Exploring the entirety of Everglades National Park could easily take months. There are miles of hiking trails, biking trails, and paddling trails, not to mention hundreds of thousands of square acres of untrammeled wilderness in the mainland park and surrounding islands in the bay.
Few people have months to explore an area, and fewer still have the willingness to suffer the mosquitoes and other insects for months on end. (Yes, there will most certainly be mosquitoes.)
But the Everglades’ huge scope of land, water, and wildlife means scores of weekend adventures waiting for a broad range of outdoor enthusiasts, backpackers, cyclists, paddlers, fishermen, bird watchers, and more
Here’s one such weekend adventure for families that hits many Everglades’ highlights, a weekend camping trip that includes a 38-mile car ride across the entire park with stops along the way to view the varied landscapes and animals of the Everglades.
Best time of year to go to the Everglades
The best time of year for this trip is during the Everglades’ dry season (December-April), though it’s doable during all times of the year.
The Everglades Visitor Center
Start on Saturday morning at the Everglades National Park visitor center to view the exhibits about the landscape and wildlife of the Everglades, as this will give you a good primer for what your are about to see and experience during the day.
Be the first one there, because there will likely be a slough of people coming in behind you.
From the visitor center, start heading down the long road that traverses the park. Along the way, you’ll make several stops.
First up, the Anhinga Trail and Gumbo Limbo Trail.
The 0.8 mile Anhinga Trail is by far the most popular trail in the Everglades. Featuring ponds of crystal clear water full of bright colored fish and birds, visitors are almost guaranteed to see alligators, famous residents of the Everglades. The trail is paved and boardwalk.
The Gumbo Limbo Trail
The Gumbo Limbo trail is less popular but right next to the Anhinga trail. At 0.4 miles, the narrow paved path winds through a forest of shiny red Gumbo Limbo trees.
The Pinelands Trail
Continue down the road, and you’ll find the Pineland Trail, a 0.4 mile loop through the pineland forest. Not the prettiest or most interesting trail, but you’ll see Solution Holes, where acidic rains have eroded the limestone over millennia.
The Pa-Hay-Okee Trail
Further down the road, you can hit Pa-Hay-Okee, a 0.2 mile loop that delivers you to an observation tower where you can view the glistening water and gold grasses of the Everglades. Of any of the views in the park, this one gave me the greatest sense of the Everglades namesake, as the glistening glades appear to go on forever.
The Mahogany Hammock Trail
Keep driving down the road to the 0.4 mile Mahogany Hammock Trail. This trail is super cool and unsung in it’s awesomeness. It has an incredible jungle feeling, dark in midmorning beneath the canopy of the thick trees.
Spend the day making these stops along the 40 mile main road within the park, and in the afternoon you’ll be at Flamingo at the end of the road.
In Flamingo, you will find a marina with a small store, the buttonwood café, the Flamingo visitor center, and the Flamingo campground which accommodates tent, car, and RV campers.
Setup camp, and enjoy the evening by the bay on the beach with the Osprey, herons, vultures, and Bald Eagles. Not a sandy beach, but a muddy rocky beach.
The Marina – Bay Side
In the morning, head to the marina to see more of the Everglade’s famous wildlife.
On the bay side of the dam at the marina, the water is salt water. Here you will probably find a couple manatees. Look for them around the docks. Look for their big nostrils taking a breath above the water or their backs rolling on the surface.
If you see someone using a hose over the water or a fisherman draining the bilge from his boat, then keep a sharp eye there for manatees. They tend to come up for the aerated bubbles.
The Marina – Backcountry Side
On the other side of the dam at the marina is the brackish water of the Everglades’ backcountry. You won’t find manatees on this side, but you might spot a crocodile. We saw this huge crocodile several times on our trip. Here he’s sunning on a boat ramp. No one saw him but us as he was tucked behind a seawall that obscured him from view from the marina.
Backcountry Boat Tour
If you have a couple hours to spare, the boat tour on the backcountry side is well worth it. It takes 1:45 hours. You will likely see crocodiles sunning on the banks, and for sure you will learn a lot about the Everglades and some of the plants and trees, including the super scary Tree of Death. The tours in the morning are less crowded. They tend to fill up as it gets later in the day.
Heading Home From A Weekend Camping Trip in the Everglades
On Sunday, when you’re heading out of the park, stop at the famous Robert Is Here fruit stand for some healthy snacks or treats. It’s a few miles outside of the park entrance.
Good Things to Know About Camping in the Everglades
Location of Park Entrance and Visitor Center:
High Level Map of the Road and Trailheads
Be prepared for mosquitoes. They can be quite horrible at any time of year, depending on the recent rainfall.
Make reservations at the Flamingo campground, particularly if you are bringing an RV.
Some showers at Flamingo has solar-powered hot water heaters, but not all of them. Get to the showers early to ensure hot water for your shower.
The marina has a small store with typical convenience store snacks and drinks.
Enter the park with a full tank of gas. Gas is available at the marina, but it will be double or triple the price of gas that you find in Homestead, FL.
Pack a picnic lunch for your drive through the park. Picnic tables aren’t that common outside of campgrounds, but at each trailhead you can likely find some space to spread out in the sun or in the shade for lunch.