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How to do a self guided Everglades tour

How to do a self guided Everglades tour

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Are you travelling to Florida and planning on visiting Everglades National Park? If not, I’d highly recommend you look at adding the Everglades to your Florida travel itinerary! It was one of our favourite days from our whole three months of driving across the USA we saw SO many animals in the Everglades and you should make sure you visit Everglades National Park while in Southern Florida.

Before we started our USA road trip I thought the best way to see the Everglades National Park, Florida was to take one of the airboats in the Everglades. However, when I started researching companies to do this with I quickly went off the idea. Instead, we opted to plan our own, self-guided tour of the Everglades that involved driving through the Everglades and stopping off where we wanted. I truly believe it’s the best Everglades tour you can do and this post will show you exactly how to do it!

Travelling to Everglades National Park Florida and looking for things to do? Here's how to do a self guided tour of the Florida Everglades without an everglades airboat tour but still see lots of alligators! #floridatravel #evergladesnationalpark #usatravel

About Florida Everglades National Park

Are you wondering just “what are the Everglades?” You’ve probably heard of them but aren’t quite sure what they look like in practice. Well, the Everglades is a huge area of land in south Florida. In fact, it’s the third-largest park in the US just behind Death Valley and Yellowstone.

The ecosystem in the Everglades is wetland which means this area is inundated by water either permanently or seasonally. In the case of the Everglades, it’s more seasonally and the Everglades has a dry season and a wet season.

There’s an amazing amount of wildlife in the Everglades National Park. We were both blown away by the number of alligators, birds and turtles we saw. This wildlife is why the Everglades was designated a National Park. In fact, it was the first National Park created to protect wildlife rather than geographic features.

The Everglades also borders with Big Cypress National Preserve which is actually the area we preferred as we saw the most impressive sites! Therefore this guide to the Everglades also includes things to do in Big Cypress National Preserve.

Where are the Everglades located?

The Everglades National Park is in southern Florida. There are four Everglades National Park entrances with Everglades Visitor Centres.

There’s the Gulf Coast Visitor Centre in the east, Shark Valley visitor centre to the west,  Ernest F. Coe visitor centre and Flamingo visitor centre in the south.

We drove to the Everglades from the small town of Naples in southwestern Florida and stopped at the Shark Valley visitors centre.

Best time to visit Everglades National Park

The dry season in the Everglades lasts from November to March and wet season from April to November.

We visited towards the very end of dry season and noticed that a lot of the pools were dried up. The dry season is considered to be the busy season because of the warm winters. During these months you’ll see the largest variety of wading birds and their predators as the animals tend to congregate in the small pools of water that remain. This creates prime animal watching spots for you!

In the wet season, there are a lot more bugs and the National Park doesn’t run its ranger programmes.

For these reasons I’d recommend visiting during dry season where you can make the most of ranger programmes and are more likely to see a wider variety of wildlife.

We did our driving tour of the Everglades early in the morning when the temperatures were cooler, the wildlife was out before it retreats to sleep during the day, and there were fewer people about too.

Entrance fees for the Everglades National Park

To enter the Everglades National Park costs $30 per vehicle and lasts for 7 days. Pedestrians and cyclists cost $15. You can buy your pass online or at one of the Entrance stations in Homestead and Shark Valley.

However, the best deal especially if you’re visiting several American National Parks or are doing a USA road trip, is to get the America is Beautiful National Parks Pass for just $80. This lasts a year and will save you so much money on a road trip!

Getting to the Everglades National Park from Miami

Most of you will probably be visiting the Everglades from Miami as it’s the largest city in the area and a popular tourist destination. Wondering “how far are the Everglades from Miami?” Well, the Shark Valley Visitor Centre is just over 41 miles away from downtown Miami and it takes about an hour to drive there on the US-41 W.

Why not to take airboat rides in the Everglades

Originally I’d planned on going boating in the Everglades and taking an Everglades National Park airboat tour. But, when I started looking into them and reading reviews I very quickly went off the idea.

I read a lot about Florida Everglades tours before our trip and time and time again I saw that airboat tours in the Everglades seemed to be far from eco-friendly.

Many of the reviews mentioned that guides fed the alligators and other wildlife sweets and food to attract them closer to the boat. Some said that the boat rides in the Everglades seemed downright dangerous and others mentioned that Everglades National Park boat tour companies tended to have “sanctuaries” attached where animals were kept in tiny cages. I also don’t think holding a baby alligator should be the highlight of a responsible airboat tour in the Everglades.

Sure, it’s up to you at the end of the day but I’d recommend seeking a more eco-friendly tour such as a kayaking tour with Shurr Adventures and Jenny’s Eco Everglades Wilderness Tours or following this self-guided tour of the Everglades itinerary.

Animals from the Everglades

driving everglades national park florida

You won’t believe your eyes when you step foot in the Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve! There are so many different types of birds of the Everglades alongside endangered species in the Everglades too.

If you were wondering “are there crocodiles in the Everglades?” the answer is yes, there are crocodiles in the Everglades! They’re smaller than the alligators and are usually less aggressive but can pose danger!

Some more common animals of the Everglades are

  • American Alligator
  • American Crocodile
  • Manatee (threatened but not endangered since 2017 – sometimes injured by airboats)
  • Bottlenose dolphin

Endangered species of the Everglades

  • Florida Panther – perhaps the most endangered animals of the Everglades
  • Wood Stork

Birds of the Everglades

There are over 360 different species of birds in the Everglades. They can usually be categorised into the following groups: wading birds, land birds, and birds of prey. Some of the birds in the Everglades you’ll see include egrets, herons and eagles.

