Home » National Parks » Exploring Everglades National Park the Fascinating River of Grass

Everglades National Park-River of Grass, as they often call it, derives from the Seminole Indian word “Okeechobee,” meaning “River of Grass. Only in Florida can you find this unique ecosystem. The rain waters drain south through the Kissimmee River system into Lake Okeechobee. The discharges from the lake slowly move through the 60-miles of Sawgrass prairie, finally ending the journey in the Florida Bay estuary. This natural filtration system is crucial for the survival of many native species of animals and plants.

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Everglades National Park-River of Grass
Everglades National Park-River of Grass

Table of Contents

About The River of Grass: Everglades National Park

The ecosystems contained within the Everglades comprise coastal mangroves, Sawgrass marshes, and Pine Flatwoods. The life-giving waters, however, are in peril. Most people who visit the 1.5 million acre park only see the Sawgrass prairie. However, you must look deeper to see that the waters are integral to the survival of the Everglades. Human activity is the single most threat to the survival of the Park.

 "The Everglades is a test. If we pass it, we may get to keep the planet."  Marjory Stoneman Douglas

The Everglades is fed by a slow-moving, shallow river system that flows southward from Lake Okeechobee, covering an area of approximately 4,000 square miles. This continuous sheet of water, often only a few inches deep, flows gently over the limestone bedrock, creating a unique and fragile ecosystem.

American Alligator
American Alligator

Created by Congress in 1934, dedicating it in 1946. To save this ecosystem, they created the park. The park is home to 36 threatened or endangered species such as the Florida Panther, the American Crocodile and West Indian Manatees. This park is unique, unlike any other National Park. Everglades National Park is internationally recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a Wetland of International Importance, and an International Biosphere Reserve. It is a globally significant ecosystem that plays a crucial role in maintaining biodiversity and providing habitat for many plant and animal species.

Everglades National Park-Sign
Everglades National Park-Sign

How Much is it to Get Into the Park?

The entrance fee for a private vehicle (including all occupants) was $30. This fee allowed entry for seven consecutive days. The entrance fee for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists (per person) was $15. This fee also allowed entry for seven consecutive days. or those planning to visit Everglades National Park multiple times within a year, an annual pass was available for $55. This pass provided unlimited entry to the park for one year from the date of purchase.

TIP: If you are planning on visiting over one national park, we recommend purchasing the Annual Pass ($80). It is well worth the price! We purchase our pass every year; the fees support the parks.

It’s worth considering that the National Park Service offers fee-free days on certain occasions, such as National Public Lands Day and Veterans Day, where entrance fees are waived. Taking advantage of these fee-free days can provide an opportunity to explore Everglades National Park without incurring the usual entrance fees.

What to see in the Everglades National Park-Where do I Start?

The Everglades is characterized by its vast expanse of sawgrass marshes, shallow freshwater sloughs, mangrove forests, cypress swamps, and interconnected waterways. The Shark Valley landscape appears as a seemingly endless grassy plain, earning it the nickname “River of Grass.”

This is an amazing place with so much to offer. A good starting point for any visitor to the Everglades is one of the Visitor Centers. The park visitor centers are open 365 days a year (including Christmas Day) from 9:00 AM 5:00 PM. There are four visitor centers in the park, two in the Northern section and two in the Southern section. Click here for the map.

Shark Valley Visitor Center
Shark Valley Visitor Center

Getting to Shark Valley Everglades National Park

From Miami – Starting at the junction of SR 997 (Krome Ave) and US Hwy 41 (Tamiami Trail) west of Miami, drive 18 miles on the (US Hwy 41) to the Miccosukee Reservation. The park entrance for the Shark Valley Visitor Center is on the south side of the highway.

From Everglades City – Take the US Hwy 41 (Tamiami Trail) east of Everglades City-Naples. Shark Valley is 45-miles through the Big Cypress National Preserve. The park entrance for the Shark Valley Visitor Center is on the south side of the highway.

