Five trips in 14 months has yet to abate my newfound passion for the Everglades. A native Floridian, I had zero curiosity until 2019 rolled to an end and I took my 97 year old mother to Chokoloskee, the last island connected to the southwest Florida mainland. We both fell in love. Went back solo in January. Pandemic canceled March. Solo in June. November with pod couple was buckets of fun until I fractured my kneecap (so grateful I wasn’t alone). Solo in April best yet. Since many have asked, here’s an Everglades Listicle. Valid until next trip.
Pay the Piper
Annual pass $55, seven-day $30. Buy online or at entrances and visitor centers.
In April 2021, I visited the east side of Everglades National Park (ENP) for the first time. Stayed at Tru by Hilton in Florida City/Homestead. Tru and its budget siblings are the closest commercial lodgings to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center at the entrance to the Park, about 20 minutes south and slightly west.
Adjacent to the hotels is Exit One Taproom, the southernmost purveyor of craft beer in the continental United States. Weekends bring food trucks, BBQ, DJs, and local hipsters. A half mile up Krome, the bartender at old-school Capri Restaurant hand-stuffed olives for my dirty martini and the filet melted under my fork. Best was homey Farmers Market Restaurant directly across the street. Perfect country ham breakfast yielded leftovers to add to the deconstructed BLT they made to my specs (toast and bacon, no mayo, lettuce and tomato wrapped separately). I mean, look at this tomato?
The route to ENP from Homestead winds through neighborhoods and active agricultural operations. Don’t doubt your GPS, tempting as that may be. On the way, stop at iconic fruit stand, Robert Is Here, where tourists and locals compete for Insta-ready produce, spices, sauces, exotic smoothies and decadent shakes.
At the tail end of the continental southeast coast of Florida lies the old settlement of Flamingo, hugging the edge of Florida Bay and marking the last evidence of civilization. Going the 55 mph speed limit from the ENP Coe entry to Flamingo takes about 45 minutes without any stops – so, forewarned.
From the Flamingo marina I took a Backcountry Boat Tour up the man-made Buttonwood Canal and into Whitewater Bay, the state’s second largest body of water. Saw crocodiles for the first time – lots of crocodiles. Noticed houseboats for rent. New 2022 bucket list item. Also at Flamingo:
* Art Deco visitor center under reconstruction after decades of poor funding and battering hurricanes;
* New eco lodge rising on Florida Bay that will have a very welcome restaurant;
* Collection of eco tents huddled on the barren coastal prairie;
* Primitive campground that looks to offer a bit of shade.
Fans of Carl Hiaasen, Randy Wayne Wright, Totch, and/or Peter Matthiessen will recognize Flamingo as the windy backdrop for Cape Sable tales. Flamingo tours and camping info here.
To and from Flamingo are numerous hikes, trails, and boardwalks. Unlike the west side, here almost all are paved or constructed of weatherproof materials, a bonus if you don’t want to break a kneecap or need to stretch a cranky recovering one.
Five different habitats exist between the entry and Flamingo. Turns out, the ENP map has a ton of encrypted information. Take the time to unlock. Note colors, labels, the embroidery of hammocks. Careful perusal deepens the experience. Stop at all turnoffs marked in pink on the map. Don’t be a snob. There’s a reason why effort was made for you to easily discover what lies beyond. Check mileage for unpaved options, gauge scenery, and proceed as inspired. People bring bikes and kayaks.
To reach west ENP from Homestead takes about an hour and a half on the Tamiami Trail (US 41) with no stops. Temptations on the Trail need days to explore, so pick what sounds vital.
Heading down from Tampa Bay, turn south off Interstate 75 (Alligator Alley) at Collier Boulevard/SR 84, the first exit. This leads directly to US 41/Tamiami Trail and the beginning of an ENP west adventure. I have a weakness for a shelling tour offered from the marina at tiny Goodland, Treasure Seekers Shell Tour. Shelling is strictly forbidden in ENP so these tours ply the islands south of Marco for a shell freak indulgence. Goodland’s Little Bar and Crabby Lady have yummy good seafood.
