The Everglades is one of America's unique National Parks. Mostly made up of wetland wilderness, it's massive (the third largest in the lower 48) and protects a huge variety of landscapes, from piney flatlands to marshy, swampy stands of cypress and mangrove. It's also home to endangered species like manatees, Florida panthers, and bald eagles, as well as dolphins and both crocodiles and alligators (it's one of the few places in the world where you can see both at the same time.) Thanks to the diversity of the park's ecosystems, there are many different ways to explore, from guided hikes to airboat rides to tram tours. And as you adventure through the park, there's tons of fascinating history, beautiful scenery, and maybe even a cryptid like the Skunk Ape or two to enjoy as well.
Enjoy the sun deck during the day, and warm breezes by a campfire at night, at the Hollywood KOA. Whether you require an RV site, a place to set up your tent, or a cozy Deluxe Cabin, you can make yourself right at home at this campground. Enjoy a walk around the palm-tree-lined property as you make the most of the amenities here: laundry, clean showers, grills, and more. Plus, the KOA is in the middle of town, so you're conveniently close to dining, shopping, and more.
The Everglades is known for wildlife, but before you head off in search of panthers and gators, take a moment to appreciate a more delicate creature: the butterfly. Coconut Creek's Butterfly World is guaranteed to delight and amaze. Inside is a tropical rainforest occupied by 20,000 colorful, exotic butterflies; it's something that has to be seen to be believed. If you're lucky, one might even land on you. You'll also find beautiful orchids and other flowers, waterfalls, bright parrots, and much more. It's a great opportunity to learn about these beautiful insects, their habitats, and their journey from caterpillar to butterfly.
Davie is a quiet rural community just outside Fort Lauderdale, and the KOA between the two is the best of both worlds. The Davie / Ft. Lauderdale KOA is across the street from a park, and provides access to hiking and horseback riding trails on site, and is also minutes away from the beaches of Ft. Lauderdale. Or, just stick around the campground and enjoy the heated pool and communal fire pit. You'll also find a playground, game room, dog park, and more. As far as accommodations go, you can choose from RV and tent sites, Deluxe Cabins, and unique motel rooms.
The best spot for beginners to start is at the Shark Valley entrance. The Shark Valley tram tour is a two-hour ride along a 15-mile loop through some of the best wildlife-spotting areas in the park, during which guides provide loads of valuable information on the unique ecosystem. The tram stops at the 45-foot-tall Shark Valley Observation Tower, which offers 20-mile views into the wilderness. You can also choose to bike or hike the loop as well-- bike rentals are offered for a reasonable price. Another great option is the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. It has the exhibits, gift shop, and informational videos we have come to expect from the NPS, as well as helpful rangers. There are trails not too far from here as well. The Royal Palm Visitor Center is four miles from Ernest Coe and is the starting point for several hikes. There's the popular Anhinga Trail, which offers tons of wildlife and interpretive signs on a 0.8-mile path, and the jungle-like, 0.4-mile Gumbo Limbo Trail. A bit further away from Ernest Coe (but still worth visiting) are the Pahayokee Overlook and the Mahogany Hammock Trail.
If alligators and butterflies don't do it for you, maybe you'll be interested in hunting for the Skunk Ape. Okay, so maybe the Skunk Ape is more of an urban legend... it's Florida's version of Bigfoot, said to be a giant beast who runs upright and is often accompanied by a terrible smell (hence the name). Sightings were common in the 1960s and 1970s, and although the NPS's official stance is that the Skunk Ape is a hoax (probably a misidentified black bear), the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters is still well worth a visit. It's a great photo op, with a hilarious gift shop. It also fronts a campground, a tour outfitter with rentals, and a mini zoo with a collection of snakes and gators. This is Florida kitsch at its finest.
Airboat tours are one of the most popular ways to explore deep into the Everglades. Down South Airboat Tours runs things a little differently. For starters, the planes are smaller, offering private rides. The captains know the freshwater, "river of grass" side of the Everglades like the backs of their hands, and each has their own route, so the experience is more personalized. Take the opportunity to have a knowledgeable and enthusiastic local run you out to their favorite spots in the park for stunning views, rich history, and incredible wildlife.
The Seminole tribe has lived in Florida for generations, and are an important part of the history of the Everglades. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum is located at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in the park, and is a must-visit for Everglades adventurers. In the Seminole language, "Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki" means "a place to learn" or "a place to remember," which is a perfect sentiment. That's because in addition to 180,000 unique artifacts and archival items, it's also a cultural center that's preserving the art, games, food, music, stories, and language of the Seminole. Exhibits display traditions and everyday life. Also make sure to check out the mile-long boardwalk through a 60-acre cypress grove; along this path is the Ceremonial Grounds and Living Village, where you can see Seminole artists creating and selling carvings, baskets, beadwork, and more.
In the heart of the Everglades is the lush and lovely Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. This hidden gem features two boardwalks (a longer 2.5-mile loop and a shorter one-mile loop) through pine flatwood, wet prairie, marsh, and the largest old-growth Bald Cypress forest on the continent. Though you might spot alligators, otters, white-tailed deer, and red-bellied turtles, this is an Audubon Sanctuary, so it's prime bird-watching territory. Look for eagles, herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills, hawks, ducks, and more. And if you're more interested in the botanical life of the swamp, the highlight will be the incredibly rare Super Ghost Orchid bloom, which usually happens toward the end of summer.
As you head west through the Everglades, you'll eventually reach the coast. Celebrate with a visit to the white sands of Clam Pass Beach Park near Naples. There's ample parking, and you can either take the convenient tram (if you're bringing along chairs and coolers) or stroll along the .75-mile boardwalk through mangrove stands to the sand. Amenities include showers to wash off sandy feet, life jacket and beach wheelchair rentals, free guided nature walks, and a restaurant with outdoor seating. The park itself is 35 acres, which includes a 3,200-foot stretch of seashell-studded white-sand beach. It's a popular point for ocean access, so get here early if you can.
Book a few nights at the Naples / Marco Island KOA Holiday to unwind after hiking and exploring in the Everglades. It's right along the Rookery Bay Research Reserve, and has fishing and a canoe trail along Henderson Creek you can access from a boat ramp at the campground. You can even rent a canoe from the General Store. Or, simply enjoy a dip in the pool or hot tub. Treat yourself to a few nights in a Deluxe Cabin, or keep it simple with a Camping Cabin or RV or tent site. Take some time to explore the local area, too; Naples Pier and Third Street South are worth checking out.
There are few places on Earth left that are like the Everglades. You won't have to travel far into its wilderness to get that rare feeling of being far from civilization. You'll get to see gators and manatees and other unique wildlife up close and in-person as you trek around one-of-a-kind landscapes, from swamps to mangrove hammocks and pine flats. Capping it all off with a day at the beach is the perfect end to an exciting adventure.
Banner Photo Credit: via Shutterstock
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