Shark Valley Tower Trail Pond reflection

Shark Valley Visitor Center – Everglades Northern Entrance

We visited on Christmas Day, and the crowds seemed to overwhelm the center. By lunch, there was minimal parking. On Christmas Day, we had to park on the shoulder of the busy Tamiami Highway-US 41. At Shark Valley, timing is key. Arrive early to avoid parking problems. At 10:30 am cars were already turning around and parking on the highway.

TIP: The park gate closes at 5 PM. You can park outside and hike the loop trail in relative peace after hours.

Big Cypress Anhinga
Everglades National Park Anhinga

Shark Valley Guided Tram Tours of the River of Grass

The primary draw for tourists to Shark Valley is the tram tour through the “River of Grass.” On our first trip to Shark Valley, we walked the entire loop. As you traverse the trail, we kept an eye out for alligators, turtles, wading birds, and other unique species that call the Everglades home. It was grueling, but we were much younger, and it was an adventure.

TIP: Purchase your tickets for the two-hour tour Shark Valley Tram Tour Company in advance online.

If you prefer a guided experience, you can join a tram tour that takes you along the Shark Valley Loop Trail. These narrated tours provide insights into the park’s ecology, wildlife, and cultural history. Tram tours are available for purchase at the Shark Valley Visitor Center, and they operate at scheduled times throughout the day.

shark-valley-observation-tower-Everglades National Park
shark-valley-observation-tower-Everglades National Park

Shark Valley Observation Tower

Today we took the tram. It was too just too hot to walk. The tram is ideal to view wildlife of Shark Slough, and to learn important facts about the Everglades. Our adventure began on the paved, meandering road built around 1960. The second half of the ride is on an oil company-built road from the 1940s that is nearly perfectly straight. The guide frequently stops for pictures as the tram travels the 15 miles out before stopping at the 65-foot tower for 20-30 minutes.

Shark Valley Tower
Shark Valley Tower

Our guide explained that the dominant plant species in the Everglades is sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense), a tall, sharp-edged grass that grows in dense stands. These sawgrass marshes are the defining feature of the Everglades landscape and give it the appearance of a “river” of grass.

Shark Valley Tower Panorama-River of Grass
Shark Valley Tower Panorama-River of Grass

At the halfway point of the park,Climbing the tower offers a bird’s-eye perspective of the Everglades and is an excellent spot for birdwatching and photography. Climbing the tower provided us with panoramic 360-degree views of the saw grass prairie and hardwood islands. Throughout the tour, our guide talked about the diverse array of plant and animal species. Pointing out the many environmental features along the way while answering any of our questions.

Biking at Shark Valley-Everglades National Park
Biking at Shark Valley-Everglades National Park

Biking the Shark Valley Loop

Alternatively, consider renting a bike pedaling the tramroad to the observation center. The paved surface of the Shark Valley Loop Trail makes it a favored destination for bicyclists. You can bring your own bike or rent one from the Shark Valley Visitor Center. Biking the trail allows you to cover more ground and explore the Everglades at your own pace. The trail is easy to traverse as it is a flat, paved trail. I would recommend booking the tram prior to your visit if you are traveling during the peak season.

Shark Valley Tram Cars
Shark Valley Tram

The Shark Visitor Center

All the visitor centers in the park have water stations for refillable water bottles. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, polarized sunglasseswell-fitting hiking shoes, and always bring your camera along. Most important have sunscreen even in winter. The Florida sun can be brutal. You will require Mosquito repellent in the warmer months.

The educational displays inside the center provide insight into the intricacies within the various Everglades habitats. Watch the short video detailing the importance of water in this ecosystem. The center has restrooms, and the gift shop sells refreshments and shirts and other souvenirs.

Boardwalk  and sign at the Bobcat Trail in Shark Valley
Bobcat Boardwalk, Shark Valley Everglades

What Trails are at Shark Valley?

There are two accessible walking trails close to the visitor center. The Bobcat trail & Otter Cave Trail.

