Everglades National Park
April 23rd and 24th 2019, I visited Everglades National Park. As the third largest National Park in the contiguous US, Everglades covers nearly 1.3 million acres. Unfortunately, 2 days is not nearly enough time to enjoy all this beautiful park has to offer. I only spent a few hours planning this trip, and ended up altering my initial itinerary. That aside, I had a great trip and would love to come back someday and spend some time visiting less tourist-y locations within the park.
Check-In at Miccosukee Resort and Gaming
Shark Valley Visitor Center
Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center
When you think of the Everglades, one of the images that comes to mind is that of airboats. Naturally, this was an experience I could not pass on! The National Park Service website notes that there are 3 airboat tour companies authorized to operate within the park; Coopertown Airboats, Everglades Safari Park, and Gator Park.
In looking at their prices on each of their websites as of April of 2019, Coopertown Airboats charge $23.00 for an adult ticket with a $3.00 National Park fee. They do, however, have a $2.00 off coupon on their website. Everglades Safari Park charges $25.00 for an adult ticket and has a $3.00 off coupon on their website, again with a $3.00 National Park fee. Finally, Gator Park’s website states that adult tickets are $19.99 when purchased online or $24.99 at the gate, with the additional $3.00 National Park fee.
I decided to go with the cheapest option and pre-purchase a ticket to Gator Park online. The process was a bit of a mess as I had to use Paypal which I did not have set-up, but it didn’t take too long. I will note that with tax the ticket cost me $21.39, which is only slightly cheaper than the Coopertown tours, but save some money where you can, eh? I also paid the $3.00 park fee upon arrival to Gator Park, making my total spent $24.39.
Gator Park itself is not much to look at and has a pretty small parking lot. The building has two registers where you can pick up your tickets and your alligator-themed souvenirs. Signage inside told me that they sold hot dogs, and I did see a small stand of some condiments. There were also novelty ice creams near the registers.
The airboat ride was nice, though the whole thing only last around half an hour. They do have an option to pay more for a “private tour”, but those ticket prices range into the hundreds of dollars. I think my half an hour with my tour guide, Kennesaw and 23 other total strangers was worth my $25. It was a nice introduction into what I would see on the other stops of my visit. Here are some of the pictures I got from the boat:
Gator Park also features a “Wildlife Show”, but I decided not to stick around for it. To be honest, I felt bad for the alligators they had in small fenced-in areas there. It didn’t appear that they had facilities to care for any animals they may incorporate into their show. As a matter of personal preference, I opted out of the experience. If you have traveled to Gator Park, did you see the Wildlife Show? If so, how was it?
After leaving Gator Park, I wanted to visit the Shark Valley Visitor Center. My initial plan was to take their tram tour on Day 2, but I didn’t feel as tired from the drive down to the park as I thought I would. The weather was fantastic and I didn’t want to waste it if I could help it. I drove further west down Highway 41, but found a line of cars at the entrance to the Visitor Center. As I pulled into the line, a Park Ranger walked by my car and put up a sign explaining that their parking lot was full. It looked as though they permitted parking along Highway 41 and walking into the Visitor Center, but I decided I would head on to the hotel and come back the next day as I had originally planned.
Miccosukee Resort and Gaming
When looking for hotels online, I usually default to checking websites like Travelocity (though not exclusively through this site) because I’m often unfamiliar with the area. This may not be the most cost-effective way of doing things, but it’s simple. If you have suggestions as to easy, relatively cheap ways to find lodging for trips, please let me know! Through Travelocity, I found Miccosukee Resort and Gaming. It was the hotel closest to the Shark Valley Visitor Center, and the price seemed reasonable to me ($119.57 for 1 night).
Miccosukee Resort and Gaming is operated by the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. As the name implies, the resort includes not only room accommodation, dining, a spa, and other amenities one would expect of a resort, but also gambling. I wasn’t interested in the gambling as I, generally, don’t have great luck with even scratch-offs or bingo, so I didn’t partake in any of it at the resort. However, the games take up a majority of the ground level, and a good portion of the second floor, so they seemed to have a great variety to choose from. Keep in mind that I have no experience with gaming, so my impression could be totally wrong here.
The resort itself is the tallest building for miles, making it easy to find. In fact, I passed it on my way to Gator Park, so doubling back to reach it was easy. At the front desk, they were kind enough to let me check-in early (check-in is at 15:00 and it was around 13:45). They even asked me if I had a view or floor level preference. I just asked them to put me into whichever available room they would choose if they were staying at the resort. I ended up with a north-facing room on the 4th floor. See my view and room below:
The room was clean and it was nice to be somewhere that didn’t smell like cigarettes (smoking is allowed on the gaming floor). I worked as a Housekeeper at a chain hotel in my hometown one summer several years ago, so my definition of clean may be different to (more lax than) someone else’s. My main criteria are: Do I see someone else’s hair anywhere in the bathroom? Do I see signs of someone else in the bed? Can I smell anything in the room other than cleaning products or air freshener? If the answer to all these questions is, “No.” then I’m happy. (I will admit, however, after being in the room for several hours I would occasionally get a whiff of cigarette smoke from the hallway.)
