Everglades National Park is one of the world's most complex ecosystems, a seemingly endless swamp of still water, saw grass, junglelike hammocks (masses of vegetation that look like islands), mangrove forests, and thick black muck. The park serves as one of the last refuges for the Florida panther, which is among the most critically endangered mammals on the planet.
Although it may seem incongruous, the Everglades also support a small population of black bear. Fauna that visitors more commonly see includes white-tailed deer, raccoons, herons, egrets, and bald eagles.
Of course, visitors are always on the lookout for the awesome American Crocodile in Florida Bay. How to be sure it's a crocodile and not the more common alligator? Its bottom teeth will be visible even when its mouth is closed.
When you see a crocodile surging through the turgid waters of a mangrove swamp, its tapered snout sprouting enormous fangs and its great knobby back looking like some kind of moving island, fascination almost overcomes your fear. These great reptiles are unchallenged sovereigns in their wetland domain. When a crocodile wants its progress unimpeded by other animals, or the few brave people who dare venture into its territory deep within the swamps, it gives the water a loud, angry whack with its tail. The message is clear: Everyone and everything had best scurry for cover.
Exploring the Everglades
Despite the fact that this imposing wetland seems to go on forever, with only isolated patches of dry land, there are a number of ways to penetrate and explore the Everglades.
In addition to boats and canoes, the park also has a number of nature trails that lead into the heart of this wilderness. Gumbo-Limbo Trail is one of the quickest ways to explore the rich terrain of the park. This third-of-a-mile-long loop winds through mango trees and ends at a junglelike hammock. The little raised island of tropical hardwood trees (including several stunning strangler figs) seems to float above a spectacular sea of saw grass inhabited by flocks of herons and egrets.
The hammock's slight elevation above the surrounding water supports a startling array of life, including foxes, raccoons, snakes, deer, and birds. There are also solution holes here. These depressions in the limestone bedrock hold moisture during the dry season and become habitats for many kinds of insects and birds. As these solution holes fill with organic material, such as bird droppings, they become tiny ecosystems and may eventually become hammocks themselves.
The best time to visit the park is mid-December through mid-April when the bugs are less prevalent. At that time of the year, people can escape the crowds by boating on the interior backwaters or by kayaking among the coastal islands.
Everglades National Park Photo Opportunities
Unlike many of the national parks, the Everglades does not contain any must-see monuments, such as a striking canyon or a towering mountain. Instead, the swamps and hammocks are the show -- and they provide wonderful photo opportunities. Bring your camera to these sites, which are known for their abundant wildlife:
- Paurotis Pond: In the winter, Paurotis Pond is a great place to look for woodstorks, roseate spoonbills, and other indigenous wading birds. The roseate spoonbill looks like a flamingo, but its sputulate bill distinguishes it from the flamingo's hooked beak. An endangered species, the wood stork can be identified by its black-tipped wings contrasting with its white plumage on the body. Both birds' unique and colorful traits provide beautiful photo material.
©2006 National Park Services
The diverse bird species populating the Everglades
make for plentiful photo opportunities.
- 9 Mile Pond: By canoe or kayak, paddle along this marked trail, where you're likely to observe alligators, wading birds, and sometimes even crocodiles.
- Gumbo-Limbo Trail: From the Royal Palm Visitor Center, follow Gumbo-Limbo Trail into the hammock ecosystem. You're likely to spy some interesting creatures here -- perhaps a raccoon or fox will stop moving long enough for a shot, or maybe one of the dozens of snake varieties will slither across the path.
The vast wilderness known as the Everglades delights visitors with its unusually rich vegetation and stunning bird and animal life. However, the ecosystems that make up this region are extremely fragile and are imminently threatened by pollution and the diversion of fresh water. To learn about the dangers threatening to irrevocably damage this valuable park, go to the next page.