Accessible Travel: Shark Valley in the Florida Everglades
By Janet K. Keeler
There's nothing in the world like the Florida Everglades. The vast and mysterious 1.5-million-acre ecosystem is the state’s natural gem.
Unknowing tourists that traverse southern Florida on U.S. 41, also called the Tamiami Trail, might think there’s not much to see. The terrain simply looks like a flat no-man’s land to the untrained eye.
Oh, but get higher up and the water that snakes under the grasses becomes obvious. This is the “River of Grass” so named by writer and Florida nature activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas in the 1940s.
The Everglades is classified as a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetlands of International Importance, among other titles. It is home to alligators, crocodiles, manatees, the Florida panther and hundreds of species of birds, and attracts adventurers and sightseers who want an only-in-Florida experience.
There are several entrances to the vast Everglades National Park and Shark Valley on U.S. 41 is the most convenient for an introduction to the ‘Glades. It is just 25 miles west of Miami and about 70 miles east of Naples, and adjacent to the Miccosukee Indian reservation. Shark Valley also has accessibility features that make it welcoming to visitors with mobility, hearing and vision challenges.
Other Everglades visitors centers include Flamingo, Ernest F. Coe and Gulf Coast, the information gateway to the Ten Thousands Islands. The Flamingo entrance, on the southwestern edge of the Everglades, is the jumping off point to canoeing, kayaking and camping. There are accessible campsites available in several locations including in Royal Palm State Park, which is within the national park, and Flamingo. The park’s Homestead entrance leads to these visitors centers, which also have nearby accessible trails.
At Shark Valley, the Bobcat Boardwalk that starts behind the visitors center roams about a half a mile through a sawgrass slough and prairie, and a tropical hardwood forest. Winter and spring bring migratory and nesting birds so it’s smart to pack binoculars for a closer view. The boardwalk is wheelchair-friendly and is an excellent way to experience the Everglades on your own time. The path skirts a canal and you can linger as long as you would like to take photos, perhaps of an alligator gliding by. Lucky visitors might spy a bobcat, which is about twice the size of a domestic cat. Florida bobcats are not threatened or endangered but they tend to move fast when they see people. They are loners. Moving slower are the turtles that inhabit the park.
Many visitors to Shark Valley take the two-hour tram tour on the 15-mile loop road, which is closed to cars and popular with bicyclists. The tour is a great way to learn about the Everglades and Shark Valley because a naturalist narrates as the tram rolls along. Assistive Listening Devices are available for the tour and also for any ranger-led talks.
First off, you might ask, what’s with the name? Sharks? Valley? How? The coastal ridges around this area are about 15 feet above sea level so technically this part of the Everglades is a valley. And, well, sharks? The River of Grass feeds into Shark River and Little Shark River that both spill into Ponce De Leon Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. Those rivers are nursing habitats for lemon, nurse and bull sharks which head into the gulf as they mature. The name makes sense once you know all of that.
The tram is wheelchair-accessible via a ramp, and the tours, which are hourly during the mild winter season, require tickets. It’s best to reserve in advance to make sure that you get the time you want and to also let them know of the accommodation needs. The tram is open on both sides with allows for easy viewing, and has tie downs for wheelchairs.
About midway along the loop is a 45-foot observation tower. There’s a spiral ramp that gradually leads to the top. It is accessible to wheelchairs but some people, especially those in non-motorized chairs, might need assistance. The beauty of the ramp is that it is open and the view is great going up and down. Depending on the height of the wheelchair though, the vista may not be easily seen over the concrete sides from a sitting position. The path leading to the ramp is lined by open fencing so the view there is unencumbered.
From the top, visitors can see about 20 miles in all directions and from this vantage point they will come to understand more about the terrain. It is not uncommon, especially in the summer and fall, to see a dramatic thunderstorm forming in the distance or to watch rain falling from clouds miles away. Visitors, especially in the hot and humid summer, should make sure to have sunscreen and lots of water on hand.
Back at the visitors center, which is where the tram tours leave from and return to, there are accessible bathrooms plus souvenirs for sale. Touch-table experiences enhance the visit for people with vision challenges. Information through TDD is available at (305) 242-7740.
Worked up a hunger after spending some time in the Florida Everglades? There is no food at Shark Valley but just across the Tamiami Trail is the Miccosukee Restaurant where the menu ranges from Indian tacos to Italian osso bucco risotto to chicken and yellow rice with sweet plantains. Of course, there are gators bites and stone crab claws in season (October to May). The restaurant is on one level and accessible. Next door to the Shark Valley visitors center is the Miccosukee Indian Village, also worth exploring to learn about the Native American culture in the Everglades. There is a small snack shack and, again of course, gator wrestling shows.
A big attraction in the Everglades is riding an airboat as it roars and dramatically skims the grassy waterways. Along the Tamiami Trail there are a number of airboat operators, among them Wooten’s, Tigertail, Osceola and Buffalo Tiger. They provide the sound mufflers to protect ears from the roar of the engine, and they make it a point of getting riders as close as possible to alligators. Wooten’s, which is on the western edge of the Everglades less than 10 miles from Everglades City, has one boat that can accommodate manual wheelchairs. Riders roll on to the boat via ramp and then transfer to a bench or remain in the chair at the front of the boat. Motorized wheelchairs are too heavy for the light boats and can cause balance issues. Make sure to ask any of the operators about wheelchair accommodations before booking.
Visitors could spend several days in the Everglades but in just a few hours at Shark Valley, they will come away with a new appreciation for this natural wonder. And maybe a tummy full of frog legs and fry bread.