Parenting: Traveling with Kids - Everglades

It's a Murphy kid aboard for the Mangrove Wilderness Tour in Everglades National Park.

David Murphy says a visit to the Everglades can make a family vacation to Florida extra-memorable.
July 20, 2011 6:45:59 AM PDT
Most Florida family vacations begin and end at Disney, or maybe the beach. But a few hours south of Orlando and Clearwater lies a National Park and Wilderness Area loaded with special memories-in-the-making. Everglades National Park offers unique wildlife and activities you won't see anywhere else, and can be visited easily by car from any of the three main entry-points to South Florida (Tampa, Orlando, and Miami).

There are two approaches, depending on where you decide to start. Driving south from Tampa and sticking to the main highways, a couple of hours will get you there. It's even less from Miami. There are multiple visitor centers which offer varying programs, including guided tours by either tram, boat, or boardwalk, along with that staple of the Park Service experience, ranger presentations. The National Park Service has an Everglades NP Website that details all of the activities and helps you plan your visit.

Everglades City

We drove into the park from the west side last summer and took state road 29 to Everglades City and the Gulf Coast Visitors Center, which is basically a small building and a boat dock, since the presentations here are almost all from the water. Various tours are offered, including the 10,000 Islands tour aboard large pontoon watercraft. But the tour we took, the Mangrove Wilderness Tour, was a little harder to reserve since there's only room for six people per tour in the small motorboat. The smaller craft navigates the backwaters of the Everglades and eventually takes you inside a mangrove swamp. Along the way, you get an up-close view of herons, egrets, and many of the other 350 varieties of waterfowl and other bird life, all pointed out by your ranger pilot. On our tour, we also followed a dolphin through one of the channels, and spotted a red raccoon while visiting an old Indian shell mound. We missed the manatees, but those are also sometimes sighted. The tour gives you a clear sense of the history of the place, the various people who have settled here over time, and the delicate nature of this vast but fragile ecosystem. Plus, it's just cool speeding along the water through the s-shaped channels and pulling in for a slow-motor through one of the tiny creeks that wind their way back into the tree-shrouded swamp. The boat tours should be reserved in advance online through this link, which also includes information on boat rentals and other activities.

Don't be disappointed if you miss-out on alligators during these intimate water tours; there'll be plenty of other locations where you can see those enormous beasts in their natural environment. We visited in March, when the gators tend to be located farther north.

Big Cypress

Back up on the main road (Route 41), we headed east into the adjacent Big Cypress National Preserve (which is technically not part of Everglades National Park, but may as well be since the scenery is similar and you still have those handy Park Rangers at various locations to enhance your visit). On a tip from a fellow traveler, we pulled in at H.P. Williams Roadside Park, a turn-off that includes a wide, gravel road adjacent to a creek loaded with gators. Near the entrance, a ranger helped us spy large turtles and a mammoth, black snake that was coiled up in a tree just below a convenient boardwalk. We also hit the Oasis Visitor Center which featured a good 20-minute film that got us out of the sun and filled us in on more Everglades-area history, both natural and human. There is a scenic loop-road in this vicinity for more alligator and egret spying. A little farther east, you find the the Shark Valley Visitor Center where boardwalk trails and a tram tour are located. The tram takes you to an observation tower for an aerial view of the marsh.

TV shows and movies set in the Everglades often include large fan boats that shoot across the reeded surface of the marshes. We thought about reserving this activity in advance, but opted out because of time considerations. Had we changed our minds once in the park, it wouldn't have mattered. There are numerous private outfits that offer this service at multiple locations along Route 41. In March, at least, it looked like they had plenty of boats and plenty of room for last-minute customers. In any event, you can easily research fan boat availability online before you go, through a general web search.

Homestead Approach

On the eastern approach to the Everglades from Homestead, Florida, you find the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, which is a gateway to a scenic drive and several overlooks and hiking trails. Since the Everglades area is flat, there are no steep hills to negotiate, but it's hot there most of the year and this should be taken into consideration before any hike is undertaken. At the far end of the scenic drive, you'll find more civilization in the form of another Visitor Center (Flamingo). Additional boat tours are available here, as well as kayak and canoe rentals. Information on all the visitor centers and their related activities is available here.

Part of the fun of visiting the Everglades is the trip to and from. I would highly recommend spending a night in Naples, Florida on the western, Gulf Coast side of the park before entering or after leaving. It's a beautiful little town with a great, upscale main drag filled with fun restaurants, some of which (like the Irish Pub we chose) are not all that expensive. Be sure to drive toward the coast and check out all the amazing houses and mansions near the oceanfront! North of Naples is Sanibel Island, purportedly home to some of the best shelling anywhere. Head for a public beach and join the hundreds of others doing the "Sanibel Squat", as they look to add to their collection! Farther north is Clearwater Beach and Tampa. On the east side, Miami and thumping South Beach are a short drive north. Key West is several hours south. Also nearby (in case you haven't had enough of boats) is Biscayne National Park, which is largely an ocean reserve, most of which is only accessible by tour boat, or scuba.

---David Murphy

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