The Everglades is a bizarre ecosystem, when you think about it: a drawling grassy river that's rarely more than knee-deep, but spreads some 40 miles wide, harboring an exotic population of manatees, hawksbill turtles, water moccasins, coral snakes, panthers, armadillos, muskrats, opossums, river otters, herons, egrets, the roseate spoonbill, and the big black anhinga bird. It's the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live side by side. There's nothing like it anywhere else -- and it might not be here much longer, given the encroaching development in southern Florida. Bring the kids here now, to dip a paddle into this River of Grass while it still flows.
While you can stick to dry land -- driving or biking on the paved park roads, or walking short nature trails through junglelike patches of forest -- the whole point of this place is that it isn't dry land. What you really want is to feel the sway and lap of the park's waters, the lazy grace of its fluid meander through mangroves and cypresses and sawgrass prairies. Rent canoes at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, on FL 29 in Everglades City (tel. 239/695-3311), or the Flamingo Lodge by the Flamingo Visitor Center, at the end of S.R. 9336 at the southern tip of the park (tel. 239/695-2945). In a canoe you'll be incredibly close to the water level, casually coexisting with gators and birds as if you're part of their natural environment. That just won't happen on those powered airboats that offer Everglades tours just outside park boundaries. (They aren't allowed in the park proper.)
Everglades National Park's longest "trails" are designed for canoe travel, and many are marked as clearly as walking trails. From the Gulf Coast, you can canoe 2 miles across Chokoloskee Bay to a mangrove island, or follow the Turner River 8 miles from freshwater cypress forest into saltwater mangrove swamp. From Flamingo, the Noble Hammock Canoe Trail is an easy 2-mile loop; the Hell's Bay Canoe Trail is 3 to 6 miles, depending on how far you venture. A guided boat tour is a great idea, not only to find your way but to benefit from the guide's familiarity with the flora and fauna; contact Everglades National Park Boat Tours, at the Park's Docks on Chokoloskee Causeway (S.R. 29) in Everglades City (tel. 239/695-2591), or North American Canoe Tours at the Ivey House B&B (see below; www.evergladesadventures.com).
Nearest Airport: Miami International, 40 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Best Western Gateway to the Keys, 411 S. Krome Ave., Florida City (tel. 888/981-5100 or 305/246-5100; www.bestwestern.com). $$ Ivey House B&B, 107 Camellia St., Everglades City (tel. 877/567-0679 or 239/695-3299; www.iveyhouse.com).
Best Time: Dry season (winter or spring).