America’s Big Swamp
Nature lovers and the eco-curious will have a field day in the largest protected wetlands in the United States. The Everglades is a 1.5 million-acre subtropical freshwater marshland and the third largest national park in the lower forty-eight states after Death Valley and Yellowstone. Conveniently located down at Florida’s southern tip, in Miami’s backyard though atmospherically a million miles from South Beach, this is Florida as it existed before the Spanish explorers—or man in general—arrived.
Half land and half water, the Everglades is a complex and fragile ecosystem, an endangered home to thousands of animal, bird, and plant species, a land full of tangled mangrove thickets crisscrossed by shallow, labyrinthine channels with names like Shark River, Hells Bay, Graveyard Creek, and Lostman’s River. Wooden walkways, bicycle trails, and airboats (the latter not allowed within the park proper) give a glimpse of the peripheral marshland’s flora and fauna, but penetration of the Everglades’ mystery and history is best accomplished by kayak or canoe, ideally in the company of a guide.
Informative naturalists point out the park’s residents—manatees, ibis, egrets, ospreys, bald eagles, alligators, turtles, more than fourteen native species of snakes, and, if you’re exceedingly lucky, one of the ten remaining Florida panthers that reside in the park.
Bird-watching can be outstanding when the winter’s migratory guests swell the park’s usual community of 347 species, and plant fanciers have more than 1,000 species to study beyond the ubiquitous saw grass, so common here that the area is often referred to as the “river of grass.” The beautiful, constantly shifting light across the Everglades landscape is quite unlike anything else, underscoring its endangered fragility.