Abundant Wildlife



Perhaps nowhere else in the U.S. will visitors find such a high concentration of animal life in the wild. On the half-mile long Anhinga Trail, huge, colorful shorebirds and abundant alligators are always within sight.


At over 2000 square miles, Everglades National Park is quite large. The park covers Floridaís southern tip from a line roughly from Naples to Miami, and extends several miles south into the Florida Bay. Most areas are inaccessible by car and much is inaccessible by foot. Although the park has two visitor centers on its north side, the main entrance is located on the east side... about ten miles west of U.S. 1 in Florida City. This entrance allows for maximum access to the parkís best features and activities. The park has three distinct sub-environments... freshwater, saltwater and the occasional hardwood hammock. There is a wide variety of activities for those making brief or extended visits. The park offers camping, boating, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, and of course... outstanding bird and wildlife watching.


Established in 1947, Everglades National Park was the first national park created primarily to protect an endangered ecological system. The Everglades is essentially a grass-covered, gently sloping 50-mile wide river flowing from Lake Okeechobee south through Floridaís tip. It is the only subtropical environment in the continental U.S. The rapidly growing population of South Florida has created several threats to the fragile Everglades ecosystem. Canals have disrupted the natural patterns of water flow and the rapidly increasing population has created proportionately higher human demand upon the fresh water flowing through the Everglades. Everglades National Park constitutes only about one-fifth of the entire area known as the Everglades. Despite recent extension of the park boundaries, plans for future extensions and other preservation efforts, this unique ecosystemís survival remains in question.


Traveling with my two teenage daughters, we had landed in Ft. Lauderdale (from Ohio) the previous night. This was the first full day of a 5-day February trip to south Florida and Key West. The plan was to take the whole day to meander our way south and take in some of some the sights and attractions along the way. Everglades National Park and the nearby Biscayne National Park were the first two places on our agenda. We arrived at the parkís main entrance at about 10 AM. We stopped briefly at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, just inside the park entrance. This visitor center is fairly large and well-maintained. There are several interesting exhibits and dioramas. We picked up our park map and spoke with a ranger about the best place to see alligators. The heavily-tattooed Australian-accented park rangerís enthusiasm was without question. (I mention these details because he reminded me of Crocodile Dundee.) The friendly ranger told us that the best place to view alligators in the entire park was the Anhinga Trail at the Royal Palm area... about four miles away. I would have been happy to see just a gator or two. We were entirely unaware of the abundant wildlife we were about to see.

The landscape between Ernest Coe Visitor Center and Royal Palm is relatively unremarkable... mostly flat grasslands with palm and other trees visible in the distance. Upon approach to Royal Palm, we saw a few of the namesake 60-80 foot tall royal palm trees towering over the visitor center. Although they donít describe it as such, Royal Palm has a small visitor center adjacent to the parking lot. Two distinctly different trails begin here. Both trails are both flat, paved and handicapped-accessible. The Gumbo Limbo Trail focuses on the areaís flora. The half-mile trail is an easy shaded hike through an area resembling a stereotypical jungle. The short paved trail is lined with palms, gumbo limbo trees, ferns and other foliage within the other trees.

Our trail... the must-see trail with all the animals is called the Anhinga Trail, named after the beautiful anhinga bird which is indigenous to the area. The trail begins by a small pond behind the visitor center. We immediately spotted several different shorebirds in the trees and along the edge of the pond. After admiring the birds for a few moments, we then noticed our first gator over the ledge at the trailhead. We watched him for awhile and I took a disproportionate number of photos before we continued down the trail. The first half of the trail curves around the pond. We saw many more birds, a turtle and a few more gators... some of considerable size. The birds included cormorants, great blue herons, tri-color herons, anhingas, great egrets, snowy egrets, vultures, the endangered wood stork and a variety of other shorebirds of various sizes and colors. Some of the alligators were right next to the trail. There is no barrier or protective fence between these gators and the trail. At times, we were within a yard or two of the reptiles... simultaneously exhilarating and unnerving. The beasts rarely moved. Their sharp protruding teeth, unmoving soulless eyes and lack of motion belied their ability to lunge and grab us should they be stricken with such a notion. By the way, an alligator can outrun and average human over short distances... again, should it decide to do so. The visitor centers and park literature offer some cursory warnings about the perils presented by wild alligators, but serious warnings and signage touting the dangers posed by gators are conspicuously lacking. Maybe these reptiles are used to people walking by daily. Perhaps they have abundant food in their natural environment. Maybe they just arenít that hungry in February. Whatever the case, we never lost sight of the gators who were within close proximity. (One exception... I convinced my daughters to sit on the decorative fence with a large gator in the background.)

The second half of Anhinga Trail traverses an elevated wooden boardwalk loop across the open, grassy swamp. Since hikers are now isolated, any perceived gator danger is minimized. However, alligators are even more abundant along the boardwalk. On two or three occasions, we saw groups of 3 or 4 in this area. The avian population is just as high here. We encountered a nesting area of one unidentified shorebird. After the boardwalk loop, the trail leads back around the pond to the visitor center. On our return hike, the overcast day suddenly presented us with a few minutes of bright sunshine. I ran around like the proverbial headless chicken to snap some great photos.

The Anhinga Trail has an enormous amount of easily viewed diverse wildlife. If you are driving to the Keys from Miami or Lauderdale, make it a point to spend a bit of time at Everglades National Park. Entrance fee is $10 per private vehicle., good for 7 days.

From the east (main) entrance, Everglades National Park is open 24/7. The Ernest Coe Visitor Center is open from 9-5 from 4/17 - 12/17 and 8-5 in the winter.