This Florida National Park Covers 1.5 Million Acres — and It's Best Explored by Boat

Here's everything you need to know before planning a trip to Everglades National Park.

<p>Visit Florida</p>

Visit Florida

Those who associate wide-open wilderness areas with the Western United States likely haven’t been to Everglades National Park. The Florida park stretches across 1.5 million acres and protects the largest designated wilderness area east of the Rocky Mountains. In the Everglades, alligators and crocodiles coexist (and are seen regularly), and the flora and fauna are so robust that this national park was the first set aside purely for its biodiversity.

“Everglades is not only a national park, but also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance, and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty,” explained Allyson Gantt, chief of communications and public affairs for Everglades National Park and Dry Tortugas National Park, in an interview with Travel + Leisure. "I love sharing the complexities and beauty of this park with visitors.”

Allyson Gantt has been a National Park Service ranger for over 25 years, currently serving as the chief of communications and public affairs for Everglades National Park and Dry Tortugas National Park.

Gantt knows first-hand what makes Everglades National Park a special place — along with the ins and outs of what first-timers should know and what not to miss.

<p>Stephanie Pollak/Travel + Leisure</p>

Stephanie Pollak/Travel + Leisure

Planning Your Visit

Everglades National Park is massive, so Gantt says it is vital to show up with a plan for what you will do and see. “Because of the geographic spread of the park, visitors may want to focus on one area if they only have a few hours or one day.”

The park is open year-round but offers two very different experiences based on when you visit. The dry season (December to April) is busier, with better weather, more wildlife, and fewer mosquitos, while the wet season (May to November) is quieter. Visitors can buy a park pass in person at the Homestead or Shark Valley entrances to the park or at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center at the Everglades City entrance. If you’re visiting during the busy dry season, especially on a weekend, buy your park pass online through to avoid waiting in long lines at the entrance gate. A pass for a single vehicle or vessel is $35 and is valid for seven days.

Even if you do buy a park pass in advance, the Homestead and Shark Valley entrances are notoriously congested with limited parking during the busy winter season. The park website says, “It is recommended to visit these areas on weekdays, arrive early in the day (before 10 a.m.), and carpool to the park if possible.”

How to Get There

Due to its size, Everglades National Park has three entrances in three different cities. A car is a must because the park has no public transportation and the three entrances are at least an hour from each other.

The southern section of the park is best accessed from the Homestead entrance, which is the park’s primary entrance. The Homestead entrance is outside Homestead, Florida and has the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and the Guy Bradley Visitor Center (at Flamingo). Homestead also provides access to the neighboring Royal Palm State Park.

The northern section of the park is best accessed from the Miami or Everglades City entrances. The closest entrance to Miami is Shark Valley, which has the Shark Valley Visitor Center. The entrance closest to Naples is the Everglades City entrance, which has the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.

<p>lucky-photographer/Getty Images</p>

lucky-photographer/Getty Images

Best Time to Visit

As we mentioned, there are two very distinct seasons in Everglades National Park: dry season and wet season. If you come between December and April, you’ll experience the dry season, which comes with cooler temperatures and fewer mosquitos. The dry season’s preferable climate aligns with the park’s busy season — and it's also when most of the wading birds (and their predators) can be seen.

The wet season in the Everglades typically runs from May to November, and it's rainy with lots of mosquitoes. The weather and bugs that come along with South Florida summers lead to fewer visitors — which can be a major plus.

“The wetter summer season offers incredible cloud formations and calmer waters for boating and fishing,” Gantt adds. “The shoulder seasons, especially November/early December and late April into May, can be less busy times to visit, but still have plenty of opportunities to enjoy all the park has to offer.”

Best Things to Do in Everglades National Park

It’s impossible to feel bored during a visit to Everglades National Park. The expansive park has more than its fair share of interesting ecosystems and wildlife. There are marine and estuary topographies, cypresses and mangroves. There’s a lot to see and do, but for a first-time visitor, Gantt has a few specific recommendations.

Drive the Homestead Entrance Road and hike.

“The Homestead entrance has a 38-mile road with multiple stops with short trails through a variety of the park habitats,” said Gantt, who notes that this is a good way to get acquainted with the southern section of the park.

She specifically recommended the Anhinga Trail, a short route that is wheelchair accessible and starts from the Royal Palm Visitor Center. Alligators, turtles, herons, and egrets are often seen along this trail.

Join a tram tour for wildlife sightings.

Near the Shark Valley entrance is a paved 15-mile loop that goes along the Shark River Slough, where alligators, turtles, and many bird species are often found. The trail is great for walking, but if you want to do the full 15 miles, your best bet is to rent a bike or hop on the tram — both of which are available through Shark Valley Tram Tours. There’s also an observation tower in the Shark Valley area with a viewing deck that overlooks alligators, turtles, fish, and birds.

