Early on a Saturday morning, folks are already lined up outside the visitor’s center in Everglades City. They’ve come from all over – backpackers, birdwatchers, families with toddlers in tow – all with one thing in mind: to see one of the world’s great natural wonders.
Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, has been declared a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve and Wetland of International Importance – a treasure for not only the residents of Florida, but for people from all over the world.
Florida’s most famous national park is fragile yet enduring. Faced by a myriad of environmental threats, conservation-minded officials have taken great strides in recent years to protect this national resource for generations to come.
A Paddling Adventure
You can see the Everglades all sorts of ways – by boat, by car. But to really experience this wilderness wonderland, you will need to get your feet wet.
Visitors, even those with small children, can explore Florida Bay, Whitewater Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands by kayak or canoe.
In this age of handheld video games, it can be hard to capture and hold a youngster’s attention. But turn off the music and paddle out into the mangroves, and the only sound you’ll hear is a great blue heron squawking. If you are lucky, you might hear a gator bellow, but don’t worry, these reptiles are well-acquainted with humans and mind their own business.
Everglades Rentals & Eco Adventures in Everglades City has been guiding the young and old, brave and cautious, through the wildest terrain in Florida for nearly 30 years. This conservation-minded outfitter’s staff is well versed in the region’s natural history, which makes every tour not only fun, but a real learning experience.
Mangrove Tunnel Eco Adventures, offered three times daily November through April and once each morning May through October, is ideal for beginners and families with children ages seven years or older. Visitors can expect to paddle for up to four hours at a slow, leisurely pace. But there is plenty to see, so time passes quickly.
For $124 per person ($99 if you spend the night at the outfitter’s lodge, The Ivey House) you won’t find a better introduction to The Everglades. Reservations are suggested.
The River of Grass
Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ seminal work, The Everglades: River of Grass, published in 1947, launched the modern conservation movement. The Miami writer was the first to see the Everglades as anything more than a worthless swamp.
Prior to her groundbreaking book, developers and many public officials viewed Florida’s millions of acres of wetlands as something that should be tamed, not preserved. As a result, the Everglades was dammed, drained and cut up by roads and canals, causing it to shrink to half of its original size.
But Douglas’s book showed Floridians that the “River of Grass” was actually a critical part of a delicate ecosystem that extended far beyond the boundaries of today’s national park. And today, Florida schoolchildren learn that water is the blood of life that sustains the Everglades.
There is no better way to start children on the path to environmental stewardship than to let them experience the natural world first hand.
Not everybody wants to get up close and personal with an alligator. Parents with toddlers can visit the heart of the Everglades in the comfort of an open-air tram. The Shark Valley Visitor’s Center operates a guided, two-hour, narrated tour along a 15-mile loop deep into the “River of Grass.”
The tours are led by national park naturalists and certified interpreters (guides). For most youngsters, the highlight of the journey is the halfway point, when they can climb a 45-foot observation deck and get a panoramic view of the sawgrass prairies for 20 miles in any direction.
Another option is to explore the area around the Shark River Slough on your own. What kid wouldn’t love to ride their bike down a 15-mile paved trail with alligators on either side?
This easy two- to three-hour ride has no hills or off-road sections, which makes it ideal for parents transporting little ones in bike seats or kid carriers. If you don’t want to bring your own bike, rent one at the concession for $8 an hour on a first-come, first-served basis.
Riders may encounter wildlife as they travel along this wilderness bike trail. Keep your distance. Do not feed or harass the animals. Take only pictures. Leave only bike tracks and footprints.