Short but Sweet the Bobcat Boardwalk Trail

Directly behind the visitor center off the paved tram road you will find the Bob Cat Trail. Positioned beside the tram road, this is a short 0.4-mile self-guided walking trail. A tropical hardwood hammock and a saw grass prairie are visible from the boardwalk. The trail is a good way to pass the time while waiting for your tram. In the spring, you can see nesting wading birds along the boardwalk.

Gator resting along the Otter trail in the vegetation
Snoozing Gator

Shark Valley: Otter Cave Hammock Trail

Just a 6-mile walk from the visitor’s center is the Otter Cave Hammock Trail. The 0.1-mile trail loops through tropical hardwoods forest. This mostly limestone trail crosses a small stream that occasionally floods the footbridges during the wet season. The rangers in the visitor center can advise you on current trail conditions.

The most exciting part of getting to the trail is walking along the canal next to the paved road. The canal is just teaming with wildlife. We saw a small clutch of baby gators only a few days old. Lots of wading birds, too many to mention. Thankfully, we had ample opportunity to take great photos.

REMINDER – Always keep a safe distance 15-20 feet when viewing wildlife and do not harass or feed wildlife. We observed many people taking risks with alligators taking pictures way too close.

Mangrove Islands-Gulf Islands VC
Mangrove Islands-Gulf Islands Visitor Center

Gulf Coast Visitor Center-Northern Entrance (Everglades City)

The Gulf Coast Visitor Center is near Everglades City on Chokoloskee Bay. The Visitor Center is a gateway to the park’s western section, including the Ten Thousand Islands area. This area is home to a maze of mangrove islands and channels that extend along the coast to Flamingo. A unique perspective than other visitor centers. Currently, they are housing the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in a temporary trailer. Here, you can arrange boat tours, kayak rentals, and guided excursions to explore the scenic waterways, mangrove forests, and coastal habitats.

How Wide is Your Wingspan display Everglades City Visitor Center
What’s Your Wingspan? Everglades City Visitor Center

Hurricane Irma destroyed the original Visitor Center in 2017, and Hurricane Ian impacted it again in 2022. There are restrooms, picnic tables, superb views of the bay, and welcoming knowledgeable park staff. The rangers deliver informational brochures and backcountry permits for those wishing to camp. The rangers can offer advice on an approved concessionaire for boat tours, canoe rentals, or other activities. There are a few interactive educational displays comparing various animal bones.

Ernest Coe Visitor Center
Ernest Coe Visitor Center

Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center-Southern Entrance (Homestead)

The Ernest Coe Visitor Center is at the main entrance to Homestead, on the road to Flamingo. Amenities at this center include a large array of educational displays and a gift store. The informational center provides maps and in the theater the 20-minute video can be viewed. The interactive displays help educate visitors on the entire Everglades ecosystem providing the “Big Picture”. It is worth checking out the few hiking trails and boardwalk near the pond. A verandah provides a kind of solace: sitting in the wooden rocking chairs just enjoys the view. There is an excellent selection of souvenir items in this gift store.

American Crocodile-Everglades National Park
American Crocodile-Everglades National Park Image: NPS

Everglades Flamingo Visitor Center-Southern Entrance

The Flamingo Visitor Center sustained heavy damage during Hurricane Irma in 2017. They house the current Visitor Center in a trailer. The old center is being repaired, however, because of a lack of federal funding it may be awhile. The visitor center has educational displays and informational brochures. They post ranger-led tours daily on the board inside. Park rangers and volunteers are available to answer questions, provide maps, and offer guidance on activities, trails, and points of interest.

Red-tailed hawk on a park sign
Red-tailed hawk at the visitor center in Flamingo

The park office issues backcountry permits 24 hrs a day. The rangers can provide the visitor with information on hiking trail conditions, weather advisories, and excursions. Plenty of parking, restrooms, and a small gift and a food truck. In the parking lot, we watched an osprey feeding her hatchlings. There is plenty of wildlife to see here, even crocodiles sunning themselves in the marina.

