“If the devil ever raised a garden, the Everglades was it.”James Carlos Blake
The Devil’s Garden. That’s a pretty accurate description for how most travelers would view Everglades National Park as they drive the 39 miles spanning from the southern entrance all the way down to Flamingo. Although it is one of America’s largest parks, it is often forgotten or passed over in favor of more instagrammable locales (looking at you, Old Faithful).
Picture this: Visitors drive past pine lands and cypress, counting the mosquitos that stick to their windshield, and hop out in a Deet-induced haze to quickly snap a picture of an alligator. At the end of their drive, they hit Flamingo, the little dot that sits at the bottom of Florida, caught in the long shadow cast by Miami on the opposite shore. Flamingo is an outpost that probably hit its heyday in the mid 50’s, and has since been forgotten in the annual budget of the Department of the Interior (as seen by the lovely abandoned building that greets you as you enter the outpost area).
There are few choices once visitors arrive here. For those unlucky travelers who forgot to bring a lunch, they’re left to the overpriced offerings of the general store (the only food option in the park. Picture canned chicken salad and $4 Gatorade). If you didn’t fill up in Homestead, you get the pleasure of paying for the Glade’s premium at the one gas station (only open during the day, so plan accordingly). And if you like to sleep in a room which isn’t composed of canvas and netting, then you’re better off grabbing that entrance sign pic, turning around, and heading to Key West for the weekend instead.
I was like many visitors– hitting a few boardwalks, swatting a few flies, then getting out of there to find some air conditioning and hydrocortisone cream. I just didn’t get the appeal. Then, I started taking more trips here, taking more time to really experience what the park had to offer (and braving the night full of mosquitos) and something amazing happened. I started to get it. This place is truly one-of-a-kind.
Everglades is not like other parks. The trails aren’t easily marked and most can only be accessed by a kayak or boat. However, this park can offer an amazing adventure for those willing to go outside of their comfort zone.
Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite (and budget-friendly) things to do on a weekend in the Everglades.
Sleeping in an Eco-Tents
Unless you’re in an RV, the only option for spending the night in the park is camping. Currently, there is a hotel being built in Flamingo, but it’s been a long process and as of May 2021, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be popping up on Booking.com anytime soon. Airbnb? Also not an option.
However, Flamingo Adventures has created an amazing solution for those wanting a little more glamour than a basic tent. Marketed as an “above-ground, glamping tent”, the eco-tents are built on wood platforms facing the Florida Bay. It’s as far south as you can go without driving to the keys, and the views are specular. I’ve stayed in these canvas rooms twice now (over Labor Day weekend and in May), and both times I’ve been blown away by how comfortable of a camping experience these tents provide. You have the option of booking a tent with a queen bed, two doubles, or BYOSP (bring your own sleeping pad), and each tent is decked out with electricity, three sides of netting, a lamp, and a massive fan (for those muggy, Florida nights). The best part? You have an outdoor patio where you can sit and watch the storms blow by or even catch a glimpse of an osprey snatching a fish from the shallow waters.
The tents are large enough that you can spread out all your gear (like those muddy hiking shoes), and still have plenty of space to move around. Unlike a traditional tent, they’re also tall enough that you don’t have to crouch, and you feel comfortable enjoying nature without becoming a snack for the mosquitos. To add to the extra-level of glamping, there is even a bathhouse with showers and flush toilets (this Missouri girl is unused to such level of comfort).
While they are an amazing option in the day (especially as a place to hideout during those daily summer storms– nap time while smelling the rain? Yes, please!), the eco-tents truly shine at night. If you’re here during the milky way season (Spring-early Fall), you will be treated to some of the most beautiful dark skies this side of the Mississippi. This is what makes staying the night in Flamingo a must-do for any weekend adventurers.
The cheapest time to book these tents are in the summer season (late April-November), where you can snag one of these beauties for just $50 a night. A tent site in Flamingo runs $25, so it is definitely worth it to level-up and get a little bit more comfort. If you go in the winter, tents start at $90 and only go up. They’re also more in-demand at that time so you need to book in advance.
The Cons? Summer time is also the buggy time, where no-see-ums and mosquitos reign supreme. Winter is much more friendly if you’re looking to avoid our buzzing friends, but you will miss out on the storm-watching and Milky Way. You’ll also have to deal with a bit more people around.
Important note: While the eco-tents are a great option to hide from the mosquitos, the netting is not no-see-um proof. It’s best to plan your visit when the wind will be strong enough to keep these annoying pests away.
Hiking a Cypress Dome
Everglades National Park is the first place I ever got my feet wet in swamp hiking (literally. Your boots get soaked.) I was lucky enough to get to go with some friends, and the moment my boot disappeared into the water and I was under the canopy of enchanting cypress, I was addicted to this place.
A cypress dome, for those of us not well-versed in glade vocabulary, is characterized by a circle of cypress trees growing in a deeper pool of water. It is the stereotypical image that most of us have of the swamp, and has probably been featured in over five different Nicholas Sparks’ movies. Cypress trees tower above you as you tread in knee-deep water (even deeper depending on the season). They are populated by gators, tropical birds, and beautiful orchids. I never imagined that I would enjoy treading through water, but the serenity and peacefulness found in a dome is unmatched. Unlike most hikes that are done out west, a dome hike is slower, more reflective. It isn’t about reaching a destination, but more about enjoying where you are at.
