THE FLORIDA EVERGLADES
METROPOLITAN NATURALIST
The everglades is now a fraction of what it once was, but still an impressive sight and a highly
recommended destination. At the southern tip of Florida, the sub-tropical climate supports a unique and
diverse ecosystem in the approximately 1.5 million acre Everglades National Park. Here alligators, snakes,
birds, fish and unique plant life abound. With about a million visitors a year the area is heavily visited by
people, but in some areas it feels like you are stepping back in time to the wilderness that once was the
glades. The extensive mangrove swamps are unique in the United States to the southern tip of Florida.
Although some smaller stands of black mangrove are found in coastal Louisiana and Texas, the mangrove
swamp of southern Florida is said to be the largest continuous stand of mangroves in the world. Other
everglades habitats include stands of bald cypress trees, reminiscent of the swamps that once covered a
large part of the Southeastern United States, and extensive fields of saw-grass, the saw-grass prairie, that
led author Marjory Stoneman Douglas to call the area “River of Grass”, a very fitting description of this
wetland.

I think the best way to experience the glades is to get your feet wet and tromp right in, through the water,
to get an up-close look at the plants and animals that make this area so unique and fascinating. Like any
wilderness area there are dangers in the waters of the everglades and it is advisable to go with a group if
you plan on venturing into the waters. Several experienced guides are available to make your adventure
safer and to point out things those of us who are less familiar with the area might otherwise miss. With or
without a guide, a canoe can carry you through the mangroves and the saw-grass safely out of reach of the
numerous alligators, crocodiles, water moccasins, rattlesnakes, and other dangers that lurk in the waters
and brush of the glades.

For more of a wilderness experience, there are campsites in the park accessible only by canoe. The
backcountry can be explored by boat using the campsites as a home base or by canoing from site to site.
There are also campgrounds in the park, accessible by car or camper, that provide running water, showers,
and toilets. Take a look at the
park website to see the accommodations available in the park. The
Everglades Hostel in Florida City, near the only road into the Everglades National Park, offers an affordable
place to stay for those who prefer to stay in a more civilized setting with sort of a hippie commune
atmosphere. From the hostel you can drive into the park for day trips to explore the trails, walk the
boardwalk, or canoe the waters. There are, of course, also numerous hotels within driving distance of the
park entrance.

I took a guided tour from the
Everglades Hostel on a recent trip to the glades. The 8 hour tour included a
walk on the very popular Anhinga Trail, an hour or two of wet walk in the glades, and a couple of hours of
canoing through the glades. The trip was pretty good and I would recommend it, although I thought the
price was a bit steep. The guide was knowledgeable and, to be honest, I would not walk through the waters
of the glades by myself because of the danger of alligators. Alligators do not normally attack people, but it
is comforting to know that, if you are in a group, you only have to be faster than the slowest person in the
group if a gator was to attack. I'm just kidding, of course. In a tour group there are more eyes to see and
avoid a potentially threatening situation, an experienced guide who is familiar with the area and with
alligator behavior, and a number of people together who will hopefully make an intimidating target for a
gator who might consider a lone human as a potential meal. The experience of walking through the glades
is one every visitor with an interest in natural history should experience. There are other “swamp walk”
tours available in the national park and other everglades parks that look like fun, but I have only done the
Everglades Hostel tour, so I can't recommend any others. You can visit the
Hostel website for more info on
their tours, or search the web for other everglades swamp walks. There is also a
ranger led swamp walk in
the National Park that I hope to get a chance to take on my next trip to the glades. Another possibility is a
swamp walk in Big Cypress National Preserve offered by
Swamp Explorers.

If you are seeing the glades on your own, without a guide, I would suggest starting your trip on the popular
Anhinga Trail. Here you can get an up-close look at some of the wildlife of the National Park. The Anhinga
Trail is a paved trail and boardwalk over an artificially created  habitat. I am told the area around the trail
was created by digging soil to be used for creating the dry land for the visitors center and parking area.
The dug out area filled with water and remains wet throughout the South Florida dry season. All the wildlife
has come to this area on its own and is free to come and go as it pleases. There is no feeding of wildlife to
keep animals here, any feeding is illegal and subject to a steep fine. A lot of the wildlife here has become
accustomed to people gawking at them and taking pictures. Many animals, including several kinds of
herons, wood stork, anhinga, cormorants, black vultures, alligators, and turtles, can be approached closely,
making this an excellent place to watch and photograph wildlife. Ranger led walks are available and
information signs have been placed along the trail. This trail is close to the park entrance and provides a
nice introduction to the park wildlife before you venture out on the less developed trails or into the
wilderness areas.

If you can, I would suggest visiting between December and March. Winter is the dry season in the glades
when the wetlands are more accessible and the mosquitoes tend to be less bothersome. In my visit of
January 2011, we didn't see any mosquitoes at all in most areas we visited, but in summer they can be
unbearable to those of us who are not used to them.
Anhinga on the Anhinga Trail in Everglades National Park
An Anhinga on the Anhinga Trail in Everglades National Park. The long,
snake-like neck and pointed bill identify this common fish-eating bird of the
everglades.
Little Blue Heron
The Little Blue Heron is one of several herons you are likely to see along the
Anhinga trail and in other areas of the park.