Why The Everglades Owns My Heart
The low horizon spreads as far as I can see. A light taste of salt tinges my lips and a brutal sun heats my back. As I stand at Pa-hay-okee Overlook, the wind ripples across a vast river of yellow-and-green sawgrass. There's a white ibis standing by a cypress tree, water droplets cascading off its coral-colored beak. When I go south to Florida Bay, a gray manatee swims the shallows. I see the slippery silver of a just-caught trout as it flips back into the turquoise waters. I have returned, once again, to The Everglades.
One of the best places to see the marsh's scope is the Pa-hay-okee Overlook (12 miles from the entrance near Homestead, pictured).
As a travel writer for this magazine, I've spent 15 years traveling the South, from Delaware to Texas and especially Florida. There's nowhere that leaves me awestruck the way this exotic place does. This spongy, flat land holds a world of mysterious beauty--panthers and alligators and ghost orchids and 350 bird species, including the white ibis (pictured). It's a national treasure, one of the South's last wild places. Here are the five things that keep me coming back, year after year, and how to best explore the real Everglades. Visit just once, and you'll discover your own reasons to return.
The Abundant Plant Life
Jason Sine, a fishing guide with Everglades Area Tours, once told me that if I got lost in The Everglades and starved to death, he'd come to my funeral just to laugh. "This place is full of food and shelter," he said. The perfect example: the sabal palm (pictured). Florida's state tree grows on hardwood forest tree islands throughout The Everglades. Its core forms the smooth hearts of palm dished up in salads all over Miami. The Everglades' Seminole residents use the entire tree for sustenance: The fronds make great roofs and the strings on the fronds can be used in sewing.
The Marvelous Birds
One February, near the Flamingo Visitor Center, I stumbled onto a flock of white pelicans. With saucer-sized feet and 9-foot wing spans, they looked clumsy, but they flew like acrobats. Later I saw thousands more birds--roseate spoonbills, anhingas, tri-colored herons, egrets--by Paurotis Pond's banks. More than 350 species live in The Everglades, and that afternoon it seemed as though they'd all settled here. Against the backdrop of green mangroves, they looked like bright Christmas tree ornaments, glistening in late afternoon sunlight.
The Rarest of Cats
To me, panthers are almost as elusive and mythical as unicorns. That's in part because there are fewer than 100 of the animals still living here. Last year, I set out with a guide in search of one. The hackles on my neck rose at every owl hoot and shrub rustling I heard. But no panthers. I saw them in my dreams that night, and I still do.
The Lazing Gator Crowds
One of my favorite places to spot alligators is the Anhinga Trail. As I walked along its pathway one winter's day, I spied dozens of the fiercely beautiful creatures lying atop one another, sunbathing lazily. Contrary to what most people think, they're usually docile and wary of humans--you don't need to worry about being chased. If one does chase you, just remember that although they can move 20 mph, they don't zigzag well.
The Water, Everywhere
I feel most immersed in The Everglades when paddling a kayak. My favorite spot is Hells Bay Canoe Trail. It winds through a maze of mangrove tunnels and links up with the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway. I once spent the night here in a sleeping bag atop a raised wooden platform called a chickee. When the sun went down, The Everglades began its serenade: a mosquito buzzing by my ear; the incessant chirping of tree frogs; a splash; a rustle; the hoot of a night owl. I was only 45 minutes from South Beach, but this was the wildest nightlife I'd ever known.
Much of The Everglades is a freshwater prairie. Starting in Lake Okeechobee, it becomes a shallow, 60-mile-wide stream that stretches 100 miles to the sea.
Editor's Trip Planner
How to Explore the Real Everglades
Canoe and kayak rentals at Flamingo Marina, near the Flamingo Visitor Center at the southern point of the 38-mile park road, give you an opportunity to paddle around (there's also a boat ramp for your own craft).
The National Park Service leads free 2.5-hour canoe trips on Nine Mile Pond (pictured). (Make reservations at the Flamingo Visitor Center.) More adventuresome paddlers can set out through mangrove tunnels on the Hells Bay Canoe Trail for an all-day shady tour. And expedition-level paddlers embrace the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway from Everglades City to Flamingo.
My Favorite Birding Spots
- The Anhinga Trail (1 mile from the Homestead entrance, pictured)
- Paurotis Pond (14 miles from Flamingo)
- Anywhere in the Ten Thousand Islands.
Where to Spot Alligators
Best Places to See Alligators:
- Anhinga Trail
- The Loop Road
Southern Paradise in Peril
Two-thirds of the original Everglades are gone, thanks to a century of development that interrupted the flow of fresh water.
Originally, The Everglades spanned the lower third of the Florida peninsula. Today, most of that land houses cities and agricultural areas, leaving only the national park, the adjacent Big Cypress National Preserve, and other refuges for the wild.
How to Help
Levees and canals rob the land of essential water. "We get plenty of rain, but we don't store the water," says Linda Friar, a park ranger. "Ninety-five percent of rainwater that gets into the canals makes it to the ocean in less than 24 hours." The water that does enter these protected areas is often compromised with pollutants.