I often get asked what to wear when hiking into the swamp. From experience, I can tell you to leave the chacos at home and opt for an old pair of hiking boots or sneakers. Your feet will get wet, but your toes will be protected from whatever may be under the water’s surface. Always wear long pants and long sleeves when hiking in the glades. Opt for clothing that is lightweight and breathable, so it dries quickly and won’t weigh you down.
Cypress Domes perforate the glades landscape, but unless you are with a native swamper, they can be difficult to find (it took me over a year living in Florida before I ever went into one). Fortunately, Everglades National Park organizes ranger-led hikes (called “wet hikes”) into this beautiful ecosystem. Hikes meet at the Royal Palm Ranger Station (the first station you see upon entering the park from Homestead), and can be booked online here.
Looking for Orchids
This was an activity I never envisioned I would enjoy until I found myself dating an orchid-enthusiast. I knew about the beautiful flowers that I would sometimes see at the Home Depot, but I never thought to go view these plants in the wild. Everglades National Park has the most diverse population of orchids in the NPS system (it’s the place to go if you love unique plants and flowers). Unfortunately, a history of poaching and development have led to much of the Everglades’ orchid population being depleted. But you can still view some of these beauties in the wild (just don’t touch or take. Follow the Leave No Trace policy that keeps the wilderness wild).
Orchids are found in a variety of places in a glades, but most require some hiking to access. A venture into the salt marsh prairie can lead to the rewarding experience of seeing a Mule Ear orchid in the wild. Check out the photo below for just how gorgeous these plants are.
Orchids bloom depending on the season you visit. For those sharp-eyed hikers, you can usually spot them on most trails, but a guided hike is also a great option. Check here for more information on ranger-led hikes in the park.
Just remember, alway carry plenty of water when exploring the park. Florida is a hot and humid destination, and poor planning could lead to a bad situation.
Everyone heads to south Florida determined to see an alligator, and while gators are cool and all, they are literally everywhere. A drive down 41 will allow a visitor to see enough gators to satisfy any gator-itch they may have.
What most visitors don’t realize is that Florida has another toothy-resident, and they’re not nearly as common. The American Crocodile is a spectacular predator to behold, and Flamingo is a great place to spot one of these guys chilling in the water (or out of it if they’re sunning themselves). Everglades National Park is the only place in the world where crocs and gators are natural neighbors. For those itching to catch a glimpse, you are almost always guaranteed a croc sighting by cruising by the Flamingo boat ramp at night. Crocs have a thinner nose and exposed teeth, but if that is too hard to see, shine a light in their direction. A croc’s eyes will shine back red while a gator’s eyes will be yellow. Bingo! You got yourself a croc sighting.
Other critters found in the park include black bears, panthers, mink, manatees, flamingos, birds, snakes, and too many more to list. In the late spring/early fall, manatees can be seen swimming by the docks just past the Flamingo General Store. Ospreys can be seen nesting throughout the area and diving for fresh fish in the bay. Rattlesnakes can be spotted throughout the tall grasses and pine lands, so be careful where you step and keep those airpods at home.
If you’re a night owl, you can spot your animal namesake perched in trees and on posts at night throughout the park and along the park road (please drive slowly! Owls are frequent roadkill along the road and this is easily avoidable). Pythons come out to play in the evening as well, and, if you’re awake, you can see the invasive snakes hunting across the pavement or in the grass. Just leave the wrangling to one of Florida’s approved python contactors. These men and women are trained to capture these giants.
These are just a few of the many activities you can do on a weekend in Everglades National Park. If you’re eager to get on the water, you can also rent kayaks from the Flamingo Activities Booth (located right next to the gas station) and explored one of the countless water trails that snake deeper into the swamps or out into the bay.
If you plan on visiting some of the Park’s other entrances (Shark Valley and Gulf Coast Visitor Centers), there are even more things to do. Shark Valley offers a tram ride to an overlook tower (this can also be done on a bicycle), and Gulf Coast offers boat tours, kayak adventures, and more into the Ten Thousand Island region.
A weekend in the park is definitely one for the hardy adventurer, but it comes with endless rewards and experiences that are truly one-of-a-kind. It is also a nice variation from the binge-drinking party scene popular in Miami. If big lights and clubs aren’t your scene, switch up a trip to south Florida by spending some time in the “true” Florida, where cypress and grasslands have been spared by the relentless development and concrete jungles.
Entrance to the park: $30 (Check out the National Park Annual Pass, only $80)
Food (Pack ahead): $80-100
Eco-Tent: $50 (Summer Season), $90 and up (Winter Season)
Hiking, Exploring, and Seeing a Beautiful Place: Free!
Long Sleeves and Long Pants (don’t hike in shorts here! Your legs will thank you later).
Mosquito Netting (look for the kind that goes over a hat)
Hiking Shoes or Old Tennis Shoes
Camp Shoes (Crocs, sandals, or chacos)
Food and Water for the weekend
Sunscreen and Hat
Camping Gear (Unless opting for the eco-tent. If bringing your own tent, make sure your tent has no-see-um netting!)
Flashlight or headlamp (For those night adventures under the stars)
Camp chair (for those lazy afternoon watching the storms blow by)
Mosquito Repellent (I recommend a Deet-free option. Lemon Eucalyptus oil smells great, is natural, and won’t melt the plastic off your hiking shoes. Check here for my preferred brand.)