.
[box]The park runs a tram down the path every hour or so. the tram costs $22 a person, and I’d recommend against taking it. You only have a good view if you’re sitting on the outside, and you can’t stop unless the tram driver stops. There’s way too much wildlife to be stuck on a tram!
Alternatively you can bring your own bikes (we did), or rent bicycles for $8/hr. The bikes they have aren’t great, but they work, and we recommend biking over the tram for maximum wildlife, alligator, and bird viewing opportunities.[/box]
We didn’t go that far because there’s such an incredible abundance of wildlife right from the start, and you only need to bike further than people are willing to walk to have most of that space to yourself.
It was also a hot and humid day – we were in Southern Florida after all – and my mom is prone to heat exhaustion, so we wanted to take it a little bit easy.
We saw dozens of Alligators. Many are laying on the bank right next to you (don’t touch!). The largest we saw looked to be 12 feet long, and the smallest were only a few inches as we saw many babies with their mothers.
You don’t have to worry about the Alligators attacking you. They’re timid creatures and mostly focus on bite-sized prey.
At the afternoon Ranger Presentation, the ranger told us the story of the most recent alligator attack. It happened in the mid ’90s when a young boy lost control of his bike, flipped into the water, and landed on a large alligator. Naturally the alligator attacked (it was defending itself), and the boys mother jumped in the water and fought the alligator off. Both the boy and mother were flown to a hospital and were ok.
Considering that the most recent attack was nearly 20 years ago, It’s safe to say that you’re much safer walking near the alligators than you are walking through Miami.
After several hours we finally had our fill, and headed back to Gator Park. None of us felt like taking an airboat tour at that point, and we were all glad that we went to Shark Valley Visitor Center instead.
That’s the extent of what we did in the Everglades. I know it’s just a drop in the bucket as the Everglades are huge, but it was still one of our most memorable life experiences and we can’t wait to go back!
The rest of our pictures are below (click to enlarge), and until next time, happy trekking!