After settling in, I went to the Empeeke Aya Deli to get something to eat. The resort does have a few dining locations, but I went with their quick service option. I got a cheeseburger with fries and a small drink for $10.05, which seemed like a decent price to me when comparing how much food I got to the portion size and price of other resorts I have visited. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take a picture of my food, but I hadn’t eaten yet that day and was half-way through the burger before I thought of it. Oh, well. The food was good, pretty standard. The only off-putting thing about the meal was the smell of cigarettes as the deli is just off the gaming floor. On my way out, I bought some bread pudding to eat later for $5.71. That ended up being a bit disappointing, but live and learn.
Later on, I enjoyed the pool, watched TV (something I don’t get to do very often as I refuse to pay for cable), and worked on whatever crochet project I was doing at the time. All-in-all, the resort was good. I don’t think I would stay there again, only because of the pervasive smell of cigarettes. If that doesn’t bother you as it bothers me, I’m sure you would also enjoy your stay here.
Pros: multiple dining options, pool, sauna, exercise room, friendly service, clean rooms
Cons: all common areas smell like cigarette/cigar smoke, no free WiFi, the shampoo/conditioner/lotion bottles are small plastic bottles stoppered with a cork (I’m one of those people who always takes those things with me when I go, but the cork made the logistics too much of a hassle. I’m sure it’s a handy cost-saving measure), thin walls
Shark Valley Visitor Center
The National Parks website said that the Visitor Center opens at 9:00, but the gate opens at 8:30. Keeping in mind the crowd I saw the previous day, I decided to try and be there close to 9:00. I made it there just after the hour and there wasn’t much of a crowd. However, the first Tram Tour left at 9:00, so I bought a ticket for the second one at 10:30 for $25.00 and set out walk the Bobcat Boardwalk.
Here, in the interest of full disclosure, I think I should mention that I had to ask one of the people working at the ticket counter if I was allowed to just walk around, or if I needed to pay for bike rental, which was $9.00/hr. It seemed everyone else there was either sitting around waiting for the next Tram or renting a bike. They told me I could walk it if I wanted to, so I did.
The Shark Valley Visitor Center consists of a large, 15 mile loop and a few smaller hiking trails. One trail is near the entrance (Bobcat Boardwalk, pictured above) and the other is at the far end of the large loop near the viewing tower. In order to traverse the loop, you can take the guided Tram Tour, ride a bike (your own or one you rent), or walk. Having taken the Tram Tour, I would highly recommend it! While I think I could handle a 15 mile bike ride or walk (though it would definitely take me some time) the loop is paved in asphalt and there is no shade to be found. In cooler weather, I’m sure a bike ride would be quite pleasant, but I sunburn far too easily. On my tour, I ended up in one of the middle seats (that Tram was packed!), but I think you’ll agree that the view was still beautiful. Scroll through the photos below!
The Tram Tour was great! Our Tour Guide, Ranger Andrea, was great at interacting with park-goers and answering their questions. She had our Tram Driver stop at one point so she could retrieve some Mylar balloons that were entangled in some bushes. The Driver (I think his name was either Chad or Chase) made several stops for us and inched forward so that everyone could get a view of whatever animal or plant Ranger Andrea was informing us about. I would definitely go on this tour again and highly recommend it.
Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center
At the end of my visit to the Shark Valley Visitor Center, I knew I wanted to see more. Originally, I thought there would be more hiking to do at Shark Valley, not realizing that the entirety of the 15 mile trail was covered in the Tram Tour. It was just shy of 12:00, so I decided to drive the, roughly, 50 miles to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. Before my trip, I had done minimal research through the National Parks website and thought I would find more interesting trails to follow there. I had hoped I would make it in time to hear the 13:30 Park Ranger presentation at Royal Palm, one of the sites in the park. As it turned out, I was a little too late.
There are 2 rather short hiking trails at Royal Palm: Anhinga Trail and Gumbo-Limbo Trail. I was able to walk them both. While I was able to get some great views of alligators, anhingas, turtles, fish, and all manner of flora, I will say that these 2 trails were very popular, and I was never out of ear shot of other visitors. Perhaps visiting earlier on in the day would provide more solitude, but Royal Palm’s close proximity to the park would ensure it to be highly traveled. One great point for both trails is that they are handicap accessible. However, I think the Gumbo-Limbo Trail may be a bit difficult for a person using a wheelchair to navigate as the trees has encroached on the paved trail in some areas. Check out some of what you might see on your own trip to Royal Palm:
After Royal Palm, I headed further west to see the Pa-hay-okee Overlook. Along the way, I drove through the Rock Reef Pass, boasting an elevation of 3 feet.
According to a quick google search, Pa-hay-okee means “grassy river”. Without supporting evidence, I cannot speak to the veracity of this claim, but the article I scanned by the Orlando Sentinel claimed that “Indians called the Everglades ‘Pa-hay-okee’”. The overlook of this namesake is a nice little trail that offers a handicap accessible entrance, an impressive view of the river of grass, and a couple of benches under a small roof to create shade and a nice place to rest.
Going to Everglades National Park was an amazing trip! The park is well maintained and has a great variety of activities to participate in. I didn’t get to experience any camping or boating, but there are many opportunities for both. Someday when I return, I will definitely take more time to better explore the park and try to make it to some of the less traveled spots.
How much did it cost?
Food at the Hotel $ 15.76
Gator Park (+NPS fee) $24.39
National Park entry $30.00
Tram Tour $25.00 Total $214.72
This doesn’t include the gas I spent to get there or to drive around the park. It also doesn’t include the Subway sandwich I bought on the way home, but I think this was a reasonable price for a trip I won’t forget.