I consider myself a mountain western girl at heart, but there usually comes a time in the middle of every long winter that I feel an inexplicable longing for south Florida. Having lived there briefly, this always shocks me. But the pull of warmth, sunshine, shorts, and beaches comes nonetheless. If you get that same tug as well, then a visit to Everglades National Park in February might be just the place for you!
Incidentally, I can’t recommend a midsummer visit to this particular park unless you a) love the smell of DEET or b) really do want to see what the horror stories about the mosquitos are really about. In those cases, I would leave the kids at home!
What comes to mind when you hear the word “Everglades”? For many it conjures up images of dark swamps, murky water, huge insects, big snakes, and gators. There is some of all of that, true. But the Everglades is best described as a “river of grass” that drains all of south Florida into the ocean. Where the fresh and saltwater mix at the southernmost tip of the United States, you get a unique and exotic tropical combination of birds, animals, and plants. It’s also the only place in the world where crocodiles and alligators co-exist.
There are actually more canoe trails than land trails in the Everglades, which is cool if your family is into boating. But if you’re looking for land based activities, here are a few kid friendly destinations and trails:
Ernest Coe Visitor Center: If you like to get some background info when you visit a new park, then be sure to stop here. You’ll find some fun interactive exhibits on this unique ecosystem, and you can also pick up Junior Ranger books.
Anhinga Trail: This is the most popular trail in Everglades National Park, and for good reason. It’s a boardwalk trail through a section of sawgrass marsh, which may not sound too thrilling until you consider the huge variety of wildlife that call that particular habitat home. Think herons, egrets, anhingas, turtles, and alligators. I once witnessed an alligator versus python fight on this trail, so you literally never know what you might see! This is a favorite spot for guided ranger hikes, too, so look for those times at the visitor center or in the park newspaper.
Gumbo Limbo Trail: This .4 mile trail gives you a real taste of the tropics. It winds through a hammock of gumbo limbo trees, royal palms, and ferns. Easy, flat, short and sweet, with some interpretive signs that point out unique plants.
Mahogany Hammock: On this half mile self-guiding boardwalk loop you will find the largest living mahogany tree in the United States! Many trails in the Everglades are raised to literally keep your feet out of the river of grass, but the thumping sounds little running feet make on them only adds to the uniqueness of the experience of hiking them with kids. And need I mention that these short treks are perfect for little legs?
Shark Valley Tram Road: If you are a biking family, then this is the place to go! This is a 15 mile flat, paved loop road that is also shared with a tram. At the halfway point you will encounter a spiral shaped observation tower that, from the top, gives one of the best views of the “glades” in the park.
Robert Is Here: Okay, so this technically isn’t in Everglades National Park, but anybody who’s anybody knows to stop at this fruit stand between Homestead and the main park entrance for strawberry milkshakes! You can technically try a zillion other flavors, but strawberry is really the bomb in this land where February is strawberry season! The roadside stand is filled with all sorts of tropical fruits, vegetables, and preserves which makes for a fun stop if that’s not your usual fare. More info can be found on their website at www.robertishere.com.
If you want to do something especially challenging to celebrate the National Park Service Centennial, then Everglades has just the thing for you! It’s called the Florida National Parks Centennial Paddle Challenge. Visit at least three of Florida’s national parks and get out in a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard and paddle for 100 miles! Document your journey through a log and selfies. Once you’ve logged 100 miles, you earn a one-of-a-kind patch!
Ready to go? Then head to the official park website at www.nps.gov/ever for maps, park newspapers, brochures and lots more ideas for a winter family foray into Everglades National Park.
Alana Dimmick is the branch lead for Hike It Baby Eatonville. She is wife to a park ranger, and full time mom to Eli (6), Riley (4), and Isaac (3 months). Alana currently lives in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.