Although it doesn't receive as many visitors as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, some observers believe the Florida Everglades National Park is equal if not better than the others in terms of overall enjoyment, especially if you're into observing nature: There are no fewer than 67 endangered or threatened species in its midst.
"There are a lot of different ways to experience the Everglades, depending on how high- or low-impact, how civilized or wilderness the experience that you want," says Vivian Miller, director of education and outreach with the Everglades Foundation.
The most direct way to get to the Everglades main gate from the Tampa Bay area is hopping onto Alligator Alley, which can be accessed by taking I-75 to Naples. However, some say the more scenic drive is to cut south on Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) when hitting Naples. Several main entrances access the park, which is 100 miles long and 60 miles wide.
Shark Valley. From this entrance you can take a two-hour tram tour through the northern region of the park, with a stop to enjoy the spectacular view from a 45-foot observation tower. If you want to explore the park at your own pace, bring a bicycle to the 15-mile loop or rent one for $7.50 on a first-come, first-served basis. Shark Valley Visitor Center is located on U.S. 41 (Tamiami Trail/SW Eighth St.) 25 miles west of the Florida Turnpike, exit 25A (from the north). From the Naples area, take U.S. 41 (Tamiami Trail) approximately 70 miles east to Shark Valley.
Everglades City/Gulf Coast Visitor Center. This entrance offers the best access to the 10,000 Islands, a maze of mangrove islands and waterways that extends to Flamingo and Florida Bay. Rent a canoe or kayak, or go on a guided two-hour boat tour to explore the Big Cypress National Preserve as well as the Everglades. Inhabitants include manatees, dolphins, bald eagles, and roseate spoonbills. 5 miles south of U.S. 41 (Tamiami Trail) on State Road 29, in Everglades City. From Interstate 75 (Alligator Alley), take exit 80 (State Road 29) south and proceed 20 miles to Everglades City. Once in Everglades City, follow the signs to the park. The visitor center is on the right.
Flamingo/Florida City. Here you'll find 234 drive-in camping sites (55 with a view of the water), three walk-up group sites on the water's edge, and 40 walk-up sites (nine on the water's edge). There are also cold-water showers, two dump stations, picnic tables, grills, and an amphitheater for winter programs. Take Florida Turnpike (Route 821) south until it ends, merging with U.S. 1 at Florida City. Turn right at the first traffic light onto Palm Drive (SR 9336/SW 344th St.) and follow the signs to the park. The Flamingo Visitor Center lies roughly 38 miles south of the park entrance.
Entry Fees: Private vehicle $10, pedestrian/cyclist $5, good for seven consecutive days at all entrances to the park. Individuals 16 years old and younger are admitted free of charge. Everglades National Park Annual Pass, $25. Valid for 12 months from date of purchase, for unlimited visits to the park. For more information, go to www.everglades.national-park.com/visit.htm. And remember, if you do dare to explore the Everglades in the summer, beware of mosquitoes.