Great Blue Heron-Everglades
Great Blue Heron-Everglades

What Things to do in the Everglades National Park

The Everglades National Park offers a wide range of activities and attractions that cater to various interests. Here are some of the top things to do in the Everglades:

1. Take an Airboat Tour

Embarking on an airboat tour is a thrilling way to experience the Everglades. There is no other experience where you can glide across the water, cutting through the river of grass, feeling the wind on your face. Airboat tours can get you closer to alligators, birds, and other wildlife. Most tours offer knowledgeable guides that know the backcountry, giving you ample opportunities to photograph the wildlife.

Everglades City Airboat Tour
Everglades City Airboat Tour

They offer professional airboat tours by three authorized airboat businesses. All three CoopertownEverglades Safari Park, and Gator Park are along the Tamiami Trail between Miami and Shark Valley. Airboat tours offer an exclusive experience for the visitor. Tours can range from 1 to 5 hrs, and the cost varies depending on the type of tour. Private tours being the most expensive.

Kayak Everglades
Kayak Everglades

2. Canoe/Kayak Eco Tour the River of Grass

If you truly want to experience the solitude in the park, try the Wilderness Waterway. The 99-mile trek traverses through the park, taking 7-10 days to complete. If this adventure is not for you, there are many other shorter waterways you can trek and still find that solitude. Approved to provide tours in the park-see permitted vendors. Renting a canoe or kayak provides an opportunity for self-guided exploration of the park’s waterways. In Flamingo, you can also explore the nearby Florida Bay by kayak or canoe, or simply relax and enjoy the picturesque waterfront. We highly recommend the Nine Mile Pond Canoe Trail, which allows visitors to navigate through scenic areas and observe wildlife at their own pace.

Everglades Angler Fishing the Canals
Everglades Canal Fishing

3. Fishing in the Everglades National Park

There are many opportunities to fish either freshwater or saltwater in the park. Before you fish, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the fishing regulations and license requirements. The Everglades National Park follows Florida state fishing regulations, and a valid Florida Fishing license is required for anglers aged 16 and older. There may be specific rules regarding bag limits, size restrictions, and seasonal closures for certain species, so it’s essential to check the latest fishing regulations to ensure compliance. Check with the ranger for fishing regulations or closed zones.

The freshwater fishing in the Everglades primarily centers around its numerous rivers, canals, and freshwater marshes. Common freshwater fish species include largemouth bass, bluegill, black crappie, and various species of catfish. Anglers can fish from the shore or bring their own boats or canoes to explore the waterways. It’s important to note that some areas may have motor restrictions or require permits for certain activities. December is prime time for bass fishing. When we were there, many fish species were spawning. We watched, saw some male Bass guarding beds, and some actively courting.

Everglades  Bass Fishing
Everglades Bass Fishing

Hiring a guide for saltwater fishing is best at any time of the year. Navigating the many waterways in the park can be difficult. Storms and hurricanes often damaged many of the navigation markers. For those wishing to fish freshwater, there is limited shoreline. Having a boat or hiring a guide is best. A fishing regulations pdf is available at this link: click here.

Saltwater Fishery In Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park encompasses a significant portion of Florida Bay, offering excellent opportunities for saltwater fishing. Anglers can target a wide range of species, including snook, redfish, spotted seatrout, tarpon, and various types of snapper and grouper. You can fish from the shore, wade in shallow waters, or utilize a boat. It’s worth noting that certain areas within the park, particularly those designated as marine reserves or protected zones, may have specific fishing restrictions or closures.

Flamingo Adventures boat Tour Everglades
Flamingo Adventures boat Tour Everglades

4. Scenic Boat Tours of the Backcountry or Florida Bay

Flamingo Boat Tours, the southern part of the park, serves as a hub for various boat tours. These tours typically explore the mangrove forests, coastal areas, and Florida Bay. They offer opportunities to spot manatees, dolphins, a variety of bird species, and other marine life. Some tours also include stops at remote islands for beachcombing and snorkeling.

5. Hiking and Nature Trails in Everglades National Park

The Everglades provide a variety of hiking trails suitable for different fitness levels. From short boardwalk trails like the Anhinga Trail and the Gumbo Limbo Trail to longer trails like the Shark Valley Loop or the Coastal Prairie Trail, there are options for everyone to experience the park’s diverse landscapes.

