The Ten Thousand Islands are a chain of islands and mangrove islets that stretch from Everglades City to Flamingo at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. The northern area is part of the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge; the southern part lies in the Everglades National Park. Ten Thousand Islands is a misnomer—the islands actually only number in the hundreds—but semantics aside, the area embodies the serenity and complexity of the Everglades. The islands are mostly uninhabited now, but evidence of Native American inhabitants can be found underwater and on some of the islands.
The best way to see the area is by boat, either on a guided tour or by canoe. There are guided eco tours led by naturalists or you can rent a kayak or a canoe and strike out on your own. The 99-mile (159 km) long Wilderness Waterway is the longest canoe trail in the area, but there are shorter trails near Flamingo if you’re looking for an easier paddle.
Tucked away in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, Marco Island is, in many ways, the ideal island escape. Remote yet full of amenities, the area includes sprawling white sand beaches and great water for swimming, while also sitting close enough to the Everglades National Park to support the amazing wildlife.
The Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is just a mile or two away and includes impressive nature hikes that could include glimpses of native bald eagles, falcons and kestrels. Rest and relaxation can be found at Marco Island while scavenging the beach for seashells, taking an Everglades tour by boat, buggy or on foot, or by simply dangling your toes in the warm gulf water.
Big Cypress National Preserve, a 720,000-acre (2,900 sq. km) area, was one of the first national preserves in the United States when it was established in 1974. Not technically part of the Everglades, but bordering it to the south, Big Cypress preserve is the most biologically diverse region of the terrestrial Everglades. Composed primarily of a wet cypress forest, it is home to a wide array of flora and fauna including mangroves, orchids, alligators, venomous snakes, a variety of birds, the Florida panther and the Florida Black Bear. The preserve is also home to several endangered species such as the West Indian Manatee, the eastern indigo snake and the Florida Sandhill Crane.
With twelve campgrounds, some of the area’s best hikes and a long-established hunting scene (white-tailed deer, hogs and turkeys are abundant), Big Cypress provides plenty of opportunities to explore the outdoors.
Located in heart of what many call the ‘true Everglades,’ a river of grass that stretches 100 miles (161 km) from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico, Shark Valley is part of a unique freshwater ecosystem that is home to a wide variety of wildlife. There are several ways to explore this area, either on your own or with a guided tour.
The Tram Road, a 15-mile (24 km) round-trip, is flat and paved, perfect for walking or bicycling; it’s possible you’ll see alligators, deer, turtles and several types of birds while traversing this road. The Bobcat Boardwalk, which meanders through the tropical hardwood forest, is accessible from the Tram Road, as is the Otter Cave Hammock Trail. An observation tower, located halfway along the Tram Road, provides an aerial perspective to the sawgrass marsh. Bicycling the loop is another popular option, which takes between two to three hours; bikes are available for rental from the visitor center if you don’t have your own.
Loop Road is a scenic one-lane road that provides a two-hour detour from the Tamiami Trail, taking travelers through picturesque cypress marshes along a primitive road. This 25-mile stretch through Big Cypress National Preserve is rich with history and wildlife and folklore, a sort of Wild West of Florida for those who eschewed civilization well into the 1950s and 60s. Fact: Al Capone had a hunting lodge here during the Depression.
The eastern end of Loop Road is paved, with the pavement ending at the Loop Road Environmental Education, run by the National Park, where you can walk the Tree Snail Hammock Nature Trail or stop for a picnic. After this point, the road turns into gravel, but it has been recently upgraded, making it easier on cars than it has been in the past. There are several hikes on the Loop in addition to the Tree Snail Hammock Trail for folks wanting to stretch their legs, as well as a few campsites.
Located on Florida’s southernmost Gulf Coast, Chokoloskee Bay is about ten miles (16 km) long and two miles (3 km) wide and is separated from the Gulf of Mexico by the northern end of the Ten Thousand Islands. A popular destination for fishermen and water sports enthusiasts, the waters of Chokoloskee Bay offer a vast assortment of saltwater fish such as grouper, flounder and red fish for anglers. The sheltered mangrove islands of Ten Thousand Islands offer plenty of areas for kayakers to explore.
In the heart of Chokoloskee Bay is Chokoloskee Island, a small area that is considered the last great frontier in the Everglades. Settled by Native Americans two thousand years ago, modern settlement began in 1874. If you visit the island, check out the Historic Smallwood Store, which is housed in Ted Smallwood’s general store. Now a museum, it’s on the National Registry of Historic Places and is an authentic glimpse into the colorful—and sometimes bloody—history of this region.
