Everglades National Park is one of the crown jewels of the American national park system, and Florida’s only UNESCO world heritage site. It is best known among outdoorsy folk for the water trails that facilitate long canoe and kayaking trips, but it has plenty to offer the hikers among us as well. I spent some time in the Everglades exploring by car and foot, so I will provide a quick guide on several short Everglades hiking trails (and Big Cypress hiking too!).
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE EVERGLADES
The Everglades is the watery heart of Florida; it is home to a huge variety of native flora and fauna, and its water ways have served as a byways for humans since their arrival in this part of the world.
The growth of the European colonies in the “New World” and the eventual rise of the United States took its toll on this spectacular landscape, however, and by 1923 people started calling for its protection. A man named Ernest F. Coe headed this charge, in spite of his background as a land developer. He envisioned a park of 2 million acres, including what we now know as Big Cypress. Although the Great Depression made it difficult for Coe’s dream to come true, in 1934 the Everglades National Park was declared at 1.3 million acres.
Interestingly, much of the land that got left out of the original park has since been protected in other forms, including Big Cypress National Preserve and Biscayne National Park.
Most of the trails that I am going to discuss here are along the main road in the park, which runs from the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center to the Flamingo Visitor Center. Shark Valley is the alternate entrance and requires an entrance fee as well as money for a tram ride. General entrance into the park is $25.00 per vehicle.
If you start by heading down to Flamingo, there are several trails that follow the coast. The Coastal Prairie Trail heads west from the visitor center to Clubhouse Beach, where camping is allowed. As with all the trails in the Everglades, this is a flat, out and back walk that is 11.2 miles round trip. The Christian Point Trail is a shorter walk to the ocean, at only 4.2 miles roundtrip, but it is one of the more challenging trails in the area.
Snake Bight Trail and Rowby Bend Trail are near Flamingo as well, but I gave up on walking either due to the inordinate amount of mosquitoes that were swarming me every time I stepped out of my vehicle.
SHORT MIDDLE TRAILS
There are three very short, but beautiful walks in the middle section of the main park road. These include Mahagony Hammock, Pa-hay-okee Outlook, and Pinelands. Of these, my favorite is Mahagony Hammock, because it is the best place to learn about the diversity of landscape in the Everglades. Before coming, I really imagined that this place was just a giant marsh, but driving through and hiking for the day taught me the truth. The short walk out to Mahagony Hammock (0.4 miles) takes you out through grasslands that look to stretch on infinitely, to an island of drier forest, which is called a “hammock.” There is something very special about trekking through an open ocean of grass to take refuge in a forest island. A spot of green in an expense of yellow.
Pay-hay-okee is similarly located in a hammock, although much larger, and there are many platforms from which to observe the landscape and its unique bird species. Pinelands isn’t quite as diverse, but this 0.4 mile walk through the forest introduces the pineland ecosystem. There is also a longer trail in this area called the Long Pine Tree Trail, which is 7 miles long in one direction, and connects to 22 miles of trail. I did not do this particular Everglades hiking trail, however.
ERNEST F. COE HIKING
The Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center is right near the entrance, and it is one of the more busy hiking areas in the park due to the ease of access and exceptional biodiversity here. In fact, they provide tarps so that you can keep the vultures from tearing up your car, and I saw my first wild alligators just a few feet down the trail.
This area feels very garden-like, or it did to me. There were huge, glassy ponds complete with lily pads, and open skies. With lots of tall grass, and wooden walkways give you great views of the water and any of the animals that might be calling it home when you visit.
There are also some short paths through some more tropical forest here. Some of the biggest trees that I saw in the park were here and I really enjoyed the shade after exploring in the open and observing alligators for a while.
BIG CYPRESS HIKING
The Florida National Scenic trail passes through Big Cypress and is easily accessible from the road via the Oasis Visitor Center. I was not properly equipped for the amount of mud on the trail when I visited, but for drier times of the year, or people with more waterproof equipment, this would be a great trail to turn into a shorter, out-and-back journey.
For those of you in my boat, check out Kirby Storter Roadside Park, where you can take a short walk through the Cypress swamps. This was one of my favorite spots in Florida, due to the fact that I absolutely love Cypress trees. I think they are otherworldly and they have always characterized what I imagined the Everglades to be.
(1) Alligators! Were really not as much of a problem as I thought they would be. I actually never saw one on the trail, but if you do see one, keep your distance. Also, just pay attention and keep your wits about you when you are near the water while on the Everglades hiking trails.
(2) Mosquitos are more of a discomfort than a danger if they aren’t carrying disease, but the odds of disease are getting worse and worse, so its best to avoid them. In my experience, bug spray is absolutely NOT enough in this area. If you are going to be hiking in a mosquito-infested area, you will need some special clothing to keep them off of you.
(3) Hiking solo is one of my favorite things, but it definitely has its particular risks. As with any solo hiking venture, let people know where you are going and when you will be back. Check in with the park rangers to get updates on the trail and let them know where you are off to.
(4) Finally, remember, you are always responsible for yourself on the trail. Your safety is up to you. Conditions change day to day and everyone has different hiking abilities. You need to take all of that into account before you leave, and to insure that you have all the equipment, water, and food you will need.
If you want to know more details about these trails, Florida Hikes! is a great resource for individual trails, safety and more. And if you are in need of more Florida travel inspiration, be sure to read through our Guide to Florida.