Hammock Trail Collier-Seminole State Park

Where to Camping in the Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park offers plenty of camping opportunities. Long Pine Key and Flamingo both have campgrounds for RV or tent campers. A picnic table and fire ring are available at each campground site. Mosquitos are problematic during the year to bring DEET repellent!

Long Pine Campground
Long Pine Campground

Long Pine Key Campground Nestled in the River of Grass

The campgrounds are approximately 6-miles from the Ernest Coe Visitor Center. These sites are large with paved pads for RVs and grassy area for tent both surrounded by dense foliage. They allow you to make reservations online or by phone, (1-855-708-2077) for one of the 108 sites. The campground offers both tent and RV camping sites. The sites are spacious and well-spaced, providing a sense of privacy. Each site has a picnic table, grill, and access to shared restrooms with flushing toilets and running water. However, there are no electrical hookups available at the campground. The restrooms are clean, with lukewarm running water for showers. There was also a ranger-led evening program at the amphitheater that was interesting.

NOTE: There are no hookups for RVs.

Long Pine Key Campground provides access to various outdoor activities in Everglades National Park. There are hiking trails nearby, such as the Long Pine Key Nature Trail and the nearby Pineland Trail, which offer opportunities to observe wildlife and explore the park’s ecosystems. Bicycles are also allowed on some of the park’s roads, providing an alternative way to explore.

Travel Trailer at Loop T-Campsite 34-Flamingo Campground Everglades
Flamingo Campsites

Stay at the Flamingo Campground in Everglades National Park

The Campground is located 38 miles from the southern entrance to Everglades National Park, near the Flamingo Visitor Center. It offers convenient access to various trails, waterways, and attractions within the park. : Flamingo Campground offers both tent and RV camping sites.The tent sites are typically more secluded, surrounded by vegetation, and offer a more rustic camping experience.

The sites are essentially an open grassy field. Clean restrooms, a bathhouse and showers with HOT showers are in the tent areacourtesy of the newly installed solar panels. RV sites had electrical outlets available, but no water hookups. Water fill up is beside the dump station, restrooms. The campground is close-proximity to the marina, store and visitor center. A new park concessioner is now accepting reservations online at Flamingo Adventures, or by calling 855-708-2207.

River of Grass Blue Heron
River of Grass Blue Heron

Camping at Flamingo Campground opens up a world of outdoor activities. You can explore various hiking trails, such as the Coastal Prairie Trail and the Eco Pond Trail, to discover the park’s unique flora and fauna. Be prepared for the subtropical climate, pack insect repellent, and follow park guidelines to ensure a safe and enjoyable camping experience at Flamingo Campground.

NOTE: Be forewarned, there is NO cell phone service or gasoline!!! Bring all the supplies for your trip with you. There are minimal services available.

Eco Tent Village-Flamingo
Eco Tent Village-Flamingo

Unique Eco-Tent Camping in Everglades National Park

Eco-tent camping is a sustainable and environmentally friendly way to experience the outdoors while minimizing your impact on the environment. New to the Campground are Eco-tents. Most people would refer to these as “glamping.” Canvas-sided Eco-tents are set on platforms. Equipped with a comfortable bed, a fan, electrical power outlets and lighting. A raised boardwalk connects each Eco-tent, each offering a wonderful view of Florida Bay. Most disappointing was the lack of food preparation. Here you can either eat at the marina, or use the grills and tables in the common camping area. The store is not cheap, but I can see how they would appeal to some campers.

Mangroves on Florida Bay Trails
Mangroves Reflected in the Waters

Everglades National Park also allows backcountry camping for those seeking a more remote and immersive experience. Permits are required, and campers must follow specific guidelines and Leave No Trace principles. The park offers designated camping zones accessible by canoe, kayak, or on foot, providing opportunities to explore and camp in more secluded areas. Within the park’s backcountry, there are unique camping structures called chickees. These elevated platforms with roofs are located along waterways, providing a rustic camping experience. Visit the backcountry website for proper planning.

