This year is a very exciting year for the National Park Service as it celebrates 100 years. We will highlight five different NPS sites that are each uniquely different and provide visitors with a variety of opportunities to explore the United States and both its history and natural features. Typically when you imagine the National Parks you probably think of places like Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, or Glacier National Park, which offer scenic views of mountains and a plethora of hiking, but the National Park Service is so much more.
Day 1: Everglades National Park
To start off our National Park week we are highlighting a very unique park that is unlike anywhere else in the world, Everglades National Park. The park encompasses the southern portion of Florida and is an ecosystem made up of slow moving water flowing to the Florida coast and the surrounding areas, all of which are filled with an abundance of wildlife. The Greater Everglades stretch south from Lake Okeechobee; unfortunately, the Miami metropolitan area and development around southern Florida have shrunk the Everglades, and the area preserved by the National Park System is only a fraction of the Greater Everglades. The Everglades have continued to fight an uphill battle for survival for years, and visitors who experience the beautiful scenery of the Everglades will understand why it is a place worth saving.
The main feature of the Everglades is a 100 mile long and 60 mile wide slow-moving river that runs from Lake Okeechobee south to the Florida Coast. The small area of the Greater Everglades preserved by the National Park System consists of Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park. Big Cypress National Preserve, just north of Everglades National Park, preserves several of the ecosystems that make up the Greater Everglades such as prairies, hardwood hammocks, pinelands, and, as the name of the park indicates, the cypress swamp. Everglades National Park encompasses only the southern tip of Florida, but still contains many of the different ecosystems that make up the Greater Everglades.
A visit to Everglades National Park is an exploration of these different ecosystems-visitors will slowly wind their way from the prairies and pinelands of the northern part of the park to the mangroves along the coast and then to the Florida Bay and its key islands. Visitors may begin their adventure at Shark Valley, which gives them a glimpse of the Shark River Slough, a part of the slow-moving river. Visitors drive south to explore more of the Slough, but they also get the opportunity to explore different ecosystems. The Long Pine Key Trail allows visitors to see the pinelands. Various pull-outs along the park road show visitors the marl prairie, another, shallower, aspect of the river as opposed to the deeper water of the slough, as well as hardwood hammocks, places of various sizes in the river where silt builds up and creates “islands” within the river full of plant life.
As visitors drive further south, they are able to look at the mangrove trees along the coast in the brackish waters, the places where fresh and salt water mix, as well as coastal prairies, areas along the Florida Bay where mangroves don’t grow. Visitors can also look at the many keys, most of which are also full of mangrove trees, that fill the Florida Bay. If visitors want to get out of their car, they can take a boat ride into the Florida Bay to explore the many keys or further inland to see the mangroves and coastal marshes from a different perspective.
The Everglades have minimal hiking trails since the park is largely marshland and rivers, although visitors are able to hike into the river. The Everglades do have plenty of opportunities for canoeing, something that we were unable to do on our visit but would love to attempt in the future. The Everglades also have abundant wildlife, and many of the animals found in the Everglades are unique to south Florida. We saw plenty of birds, both alligators and crocodiles (the Everglades is the only place in the world where both are found), and manatees. Be warned, however, that another element to the wildlife in the Everglades is mosquitoes. During the wet season the mosquitoes are unbearable, but even during the dry season visitors should be aware of the problems they may cause. We camped at the southern tip of the park and ended up with dozens of bites. This shouldn’t dissuade you from visiting-just be prepared.
The Everglades is unlike any other place in the world, and a visit to the park is a fascinating and worthwhile experience. By following the park road and hiking the trails along it, visitors are given a kind of tour of the different elements that make up the Greater Everglades ecosystem. Each element is interesting on its own, but understanding the way each element works together lends visitors a greater appreciation for the uniqueness that is the Everglades. Since the Everglades are such a special place, it is, of course, a park unlike any other. As such, it’s a must visit to all those who enjoy the natural world.