Where to stay in the Everglades

If you’re coming from Miami then it’s probably worthwhile staying in Miami and travelling out for your Everglades trip.  The following are all west of downtown Miami which makes them closest to Everglades National Park. They’re also budget-friendly and highly rated.

Things to do in the Everglades National Park

self guided everglades tour

Add these Big Cypress and Everglades attractions to your itinerary for driving through the Everglades. You do all these stops on an Everglades day trip, just get up early to make the most of your day. I’d also recommend packing a picnic as there aren’t many places to grab food along hwy 41 as your driving through the Everglades.

This probably ended up being the best way to see the Everglades as it turned out. We saw so much wildlife on our self guided Everglades tour, could stop when we wanted to and it was free.

If you want to do the same, here is the route we took going from west to east. You could do this self-guided Everglades tour the other way round too, of course, if you’re coming from Miami.

Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk

Technically this one isn’t actually inside the Everglades National Park but it’s a must do for your what to do in the Everglades list!

We came from the town of Naples on Florida’s west coast and this was our first (and favourite) stop of the day. We easily could have spent all day watching the wildlife here!

This trail, like many Everglades trails, involves a boardwalk. The boardwalk takes you into the wetlands where you’ll likely see alligators, crocodiles turtles and so many species of birds.

We saw owls, great egrets, alligators and their babies, fish and lizards all within 10 minutes. It was incredible!

Smallest Post Office in North America

Jump out of the car for a quick visit to America’s (and maybe the world’s) smallest post office. This isn’t just a picture opportunity, but actually a fully working post office. Buy a stamp as a reminder of your trip or as a unique souvenir.

Note: The post office closes for a few hours over lunch so go before 11 am, or after 2 pm if you want to pop inside.

Skunk Ape Headquarters

I’m adding this to the list as I think if the man behind the idea for this stop is there you’ll have a pretty enjoyable visit. When we visited there wasn’t really anyone on hand to talk about the myth (or truth!) of the Skunk Ape – a kind of swamp version of Big Foot.

It’s worth having a stroll around the shop and flicking through books about Skunk Ape whatever you think.

H. P. Williams Roadside Park

This is another great place to stop off at during your self guided Everglades tour. It’s right off the road and there’s a short boardwalk along the river which is teeming with alligators.

There are plenty of picnic benches too if you’re feeling hungry!

Kirby Storter Roadside Park

Another great place to stop is Kirby Storter Roadside Park. The boardwalk here is longer (1 mile) through the Cypress trees towards a small pond where you’ll likely see gators (or at least their tracks!).

Miccosukee Indian Village

If you want to add some culture and history to your Everglades activities, then stop off at Miccosukee Indian Village.

Sure, it’s pretty touristy but you’ll still learn about the Miccosukee tribe (the original inhabitants of these parts). Just skip the alligator show.

A map for your driving tour of the Everglades

Check out this Florida Everglades map to see the suggested stops on your self-guided Everglades driving tour. This self-driving tour of the Everglades takes you along Hwy 41 avoiding the infamous “alligator alley” in the Everglades to the north.

Additional things to do in the Florida Everglades

If you’re looking for more Everglades National Park things to do then check out the following ideas for your Everglades vacation.

everglades national park

Drive the scenic Loop Road in the Everglades

The scenic Loop Road takes you into some of the more remote areas of the Everglades National Park. It’s not a paved road so bear in mind you’ll probably one a 4×4 or at least a vehicle with high clearance.

You should also take into consideration that the cypress swamp you drive through on the Loop Road is flooded in the summer wet season (May – October).

See a full route description here.

Other eco tours in the Everglades

If you are still keen to do a tour in the Everglades here are some Everglades National Park tours I recommend that don’t include airboat rides and animals shows. I’d highly recommend the tours which involve kayaking/canoeing in the Everglades

Other things to consider when visiting the Everglades

  • Take food and plenty of water. It’s hot and there are very limited places to stock up on food. Most roadside stops have a water fountain though.
  • Take sunscreen.
  • Respect the wildlife. Alligators are dangerous when threatened. Stick to the paths and don’t get too close.
  • Take all your rubbish with you. Leave no trace.
  • Go early. This way you avoid the crowds and are likely to see more wildlife. During the heat of the day, they tend to hide away.

USA National Parks - Enjoy the Best Things to Do in 48 Hours

Monday 29th of April 2019

[…] a tour in the Everglades it’s easy, and arguably more fun, to plan a self-guided tour to the Everglades. This gives you the chance to watch the wildlife at your own pace and stop where ever you like […]

Chloe - New Girl in Toon

Friday 14th of April 2017

We've just got back from Miami and did an Everglades tour without reading up on it first. OMG some of it was awful - there was a show after where a guy handled the alligators who were kept in cages and you could have your photo taken with a baby croc for $3 ... I felt so so uncomfortable about the whole thing but looking round no one else seemed to care. I'll be doing a blog post and will definitely link your article as an alternative others should do!

Hannah

Sunday 16th of April 2017

Hey Chloe,

I'm even more glad I skipped the tour now! I would've felt really awkward too. We were chatting to some people on the trails we walked along and they all seemed super happy they got to stroke a baby crocodile but that's totally not for me. Thanks for sharing it and hope you had a fab time in Miami!