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Trip 4, Stop 1: Everglades National Park

The Everglades National Park is beautiful, vast, varied, and fascinating! In hindsight, we wish we had allocated more time to exploring the park and recommend setting aside at least two full days, if not more, to cover the basics. We did not have time to visit the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, which would have provided access to the Everglades from the west coast of Florida. We did take Highway 41 across Florida, so were able to see part of the Big Cypress National Preserve on our way to the Everglades. It is definitely worth a stop at the Oasis Visitor Center, which includes a boardwalk where there are frequent alligator sightings.

Our first stop in the Everglades was the Shark Valley Visitor Center. There are several short hiking trails near the visitor center, however, the highlight is a 15-mile roundtrip paved trail to an observation tower with a fantastic view of the surrounding marshlands. You can opt to take a narrated tram, rent a bike (or use your own if you have it with you), or hike to the observation tower. We opted to rent bikes and it was one of the highlights of all of our park trips to date! The first mile of the trail was fairly crowded with hikers or other bikers just starting out, but once we got past that first mile, we were practically by ourselves in this vast wilderness, often with no one visible in front or behind us. We saw lots of wildlife, including anhingas, egrets, herons, and ibises, as well as gators who were sunning themselves at the side of the trail or swimming through the water nearby. With this being a flat trail, the biking was relatively easy, even into the wind on the way back to the visitors center.

From Shark Valley, we traveled to the Main Park Road, about an hour away, and hiked in the Royal Palm area. The two main trails there are the Anhinga Trail (which includes a boardwalk over a sawgrass march) and the Gumbo-Limbo Trail, a jungle-like hardwood hammock. Be forewarned that mosquitoes are fierce in any of the hardwood hammocks and a good bug repellant is a must!

The hour-long drive all the way down the Main Park Road will take you to the Flamingo visitor center, which includes hiking trails, a campground, and a marina (where you can rent bikes, canoes, kayaks or take a boat tour). This area is the farthest south you can travel on the Florida mainland and overlooks the Florida Bay. While we did not see any flamingos in the area, we did see a manatee and other wading birds. (This is also a habitat area for American crocodiles.) The landscape in this area appears very different than the marshlands in other parts of the Everglades, with more forests and mangroves. By the way, the store at the marina does sell beer and has an amazingly good selection of craft beers, so you can enjoy a brew while enjoying the local scenery and wildlife.

Good news for brew pub lovers who are visiting the Everglades...the Miami Brewing Co. isn't too far from the Main Park Road entrance and is close to Homestead, Florida. We enjoyed a stop to sample a few IPAs and stouts...delicious!

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