The Everglades is a subtropical wetland which makes up 4,000 square miles of Central and Southern Florida. During the rainy season, Lake Okeechobee overflows, creating a shallow river through the sawgrass.
The river flows south through cypress swamps, wet prairie, and mangroves until it reaches Everglades National Park and the Florida Bay.
While development has interfered with the ecosystem, there is still a diverse selection of wildlife including panthers, bears, alligators, crocodiles, snakes, manatees, and many species of plants and birds.
Most visitors to the area follow the 38-mile scenic drive from Ernest F Coe Visitor Center near Miami to the Flamingo Visitor center in the southernmost portion of the park. This area features many boardwalks, picnic areas, and canoe and kayak trails. Ten years ago, I spent a day here. After seeing all the wildlife, I wished to return.
I finally visited with my friend Page, only this time we explored the Western side of the Everglades which includes the Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve as well as some state and private lands.
We spent 3.5 days based out of the Ivey House Everglades Adventures in Everglades City, and during our time found just about every way to explore the swamp in the Everglades.
Kayaking in the Everglades
First, we signed up for kayaking. There are numerous kayak and canoe trails in the Everglades, and a seasoned paddler could go for days. While we originally thought we’d enjoy the adventure of paddling on our own, we ultimately signed up for a guided tour on the Turner River with Everglades Adventures, and I’m glad we did.
The company offers rentals and four guided tours a day. The guided tour times are 7:30am, 10:30am, 1pm and 3:30pm. The 7:30am and 1pm tours are four hours while the 10:30am is three hours and the twilight tour varies with the sunset. Based on the temperature and water levels when we visited in early January, we felt 10:30am would be the best.
Additionally, I was on mountain time, and two of Page’s friends from Fort Myers were joining us, so 7:30am was both too early and too cold. While the 1pm tour would have also been a nice option, it already had six people booked while the 10:30 had none. As a result, we ended up with a private tour for the public price of $89 per person.
The Turner River
We met at the Ivey House at 10:15, signed the waiver, learned a little bit about the Turner River and then jumped into the shuttle which towed our kayaks to the public access put in 15 minutes down the Tamiami Trail in the Big Cypress National Preserve.
The Turner River is named for Captain Richard Turner who led 100 army troops up the river off Chokoloskee Island during the Third Seminole War in 1857. The Seminoles learned of their whereabouts and drove them off. Turner later returned to the mouth of the river where he settled and farmed vegetables which he sold.
The tour heads down the canal entry to the Turner River and first turns to the north. Here the river is wide as it passes beneath the shade of cypress trees and pond apple trees, though the apples are not good for eating. The limbs of the trees are dotted with bromeliads, or as Floridians like to call them, air plants. They are so named because the seeds fall from the air and onto a host on which they grow.
The river soon opens to a pond area lined in saw grass where turtles and gators bask in the sun on the Western shore. In the sparse trees above, Anhingas, which frequently swim underwater while hunting, face the sun as they dry their wings. They even do so on a cloudy day. As a result, if lost while navigating the swamp on an overcast day, look for the Anhingas to confirm your direction!
This area of the river is also home to some nesting osprey which are a delight to see when they are hanging around. In warmer months, there is a chance to see many blooming orchids.
After exploring the Northern part of the river, we turned south, passed beneath the Tamiami Trail, and soon ventured into the mangroves where we saw more gators. At first, they were navigable with the dual paddle, but soon they narrowed.
As we entered the first tunnel, we broke our dual paddle down to a single and had to row like we were operating a canoe. At the second tunnel, whose entrance was hardly visible, we didn’t use our paddles at all. We simply pulled ourselves along by the roots of the mangroves.
Not even noticing the entrance to the second tunnel is what made me happy to have a guide. I would have either turned around because I didn’t know where to go, or would have been frustrated while relying on the National Park Paddling Guide which includes a general description of the turns, but not specific mileage (not that I’d know how far I’d gone on a boat).
That said, if the water was too high, too low, or the mangroves had yet to be maintained, I would have been in a world of hurt trying to take the popular 8.5 mile route to the Chokoloskee Island. As a result, it is best for inexperienced kayakers to go with a guide or check on the conditions with the park service or outfitter before renting a kayak.
Swamp Buggy Tour in the Everglades
Another way to see the swamp in the Everglades is by Swamp Buggy. Wooten’s offers a swamp buggy tour for $27.50 per person, but check for coupons as there are many deals. Additionally, there is a discount for staying at the Ivey House. We got a Buy One, Get One Free offer.
