If it weren’t for the Everglades, the entirety of South Florida—from Naples in the west to Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach in the east—would likely be one enormous stucco-covered subdivision. Yet despite earnest efforts to pave over the “River of Grass,” the 6,000 square miles of the Everglades remain one of the wildest regions in the United States.
The Everglades’ role as a floodplain for the state of Florida has been made difficult by development, but thanks to the establishment of Everglades National Park in 1947, much of the area has seen usage tightly restricted. This has allowed the wide diversity of flora and fauna to thrive.
Though many people perceive the Glades as being nothing but swampland, in reality, there are a variety of ecosystems throughout, ranging from tropical hardwood hammocks and pine forests to mangrove forests, marshes, and wet prairies.
The vast expanses of swampland that comprise the majority of the Everglades aren’t swamps in the typical sense, as the water here is both static floodwater as well as slow-moving freshwater making its way to Florida Bay from the northern parts of the state. This ecological diversity makes the Everglades quite biologically rich, and alligators, panthers, flamingos, eagles, manatees, falcons, and dozens of other species thrive in the environment.
Beyond just the Everglades, this part of the state is also home to Big Cypress National Preserve, an 1,800-square-mile preserve. One of the first parks in the National Park System to be designated a national preserve, Big Cypress is drier and less swampy than the Everglades, due to a somewhat higher elevation, although the pine forests and sandhills are still complemented by considerable stretches of mangrove-lined waterways housing alligators, manatees, snakes, and more.
Flora and Fauna of the Everglades
The main reason people set foot within the vast expanses of the Everglades is to get a look at wild and natural Florida, and the Glades do not disappoint. Of course, the one animal instantly associated with the area is the American Alligator, which is not only a large beast (some grow up to 16 feet long) but also a stealthy predator.
Some backwater boaters are surprised when they discover that they’ve paddled within inches of one of these prehistoric marvels; still, gators tend to hug the shoreline and prefer the cover of mangroves, so spotting them can sometimes be a challenge. One can also see American Crocodiles in the Everglades, but they only tend to be found in the southernmost area around Flamingo.
The most abundant animals in the Everglades are birds. Dozens of species call the Glades home—spoonbills, wood storks, egrets, bald eagles, and many others—and during migration season, dozens more nonnative species can be seen as well.
Mangroves and saw grass all but define the plant life of the Everglades. It seems that if you’re not confronted with an endless uninterrupted expanse of the former, you’re being hemmed in by the dense thickets of the latter. However, slash pine trees and saw palmetto trees are also quite common, as are tiny pockets of hardwood hammocks that house an abundance of animal life, such as raccoons, rabbits, and deer. And as anyone who’s seen the film Adaptation knows, South Florida and the Everglades are perfect growing areas for orchids, and almost 50 different species of the fragile, beautiful flowers grow here.
Planning Your Visit
It’s important to keep in mind that what you’re here to see is a relatively undisturbed swamp, along with the various ecosystems within it. That means that facilities are few and far between, and access to the heart of Everglades National Park is largely limited to what you’re able to see from a small boat.
For that reason, people usually have to decide between undertaking a backwater adventure or availing themselves of the easily accessible visitors centers inside the park, which not only offer maps and guidance but also provide relatively populous landmarks that help ensure that you won’t be unintentionally spending the night in the swamp.
In all circumstances, you should make sure that your car’s gas tank is topped off, that you’ve brought in plenty of water, sunscreen, and bug repellent, and that you make every effort to ensure that no one in your group wanders off on their own; all that swamp can start to look the same after a while.
There are two seasons in the Everglades: the wet season (in the summer) and dry season (in the winter).
© Jason Ferguson from Moon Florida, 1st Edition