Any time I imagined the Everglades, I pictured only a few things: water, alligators, those air boats skimming the grassy water, and mosquitos. Well, the Everglades has those things, some in much larger quantities than others, but it is SO much more. After a four-day visit it secured a spot within my top five National Parks.
Upon first entering the park from the East (the irritatingly busy Miami area), the first thing we notice is the seemingly endless sea of what appears to be prairie grass. Upon closer examination, the sawgrass blades actually have sharp saw-like edges which retain moisture and prevent animal grazing.
The sawgrass stretches to the horizon and appears to be growing straight from the solid ground like on the Great Plains, but the entire landscape instead is covered with about a foot of water. The Shark River Slough (pronounced “slew”) is actually a huge, slow-moving river which is the lifeblood of the Everglades. Because the water is continuously moving, it is not gross and stagnant like I always imagined. The sawgrass marsh’s water is actually crystal clear and it smells like a fresh meadow. This is the heart of the Everglades.
The sawgrass grows in a very thin (maybe 3-4 inches) layer of nutrient-poor soil made up of decaying plant material. Below the loose soil is a vast and very flat deposit of limestone, which prevents any larger plants from taking root. The limestone foundation throughout the park may vary in elevation by as little as one or two feet across a hundred miles, but that tiny variance in elevation is extremely important to the many contrasting ecosystems within the park.
Looking across the Everglades we can see what appear to be islands among the sawgrass—clumps of trees resembling desert oases. Some of these islands are areas which, as we expected, the earth rises up above water level by only about a foot, allowing a deeper soil and drier ground for stands, or hammocks, of large hardwood trees like mahogany, cocoa palm, and slash pine. The largest mahogany tree in the US resides in one of these Everglades hammocks.
What we certainly did not expect was how other tree “islands” are formed. There are clumps, or domes, of cypress and mangrove trees that, from outside the dome appear to be the same as hammocks where the earth rises above the water level, but from inside the forest, you realize they are actually growing in deeper water than the surrounding sawgrass.
In these dome forest areas, the limestone actually dips down and forms a pool of water that may only be a few inches to a foot deeper than the sawgrass prairie, but allows a thicker layer of soil beneath the water where the cypress and mangrove trees can take root.
We had an incredible experience on a Slough Slog, a hike through the water-logged sawgrass prairie and directly into a cypress dome forest. Trudging in mud through water above our knees in the Everglades, the home of many birds, insects, fish, trees, plants, and yes, alligators (it’s okay, we were guided by a park ranger), was one of the most amazing experiences of our entire trip!
Amongst the cypress trees we were engulfed by a towering canopy, just as most of our hikes, but the calm of the knee-deep water and the abundant wildlife concealed within the forest created an indescribable tranquility that no other conventional hike could match.
We spent a little time at West Lake and the Flamingo area where freshwater meets the saltwater of Florida Bay. Here we saw mangrove forests and a few alligators and crocodiles intermingled with manatees and the fresh ocean breeze.
On our last day in the park we went to the north side and biked the 15-mile Shark Valley Loop Road, a path which leads along a manmade canal with literally hundreds of alligators sunbathing along the shore a few feet from the trail.
Despite not seeing any elusive Florida panthers, but having seen and felt many mosquitos, which really weren’t so bad after we bathed regularly in bug spray, we thoroughly enjoyed Everglades National Park and would highly recommend it for your bucket list.