My home base for exploring ENP west, the Ten Thousand Islands, and Big Cypress National Preserve is either Everglades City or Chokoloskee. A house cat, I prefer a private litter box, a roof, hot water, and a bed not shared with “swamp angels,” as the old-timers called mosquitoes. Outdoor cats should check Collier-Seminole State Park, or the primitives and chickees offered in the ENP, or even the Skunk Ape Headquarters, which has pole boat tours, camping, and kitschy selfie props.
Everglades City is home to the Rod and Gun Club, worth the cash only splurge for lunch to spend time absorbing the lobby. Their rooms (cash only) are basic but perched on the Barron River. Lodging down here is not cheap, even for bare bones. I have also stayed at an Air B&B cottage on Chokoloskee which boasts a kitchen, hot water, A/C, and fat gumbo limbos studding the sloping front yard. Across the street, the Parkway Marina and Motel offers super groovy roadside basics.
Steps from both is the Smallwood Store, pivotal location in Matthiessen’s “Shadow Country” masterpiece. Another mandatory on a Ten Thousand Island visit, Smallwood’s is now a museum. Five dollars unlocks a piece of history frozen in time. Comprehensive catalog of books about southwest Florida, fiction and non, also for sale. Boat tours are $40 and led by captains who have been either fifth or sixth generation. Tours run “often” during season and “less often” off-season. Speaking of, season is generally mid-October through mid to late-April, the dry season. Of much more importance down here, this corresponds to the stone crab season.
Food Glorious Food
* Havana Cafe: Chokoloskee’s lone restaurant; excellent but closed mid-April through October. 9am to 4pm.
* Nely’s Corner: Superb cafe inside the coolest gas station/fishing store in town, Everglades Fishing Company (EFC). Nely’s is open every day in-season, 7am to 3pm; off-season, check days and go, go, go when open. They make a great deconstructed BLT too. Lunch food takes planning.
* Camellia Street Grill: Very popular for fresh seafood and salads; open until 9pm, which qualifies as midnight in these parts.
* Hole in the Wall pizza has good reviews; Right Choice grocery is adjacent. ATMs in grocery, EFC, and Circle K.
* Rod and Gun Club also serves dinner, cash only, arrive by 7pm.
* Triad Seafood has rave reviews; keep meaning to try.
* Joanie’s Blue Crab, just east of Carnestown (the traffic light) oozes old Florida biker charm. Crab cakes ooze over bun (very generous). Usually open until 8pm, days vary.
Nota bene: Beer and limited wine sold at Circle K, EFC, and Right Choice. Closest Publix is either Marco Island or Naples. Locals seem to favor Naples.
Walks, Drives, and Tours South of the Tamiami Trail
East on the Trail after exiting I-75:
Collier-Seminole State Park ($5) has the Bay City Walking Dredge, a hulking bug-like contraption used to build the Trail in the early 1920s. Good place to stretch legs as you take a minute to absorb the plaques. Feat of engineering? Definitely.
Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk is 8.5 miles further. Large sign on south side of Trail only clue, but don’t park here. Park only on north side and do not block the private home’s driveway. The short trail starts directly beyond the house fence and continues mostly on a boardwalk to a gator hole in the Fakahatchee Strand. Instructive plunge into this side’s bewitching beauty.
Another seven miles east is the lone traffic light at the intersection of SR 29 at Carnestown. Everglades City is five minutes south. The Gulf Coast visitor center for ENP is south of town, on the way to Chokoloskee and just beyond the airfield. Park concessionaire offers kayak and canoe rentals plus eco boat tours. Scout special ranger programs and if you see one you like, make reservations immediately because they fill fast. Still pouting about Dark Sky talk I missed because I waited too long.
Museum of the Everglades is free and charming, housed in what was once the town laundry. Doesn’t take long to visit but a good way to bone up on history or stay dry in the wet season.
Back on the Trail, the H. P. Williams Roadside Park, about seven miles east of the traffic light, has picnic tables beside a tiny boardwalk that always has alligators below. I stop every time I drive by; only takes a minute but why hurry?