Note: In early 2023, the new lodging accommodations are scheduled to open in Flamingo.

Everglades National Park Sign
Everglades National Park

Other Lodging Available: Everglades National Park the River of Grass

A few years back when we first visited Flamingo, I remember there was a hotel with cabins. After Hurricane Wilma in 2005, it was closed. However, there are abundant accommodations in nearby Homestead or Florida City. Staying here provides easy access to Everglades, Key Biscayne, and the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas National Park. In addition to camping options within Everglades National Park, there are various lodging options are available in the surrounding areas. Here are a few alternatives for lodging near the Everglades:

Everglades Sunset-
Everglades Sunset-

Best Western Gateway (Homestead)

Homestead and Florida City, on the northeastern edge of Everglades National Park, offer a range of lodging choices, including hotels, motels, and vacation rentals. These towns serve as convenient bases for exploring both the national park and the nearby Biscayne National Park.

We opted to stay at the Best Western Gateway to the Florida Keys, only 10-miles from Everglades National Park. The room was clean and spacious, with a table and two chairs, sofa, coffeemaker, refrigerator and microwave. Our breakfast was the best. A serving hot scrambled eggs and bacon, toast, waffles, yogurt, fruit, cereal, bagels, and assorted pastries. Fresh coffee is always available. The staff is very helpful, and the pool is inviting.

This hotel is close to many restaurants. For us, being Christmas Day, the only open restaurant was Ihop. The food and service were amazing, considering the number of customers coming and going.

Sunrise in the Everglades
Sunrise in the Everglades

Everglades City Motel – Everglades Adventures Inn

Many vacation rental properties can be found in the towns and cities surrounding the Everglades, such as Naples, Homestead, and Everglades City. Platforms like Airbnb and VRBO list a range of vacation homes, condos, and apartments that provide a home-like experience during your visit.

Spotless, but the room was small. While the exterior looks like a standard old building, our newly renovated motel room was much more upscale than we expected. Furnishings were minimal however, the plush bedding and new bathroom shower were very large with soft plush towels. Nothing fancy. We found the walls to be paper thin. There is a refrigerator, microwave, and a coffeemaker. Next door is the Island Cafe restaurant, and a short distance past that is a gas station with a small general store. For this reason, they met our expectations. If I were to return to the area, I would gladly stay there again.

Everglades - Royal Palm Waterway
Everglades – Royal Palm

Make Time for Robert is Here Fruit Stand

One of the most famous places, a must-do is a stop at Robert is here-Fruit Stand. Not your ordinary fruit stand for sure. We always make time to stop in for their smoothies. They are absolutely amazing. They are just so delicious. Each is fresh made from a variety of fresh fruit choices. For the kids, let them visit and feed the animals in the back petting zoo. We always sit and watch the interactions while enjoying our smoothies. They sell top produce, sandwiches, assorted jellies, sauces and other specialties. This place is iconic, not a tourist trap but an institution, so make the stop!

Robert is Here fruit stand
Robert is Here Fruit Stand-Best Smoothies ever!

Planning Resources Everglades National Park Area

Tidal Flats of Florida Bay along the Guy Bradley Trail-Flamingo Everglades
Guy Bradley Trail-Flamingo Everglades

Final Thoughts-Exploring Everglades National Park the Fascinating River of Grass

The Everglades is a delicate ecosystem that relies on a delicate balance of water flow and natural processes. It faces many challenges, including habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, and water management issues. Exploring the park reinforces the importance of conservation efforts and the need to protect this unique landscape for future generations.

Long Pine Key Sunset
Long Pine Key Sunset Courtesy: Eric Harris

One cannot ignore the sense of peace that washes over you when exploring the Everglades. Far away from the hustle and bustle of urban life. It’s a natural sanctuary offering up a chance to reconnect with nature and find solace in its serene beauty. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Everglades. We normally visit the Glades frequently. The sight of a gator never disappoints. I must say, exploring the “River of Grass” is a a fascinating experience.

Have you journeyed to the River of Grass? Tell us about your adventure in the Everglades. Share in the comments below.