The Mysterious Everglades
Palm trees frame postcard views of boats slicing through blue-green water as swooping birds cry overhead. Miles of mucky grass, once derided as worthless swamp, shelter an incredible range of wildlife, from the elegant (great blue herons) to the fearsome (alligators). A three-day trip, especially during the relatively bug-free winter, reveals the splendor and fragility of the subtropical beauty. An extra day can add the breathtaking vistas of water on every horizon.
Head south from Miami to Convoy Point, headquarters of Biscayne National Park. Arrive early to watch the sunrise over Biscayne Bay. Picnic areas overlook the sparkling, aquamarine water that covers 95 percent of the park. Explore Biscayne’s four ecosystems: mangrove shoreline, the bay, the northernmost Florida Keys, and a coral reef.
To view the gorgeous fish and surreal formations of the reef, you can stay dry and cruise in a glass-bottom boat or get up close with snorkeling or scuba diving boat tours. Other boat trips let you snorkel among the bayfront mangroves. Guided canoe and kayak trips run January through April, but you can also rent a canoe or kayak and wander the waters on your own. The park also offers fishing and camping, as well as immense numbers of birds and the rare American crocodile.
Linger along the jetty trail for one last chance at spotting a manatee. Then browse along the historic town of Homestead, just west of the park, which was the hub of early railroad pioneers in South Florida at the turn of the 20th century. Ride a Homestead trolley to take in a variety of architecturical influences and stop by the recently restored Seminole theatre, originally built in 1921.
Take a slight detour on your way to Everglades National Park, and stop at the sprawling Robert Is Here fruit stand in Homestead, open November through August, for an education about tropical fruit, park tips, a fresh-fruit milkshake, or even a Key lime pie to go. Then drive north on Krome Avenue/State Route 997, turn left on the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) and travel 18 miles to the park’s Shark Valley Visitor Center. The two-hour, naturalist-narrated tram tour gives you a great sense of how the Everglades—a very wide, shallow, slow river—works.
Continue west on the Tamiami Trail to Collier Avenue, and then south to the park’s visitor center in Everglades City. Try a grab-and-go lunch around one or more of the naturalist-narrated boat tours through the mangrove maze known as Ten Thousand Islands. You’ll encounter abundant birds, probably some alligators, dolphins, and maybe even a manatee.
Dine in Everglades City, known as the "Stone Crab Capital of the World," and sample stone crab through its peak season, October through May. The annual Everglades Seafood Festival kicks off in early February each year and you can catch Calusa Days in March, celebrating the rich cultural history of the region.
See the Everglades by airboat—it’s like roaring along the water in an open-cockpit airplane, just be sure to bring earplugs and a jacket. Get a fresh seafood lunch at a waterfront spot before taking Collier Avenue north to the Tamiami Trail, heading east to Big Cypress National Preserve’s Oasis Visitor Center.
Big Cypress Preserve safeguards the heart of Big Cypress Swamp, a vital water source for the Everglades. From December to April, rangers lead a fascinating mix of wildlife walks, canoe trips, bike rides, campfire programs, and even a nighttime boardwalk stroll. Just east of the visitor center is a must-visit: Big Cypress Gallery, which features ethereal black-and-white photographs of the preserve and other Florida landscapes.
A stunning experience awaits if you can spare one more day. Fly to Key West from Southwest Florida International Airport near Fort Myers. Explore historic district Old Town in Key West, and climb the Key West Lighthouse, originally built int 1825. At sunset, head to Mallory Squire, where each sunset is celebrated with food, music, and fun.
Catch the 8a.m. ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park. Book a day-long tour to get admission to the park, meals, your snorkel gear, and a tour of Fort Jefferson at the park.
You’re way out in the Gulf of Mexico, almost 70 miles from Key West, on seven tiny, sandy islands. You can snorkel, fish, tour Fort Jefferson (an 18th-century fort where Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned for treating Abraham Lincoln’s assassin)—or just listen to the birds and waves and contemplate the vast sweep of water that surrounds you.
Back in Key West, catch the freewheeling circus of street performers and artisans who salute every sunset at the Mallory Square dock. Then cap off your trip with a delicious dinner at Bight, a historic seaport.
Miami International Airport is larger and closer to the parks. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport is less crowded and is served by some discount airlines. On the Gulf Coast, all major airlines fly into Southwest Florida International near Fort Myers.
Winter is the busy season in these parks, so make your accommodation and tour reservations ahead of time. Camping is availabe at all of the parks, but reservations for larger groups may be required.