When the Tamiami Trail was constructed in 1928, it was considered a feat of engineering, becoming the only route from Tampa to Miami at that time. A two-lane road that stretched 264 miles (it’s last part of U.S. Highway 41 from State Road 60 in Tampa to U.S. Route 1 in Miami, the Tamiami Trail took 13 years, cost $8 million and used 2.6 million sticks of dynamite in its construction.
The problem of the Tamiami Trail is exactly what made it so attractive in the first place: it traverses the Everglades. The Trail effectively created a dam that blocked the water flow of the Everglades, drastically changing the ecology of the area. In order to restore the River of Grass, the Tamiami Trail must be changed. Construction of a one-mile bridge is scheduled to be complete in December 2013; plans are being evaluated for an additional series of bridges or elevations of the Tamiami Trail to facilitate additional water flow, which is critical to the recovery of the Everglades.
The first opportunity for information and assistance when you arrive in Everglades National Park, the Ernest Coe Visitor Center is worth a stop when visiting the park. With educational exhibitions and plenty of maps, the Ernest Coe Visitor Center is the perfect place to get an overview of the extensive offerings in the Everglades. Be sure to stay for a showing of River of Life, a 15-minute film that provides an excellent park overview. The Coe Visitor Center also provides information on park ranger-led activities (mostly talks and some walks) as well as details about boat tours and canoe rentals.
A self-guided trail that showcases a hardwood hammock ecosystem, the Gumbo Limbo Trail is accessible from the Royal Palm Visitor Center. At approximately .4 miles (.64 km), the Gumbo Limbo Trail is a short stroll, but grants a glimpse into a very distinct eco system of the Everglades.
Illustrating how a few inches of elevation can create a whole new world, the Gumbo Limbo Trail wanders through a hardwood hammock ecosystem, notably different from the saw grass prairie that can be seen on the neighboring Anhinga Trail. While the saw grass prairie disappears underwater each year, the hardwood hammock is a tree island in a sea of grass, allowing tropical flora to flourish, including palms, strangler figs and the trail’s namesake, the Gumbo Limbo tree. Also called the Tourist Tree (the red, flaky bark can resemble a tourist’s sunburn), the Gumbo Limbo has been utilized for centuries.
The original site of the village of Flamingo, the Flamingo Visitor Center is located at the Everglades National Park’s southern entrance, about 38 miles from the main entrance. What was once a robust center has deteriorated in the past years due to hurricane damage.
The marina at Flamingo is popular with boaters and offers limited services including a marina shop, rentals for water activities such as canoes, kayaks and skiffs as well as fuel. Guided boat tours (the only boat tours allowed inside the park) depart approximately every 30 minutes from Flamingo, offering fully narrated tours by national park-trained naturalists. Opportunities for camping are plentiful and houseboats are available for rent.
To get an up close and personal view of wildlife in the Everglades, particularly the bird life, the Anhinga Trail is one of the premier wetland trail in the National Park Service. A self-guided walk of about .8 miles (1200 meters) round trip, the trail is easily completed in about 45 minutes. The paved boardwalk curves through Taylor Slough, one of the few waterways that retain water year-round, making it particularly attractive to a variety of wildlife.
The saw-grass marsh is teeming with an abundance of Everglades residents, including alligators, turtles, anhingas (a type of water bird found in the Everglades; the name means snake bird or devil bird), herons, cormorants, egrets and many other birds. Because the boardwalk allows visitors to wander among the wildlife, it consequently makes the animals and birds less afraid of humans, allowing closer viewing of alligators, anhingas and other native species.
If you have only an hour to stop and visit in the Everglades, the Royal Palm Visitor Center is the ideal location to stop, stretch your legs and get your bearings. Royal Palm State Park originally started as Paradise Key but was set aside as a state park to avoid development in 1916. After several years and almost double the acreage being donated (bringing the grand total to 4,000 acres, Royal Palm was dedicated as a state park in 1921.
As an access point to two of the most popular trails in the Everglades, the Anhinga Trail and the Gumbo Limbo Trail, a visit to the Royal Palm Visitor Center allows guests to experience two distinct ecosystems of the Everglades, the saw grass marsh prairie on the Anhinga and the hardwood hammock on the Gumbo Limbo, in a short amount of time. Strolling along either of these trails will allow visitors to see a variety of wildlife including alligators and, at the right time of year, nesting anhingas.