Gantt notes that at this part of the park, “Visitation is higher and parking can be challenging on busy weekends and holidays.”

<p>Visit Florida</p>

Visit Florida

Take an airboat tour.

There are three airboat companies that operate in the park, and Gantt says cruising through the Everglades on a flat-bottomed boat is a must during your visit. The three operators with permission to operate in the park are Coopertown, Everglades Safari Park, and Gator Park.

Visit the mangroves and Florida Bay.

From the Homestead entrance you can get to the Flamingo area, which is considered the gateway to Florida Bay. The bay and the mangrove-lined waterways that feed into it are home to much of the park’s marine life.

“At Flamingo, we offer narrated boat tours through the mangroves and also on the open water of Florida Bay. There are several great trails in the area for paddling as well as the open area of Florida Bay. Manatees, crocodiles, and osprey are frequently seen around the marina,” said Gantt.

Beyond the marina, which has a small store and a gas station, the Flamingo area of the park has a campground and kayak, canoe, and bicycle rentals (through Flamingo Adventures).

Cruise through the Ten Thousand Islands along the Gulf.

If you want to play along the watery landscape of the Gulf Coast, head to the Everglades City entrance near Naples. This area is the gateway for expeditions to the Ten Thousand Islands, a maze of mangrove islands that are only accessible by boat. The Gulf Coast Visitor Center was destroyed by a hurricane in 2017 and is being rebuilt, but you can still book a boat tour to the Ten Thousand Islands with Everglades National Park Adventures. The two-hour tour takes place on a 49-passenger pontoon boat with a trained guide and occasionally an Everglades park ranger.

<p>Troy Harrison/Getty Images</p>

Troy Harrison/Getty Images

Must-see Wildlife and Natural Features

The Everglades is essentially a giant wetland that consists of sawgrass marshes, pine flatwoods, and coastal mangroves. The boggy wilderness is both beautiful and daunting, especially when you consider that it’s home to a huge number of animals, including the Florida panther, the West Indian manatee, and the endangered leatherback turtle.

But no creatures are as synonymous with the Everglades as the alligators and crocodiles. Gantt notes that “South Florida is the only place in the world where [alligators and crocodiles] coexist thanks to the combination of freshwater and saltwater areas.”

Beyond frequent sightings of the large reptiles, Gantt says the park has a huge number of birds, and it's “on the migratory path for a number of species, thus offering fantastic birding opportunities, especially in the winter.”

Animals aside, Everglades National Park has a large number of plants, trees, and landscapes, from coastal mangroves to hardwood forests. Remember, the park was originally protected because of its biodiversity, which is its biggest draw.

Where to Stay

Flamingo Lodge

There is only one hotel within Everglades National Park, and it just opened in late 2023. The Flamingo Lodge is located at the southernmost tip of the Florida peninsula and can be reached via the Homestead entrance. The lodge has 24 rooms including eight two-bedroom suites that can accommodate up to six people. The highlight of each room is the east-facing balcony that provides sunrise and sunset views over Florida Bay.

Flamingo Glamping Tents and Houseboats

Beyond the new Flamingo Lodge, the Flamingo area of the park has two “glamping” options — one on land and one on water. Visitors can rent one of the safari-style glamping tents, which have a fan and electricity. You will need to bring your own sleeping pad and bag.

For a unique lodging option, book one of the 42-foot houseboats, which have kitchens, bathrooms, linens, and air conditioning. The houseboats can sleep up to six people and can be taken out on the water.

Related: Best Places to Go Glamping in Florida

Long Pine Key and Flamingo Campgrounds

The only other in-park lodging options are the Long Pine Key and Flamingo campgrounds. Both campgrounds have RV and tent sites and can be driven to. The Long Pine Key Campground is the most accessible and is located near the Homestead entrance, while the Flamingo Campground is set deeper inside the park in the Flamingo area. Both campgrounds offer great stargazing and easy access to the Flamingo Marina, a popular launch site for fishing trips.

<p>Boogich/Getty Images</p>

Boogich/Getty Images

Where to Eat

The new Flamingo Restaurant is adjacent to the Flamingo Lodge and is the only full-service restaurant in the park.

“The new Flamingo Restaurant offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus a full-service bar,” said Gantt. “Anglers heading out on the water with a licensed fishing guide can also try the restaurant's Cook Your Catch offering, bringing back their fresh fish to be prepared by the restaurant.”

There are plenty of dining options in cities surrounding the park — Miami, Naples, and Homestead — but most visitors bring their own food and drinks into the park. There are picnic tables at Long Pine Key and Flamingo campgrounds.

For grab-and-go snacks and drinks, Gantt says you can find a limited selection at the park’s visitor centers (Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, Royal Palm Visitor Center, and Shark Valley Visitor Center) and at the Flamingo marina shop.

For more Travel & Leisure news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!

Read the original article on Travel & Leisure.