Across more than 1.5 million acres across South Florida sprawls Everglades National Park, a wonderland of marshland, sawgrass and mangroves.

Such a vast place can intimidate first-timers, and it’s hard to know where to begin. As you plan, remember that how you explore the Everglades makes all the difference. You can hike, airboat, canoe, kayak or even travel by tram here, with each experience presenting visitors with a different impression.

Which is yours? From strolling on a boardwalk above gator-filled waters to embarking on a backcountry camping adventure, here are the best things to do in Everglades National Park.

1. Feel the distinct vibes of all four of the park’s entrances 

There are four entrances in total to the park, and each provides access to distinct terrains. To make the most of an Everglades trip, you should try to visit them all. Approximately 40 miles west of Miami, the Shark Valley Visitor Center is home to the famous 15-mile paved Tram Rd, a haven for bike rides, walks and (yes) tram rides; you’ll usually find alligators lounging by the side of the road. The Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City is a hub for boating excursions, providing the perfect seaside jumping-off point for exploring the Ten Thousand Islands, a wildlife refuge for thousands of water birds.

Homestead is home to two visitor centers. Royal Palm Visitor Center provides access to a number of shorter hiking trails (all under a mile), ranging from strolls under canopy trees to walks on boardwalks over the marshland. The Flamingo Visitor Center is approximately 40 miles south of Royal Palm – it’s a gateway to the mangrove-draped Florida Bay, canoe trails and the 275-pitch Flamingo Campground.

A girl sits in a hammock suspended on a small wooden platform out in a body of water.
Hire a canoe and camp for the evening on a chickee, an above-water wooden platform © Matt A. Claiborne / Shutterstock

2. Camp on a chickee 

What is a chickee, you ask? In Everglades-speak, it’s a wooden platform positioned above the water where you can set up a tent; it’s like having your own little island. Most chickee sites are found near the Flamingo Visitor Center.

You’ll need a few things in addition to your camping gear, notably a backcountry camping permit (available from any park visitor center), bug repellant for the inevitable mosquitos and a canoe (as you can only reach the platforms via water). Canoes and kayaks can be rented from several spots around the park. Off the Hell’s Bay Trail are a handful of chickee sites within a 5-mile canoe jaunt, including Lard Can and Pearl Bay Chickee.

An aerial shot of an airboat tour through Everglades National Park, Florida, USA
The airboat is the essential means of crossing the Everglades’ vast, watery expanses © Mia2you / Shutterstock

3. Zip through lily-covered water on an airboat

If the Everglades were to have an official vehicle, it would be the airboat (along the Tamiami Trail, you can’t miss all the “AIRBOAT TOURS” signs). These flat-bottomed boats with giant propeller fans on the back are designed to safely navigate the grass- and lily-heavy waters. 

While there are oodles of airboat operators beyond the national park’s confines, there are only three that operate within the park: Gator Park, Everglades Safari Park and Coopertown Airboats. Whichever you choose, just make sure to keep your hands inside when you coast by the inevitable gator (or 10).

4. Learn about the Everglades’ Indigenous roots at the Miccosukee’s museum

Humans have inhabited the Everglades for upward of 15,000 years. Long before European colonization began in the 19th century, tribes like the Seminole and Miccosukee comprised the bulk of the population. 

Today, you can learn all about Miccosukee culture, history and legacy at the Miccosukee Indian Village, less than a half-mile from the park’s Shark Valley entrance. The village includes a museum with beadwork and photographs, as well as regular alligator demonstrations, which demonstrate the importance of the gators to the tribe. These are strictly ethical presentations, meaning there are no wrestling elements to the show.

Detour: The Museum of the Everglades also has exhibits covering more than 2000 years of the Everglades’ history. Cruising through Everglades City, you can’t miss it – it’s a restored pink building that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

A woman in a kayak photographing the Everglades, Florida, USA
A kayak provides a slow way to glide through Everglades National Park © Gable Denims / 500px

5. Zigzag through Nine Mile Pond’s mangrove islands via canoe or kayak

The ultimate Everglades water excursion – and an easy-to-tackle one, too – awaits at Nine Mile Pond. Approximately 12 miles northwest of the Flamingo Visitor Center, you’ll find the roadside trailhead for this water course. Despite its name, it’s actually just 5.2 miles of paddle, during which you’ll swish through tree islands, curved mangrove tunnels and tranquil open waters. You don’t have to worry about getting lost, thanks to periodic white PVC pipe signs with helpful arrows that just out of the water.

Planning tip: If you need to rent a canoe or kayak, head to the Flamingo Visitor Center, where the team will provide you with a key to unlock a canoe or kayak that will be waiting for you at the pond.

6. Tour the Ten Thousand Islands via boat

Since Everglades National Park consists primarily of swamps, lakes and marshes, you’ll need a boat to get around. For a true open-water experience, head to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center to catch a 90-minute, ranger-narrated boat tour through Florida Bay aboard a large catamaran. Along the way, you’ll see island after island made of mangroves, sawgrass and other lush flora. You’ll want to book the excursion ahead of time via the park’s official partner, Everglades National Park Adventures.

Planning tip: If you want an upper-body workout, four-hour, ranger-led kayak and canoe tours of Florida Bay are also on offer at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.

Woman taking picture of an anhinga, Anhinga Trail, Everglades National Park, Florida, USA
On the Anhinga Trail, you might spot one of the route’s namesake birds, waders that have turkey-like plumage (in addition to gators, of course) © P A Thompson / Getty Images

7. See how many alligators you can spot along the Anhinga Trail

Fewer than 50ft from the Royal Palm Visitor Center is the park’s most popular hiking route. While the Anhinga Trail is short – just an 0.8-mile round-trip – it delivers maximum Everglades pizzazz. As you follow the path along wooden boardwalks hovering above lily and sawgrass marsh and asphalt, you’ll have a solid shot at seeing gators, turtles and the trail’s namesake, the anhinga – a large water bird with a tail that resembles a turkey.

Detour: For a bonus short hike, the 0.4-mile Gumbo Limbo Trail is right by the Royal Palm Visitor Center, too.

8. Spot pelicans and storks on a pondside birdwatching adventure

Among the seemingly infinite number of waterways and ponds within the park’s confines, two spots reign supreme for birdwatching. Across the street from the Flamingo Campground and accessible via half-mile paved trail that surrounds it, Eco Pond brims with ducks frolicking about and a range of wading birds – storks, herons, and egrets – taking a dip or soaring above. 

Mrazek Pond is another bird-lover’s paradise, particularly during the winter months when hordes of wood storks feast in the shallow waters. Ask a guide at the Flamingo Visitor Center – just three miles south – what’s in season and what to expect.

Keep planning your trip to Everglades National Park:

Figure out the best time to visit
Get up close with nature on these hikes
Take a road trip to the park on these drives through Florida
Know these things before you go

This article was first published Feb 1, 2023 and updated Mar 24, 2024.

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