This is also the beginning of the Turner River Loop Drive, detailed in the ENP link (download the Turner River/ Wagonwheel/ Birdon Roads Loop Drive PDF and print out – cell service is spotty *at best*). A spin near sunset affords spectacular skies, often a drama between fiery clouds and rising thunderheads bridged by rainbows. Not many cars, usually. I’ve seen marsh rabbits and herds of white-tailed deer in the native grasses that shelter wildflowers, dragonflies, birds, more birds, and raucous pig toads.
From H. P. Williams, continue east on the Trail another seven miles to reach Kirby Shorter with picnic tables shielded from sun, restrooms (all toilets in ENP are vault but facilities are clean and odorless), and a one mile boardwalk through dwarf cypress on the way to a tranquil gator hole deeper in the swamp.
Eight miles east of Kirby Shorter is the small but enchanting Clyde Butcher Gallery, his original and site of two vacation rentals. Pod couple and I stayed in November (fractured kneecap trip) in the two bedroom that was once the Butcher’s home. Gorgeous full frames line the walls and a wall of windows in the converted porch frames art below. Website (link above) has rental details. Butcher’s crew live in the compound but we found privacy. They crafted a perfect fire pit blaze for us, using damp wood, then melted away after it caught. We reveled in the luxury of total swamp isolation. Don’t even think about cell or internet but there is satellite TV.
The gallery is free with a small nature walk out back and a bustling gator and wading bird pond in front. Can’t wait to try one of their guided swamp walks next time, knee willing.
NB: Check Tamiami Trail for traffic congestion when you have cell service if managing travel time is important. As part of the comprehensive Everglades restoration project (CERP), miles of original roadbed on the eastern end of the Trail are being elevated to allow water to flow beneath. With only two lanes, delays can result. Minor inconvenience for a righteous cause.
Shark Valley & Loop Road
These important destinations get their own section. Both are mandatory, although I’ll understand if you feel timid about the Loop Road. Don’t be scared.
Let’s start with Shark Valley, consistently lauded as *the best* biking trail in Florida or the universe or whatever. By foot, bike, or tram, the journey is 15 flat, paved, shade-less, often windy miles through the Shark River Slough. Tram guides pack volumes into two hours. Buy tickets online since tours are popular and fill up, as does the rather small parking area.
Allow extra time to arrive, park, get oriented. Walk west from visitor center to the canal and start spotting wing-spread anhingas, fishing herons, prehistoric looking gar (aka, alligator fish), turtles, and who knows who.
Shark Valley is 45-ish minutes east of Everglades City and Carnestown without delays.
West of the Shark Valley entrance, at the point in the Trail called Big Bend, is the eastern access for the Loop Road (link to PDF at end of background info; same Loop Road PDF here; print out to take with). I prefer to start at this east end and work west to Monroe Station. The PDF assumes starting at Monroe Station but info is easy to use from either direction.
On the way, Pinecrest is the last vestige of civilization, a handful of compounds emitting vague menace but guaranteed to slow you to a crawl for a fraction of a mile.
Once on the Loop Road, the scenery is raw and the road wildly potholed. Essential to stop often and get out of the car. Have lunch, maybe. Listen. Look up, down, around. Take too many pictures. Repeat. Allow a minimum of two hours for this 27 mile adventure; in April, I spent four.
Important but less visited destinations await on the northern side of the Trail, within the Big Cypress Preserve. Legally, the Preserve designation loosens pesky national park restrictions banning recreational vehicles (airboats, ATVs, swamp buggies, etc); permits residential and agricultural uses; licenses hunting, fishing, and primitive camping; and thanks to Florida’s current governor, welcomes oil exploration. In the 1930s, Barron Collier and Humble Oil tried in vain (as you may learn at Shark Valley) and gave up, eventually, because a swamp is no place to drill for oil. Texas is easier and cheaper.
Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum: A generous hour from Everglades City, in the heart of the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation is the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. Follow on Facebook for virtual experience and make plans to visit when reopened. There’s a long boardwalk behind the facility that will soon double in size to better showcase their collection of historical treasures. Gambling revenues doing good.
