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Florida is more than beaches and theme parks, as everyone knows, and it's big, too. Driving from one end of the state to the other encompasses 800 miles of highway and it contains eleven national parks, the most impressive of which, in my opinion, is the Everglades. At 1.5 million acres, the Everglades National Park is the biggest subtropical wilderness in the United States, the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi, and the third largest of national parks in the lower 48 states (after Death Valley and Yellowstone), as well as being a trove of unexpected delights. The park was established in 1947 and is one of the world's most precious assets.

You may have read authors like Carl Hiassen, who capture the essence of the Everglades fully in their mysteries and articles, but until you see your first alligator snoozing on the road, you can't fully imagine the appeal of this place. It's replete with critters, big and small, from foot-long baby alligators (endangered), the Florida panther (endangered), the West Indian manatee (threatened) to blue heron and storks. And that's just a small part of the long list of fauna you can see here There are over 350 species of birds, 300 of fish, 40 of mammals and 50 of reptiles. The park has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance, among other accolades. An excellent background book, full of color, is by one of the park's creators, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, often called "the mother of the Everglades." Its title: The Everglades: River of Grass, first published in 1947 but still in print.

As for flora, the park is said to have the largest growth of mangrove trees in the western hemisphere, as well as gumbo-limbo, strangler figs and royal palms, to mention only a few exotic species.

Entrances to the park, which is open daily, include the Main Park entrance at Homestead/Florida City, open 24/7, as is the Gulf Coast Entrance at US 41 & Route 29. The Shark Valley Entrance off the Tamiami Trail (US 41) is open daily from 8:30am to 6pm. The busy season is winter, which is also the dry season. During the summer (wet) season, facilities may have restricted hours or closed altogether, and recreational choices may be less than in winter, too. Summers are hot (around 90 degrees) and humidity over 90%, with abundant mosquitoes and afternoon thunderstorms frequent. The Atlantic Hurricane Season is from June through November, which is also the rainy season.

Activities

In addition to the ranger-led projects (see below), you can bicycle through Shark Valley (rentals available at Shark Valley Visitor Center), take boat tours of the Ten Thousand Islands from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, or take a concession boat along the mangrove coast at both Flamingo and Gulf Coast Visitor Centers. At the latter, you can also rent canoes. There are 256 miles of canoe/kayak, and walking trails and 47 designated wilderness campsites, most of the latter accessible only by boat. One activity which I have done since childhood, but did not know it was a recognized sport, is slogging, just wading through the shallow waters in search of wildlife and other water secrets.

New in 2008

Note that the Flamingo Lodge, restaurant and marina were damaged significantly in Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005, so that the lodging and restaurant are still closed and the marina has only limited services. As of 2008, Clubhouse Beach campsite is accessibly be water only, the Coastal Prairie Trail being closed.

A bit of good news: In May, Toyota contributed $1 million for environmental education programs here, giving the park five vehicles as well, part of the company's $5 million gift to the national park system (and 23 vehicles) overall.

Rangers

Rangers give tram tours in the Shark Valley District daily at various times and lead Adventure Rambles on weekends. Check this out at the Visitor Centers. The Tram Tour lasts two hours (small fee), taking you into the heart of the Everglades to see alligators, birds and other wildlife. You'll be taken into the middle of the River of Grass. The Adventure Ramble lasts just 45 minutes in the rainy season (June through November), during which you will see dragonflies, frogs and spider webs. Both programs are wheelchair accessible.

Boating

You can rent boats, kayaks or canoes here and explore Florida Bay, Whitewater Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands, but you need to know what you're doing. Get your charts out, and keep your eyes peeled for shallow areas (not always marked) such as sand bars and oyster reefs. Expert travel writers Bill and Mary Burnham have explored this area carefully, their book, Florida Keys Paddling Atlas (2007), covering everything from Florida Bay down through Key West to the Dry Tortugas. Their informative website, www.floridapaddling.com, has much more info on this activity.

You can explore freely but there are launch fees at some marinas and boat ramps, there are safety regulations, there are plenty of no wake zones, and you have to be careful not to harm any animals or damage the coral reef.

Fees

You will pay $10 for your vehicle, good for seven consecutive days. On foot or bicycle, the price is $5, also good for a week. If you are 16 or under, there is no charge. You can buy an annual Everglades Pass for $25. It costs $16 per night to camp here, and the fee for backcountry camping is $10 plus $2 per person per night, max. 14 days. Camping permit fee waived during summer, but you still have to register.

Visitors

There were 954,022 visitors in 2006, the last year figures were available.

Contacts

The official website of the park is www.nps.gov/ever.

A good commercial site is www.everglades.national-park.com.

The American Park Network site is www.ohranger.com.

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