Deep Lake: The deepest sinkhole lake south of Okeechobee (90′ on the sides) is imaginatively named Deep Lake. Print out PDF at end of the ENP link and read directions carefully. Located just less than nine miles north of Carnestown traffic light. Watch odometer. Park as instructed on east side of SR 29 and go through a heavy gate to reach the path. House cats should know you’ll have to heave a two-ton gate latch UP to release. It didn’t look logical. Be sure to secure anew. Hiaasen and Wayne Wright claim tarpon spawn here, 22 miles east of the Gulf, which means limestone tunnels still connect.
Deep Lake has a history stretching back to the Calusa. From the early 1900s, that past gets painful with prisoners worked to death and a prison camp once called Alcatraz of the Everglades. That facility is now a private gun club on the west side of SR 29. The staccato of ammunition rang when I parked but faded as towering palms and live oaks canopied the path. Remnants of Barron Collier’s jungle abode, where Ford, Edison, et al, hung out can be assumed if you follow clues in the PDF you printed out.
The lake felt like a locals-only fishing hole one peaceful, solitary mile from the road and the guns. Don’t rush. There aren’t many limestone outcroppings for sitting but if you wear muddy shoes or boots, you can explore either side. There were more alligators than I could count.
Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve: Florida’s largest and arguably least appreciated state park, Fakahatchee begs for attention. Logging took out the ancient trees but this is still the world’s largest wild royal palm and cypress forest. A gazillion orchids and other air plants flourish. Remember the “Orchid Thief?” Thieving action happened here. Fan of Carlton Ward and his Path of the Panther? Many of his cameras are set deep in the Fak. Pay the entry fee at the small visitor center hut; it’s honor system but throw in a few extra?
Proceed on Janes Drive for 11 slow, bumpy, untamed, unmanicured miles. At the end of the road, hike two miles down a tram path to another gator hole. Or not. I haven’t gone to the end because all of it twists my head around. Any experience of this place counts. Wear sturdy walking shoes. The path is rocky.
Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge: A moment north of the I-75 (Alligator Alley) overpass on SR 29 is the National Wildlife Refuge dedicated to the Florida panther, the official state animal and its most endangered species. Can’t figure out why the sign out front lists a specific ban on nudity. Outside the hammock, the terrain of scrub palmetto, cabbage palms, and slash pines is hardly conducive to frolics. Only the panthers get to streak, apparently.
The longer trail is about a mile and a half. Saw no panthers (or other people) but did watch a swallow-tail kite surf the currents for as long as the show lasted. Trail muddy in spots during wet season; boots might be advised.
Airboat in the Room
The absence of an airboat recommendation is not by accident. I’ve taken three different tours, one of those twice. It was on the last airboat adventure that I fractured my kneecap. The error was all mine. But after six weeks of immobilized reflection, I began to wonder if the operator (near the far east end of the Trail) might have been more attentive to preventative maintenance? Learn from my mistake: never leap – or even step – onto any wooden surface covered in black algae.
Next trip, I intend to try Tigertail Airboat Tours, located just west of Shark Valley. Reservations are mandatory and start with an email or a call. For a ride near Everglades City, look for an operator on the Trail.
Of Bugs and Souvenirs
Bugs. Specifically, the dreaded mosquitos. Not sure what to report. I had a cloud of mosquitos fly into my mouth while dining outside in January. It was so bad I had to leave behind some delicious fried oysters. The next night, same cafe, nary a one.
For the June trip, I bought a mosquito hat with zip-down netting and a guerilla war bug shirt with mesh inserts and a complicated hood. I’ve used neither.
Take bug sprays and carry some with you. When the clouds come, they descend. But don’t let imagined fear keep you from exploring.
Souvenirs deserve a mention for travelers who like to document with trinkets (ahem). Most ENP visitor centers provide area-specific education displays and sell slightly different T-shirts, magnets, and stickers. Books, flora and fauna guides, toys usually available too. Clean bathrooms, drinks and snacks from machines. Same for Big Cypress Welcome Center a few minutes east of Carnestown.
So, when do you leave?
Thanks for following, intrepid adventurers. Now, go.