Swamp buggies are trucks and trailers with GIANT wheels that can drive through the water. We went at 9:30am on a Friday and got the buggy for ourselves. The 30-minute ride follows a short U-path that begins in the saw grass and then passes through the cypress forest.
I felt the ride and path was a bit contrived, and would have rather gone farther into the wilderness, but it was cheap, and it gave us something to do. More importantly, we liked the guide and learned a lot about the Everglades. He worked for 15 years removing invasive species of plants and animals from the Everglades. I can only imagine we he came across.
He showed us pictures of bears that he has seen on the tour and told us just two days ago, he jumped off a buggy and wrestled a python into a bag. That would have been fun to watch. The South Florida Water Management District pays snake hunters an hourly wage plus a fee per foot for removing invasive snake species from the Everglades.
During our ride, we saw a few birds, some deer and an old gator camp, but it was otherwise uneventful. If I had to do it over again, I’d try to find a local that has his own vehicle and go with him. But that would be far more expensive. Given we paid for lots of tours on this three day adventure, I was fine with experiencing a short ride.
The ticket to the ride also includes admission to an Alligator Show and an Animal Sanctuary which cares for two tigers, two lions, otters and other animals. While this is likely fun for kids, I was trying to avoid using this outfitter, as I didn’t do the research as to how they came upon the animals. If they rescued them, I support it, but if the animals are there for show, I don’t. Since I hadn’t done the research, I was steering clear.
As a result, we did not take their kayak or airboat tours though I suspect they are just fine as they have been in business since 1953. Wooten’s certainly can be a one stop shop for the budget minded as there are several combo ticket options.
Airboat Ride in the Everglades
We, however, found another place to take an airboat ride with Coopertown, the Original Airboat Tour. It was billed as historic rather than as a circus, which appealed to me. That said, I didn’t find the place to be very historic.
The airboat rides in Coopertown started when drivers on the Tamiami Trail noticed John Cooper on his frogging boat in 1945. People wanted to take a ride. He eventually built a passenger boat to accommodate them. Twenty years later, a restaurant was added to serve those frog legs!
Despite not finding the location very historic, I really enjoyed the airboat ride. We went fast through the river of grass, stopped for photo opportunities of birds and gators, and simply enjoyed the scenery as our guide provided a lot of natural and historic information.
Specifically, the water is more controlled in this Eastern section of the Everglades, and despite there being 37 different kinds of bacteria in the swamp, the water is very clean and is the drinking source for Southern Florida residents. Currently, there are programs to reduce the amount of water interference and to make the water flow similarly to its original, natural environment.
Coopertown, as with other airboat operators, offer group tours for only $25.95 and private tours for $120 per person for the shortest outing, 1 hour. We took the one-hour tour which was plenty long for this 48-degree day though I would have enjoyed a longer tour if it were warmer and there were more birds. In the meantime, we donned parkas, windbreakers, and gloves and felt fortunate to have them!
The benefit of taking a private tour aside from less people is that the boat is smaller and can go into more places. Also, we enjoyed the Coopertown location for the change in scenery. Most of the last few days we had been in cypress forest and mangroves. Coopertown featured wet, saw grass.
Coopertown is on the way to Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Since we were headed that way on our departure day, it was a good option. For those flying in and out of the West Coast of Florida, Wootens is a better alternative as it is closer to Everglades City.
Because Coopertown is closer to Miami, it was busier which could be a downside for group tours. For us, however, it worked out. Also, I admittedly succumbed to the tourist attraction of holding a baby alligator. This is not advertised, but our guide asked if we wanted to. I wanted to see how it felt. At two feet, I could already feel its strength too.
After our airboat ride in Coopertown, we enjoyed the appetizer plate at Old’s Havana Cuban Bar & Cocina in Little Havana located at the end of the Tamiami Trail in Miami. It was a perfect way to complete our short stay in the Everglades before flying out of Fort Lauderdale.
Pole Boat Tour in the Everglades
While I loved the airboat ride, and would do it again, it was very loud even with noise-cancelling earmuffs they provide. There was no talking unless the fan was turned off. This leads me to a fourth alternative for ways to see the swamp in the Everglades, by pole boat.
The pole boat tour is only offered by the aforementioned Everglades Adventure located at the Skunkape Headquarters and the Trail Lakes Campground on the Tamiami Trail. It’s funny because as we were kayaking, I commented to my friend Page that we need a boat with a push pole. At the time, I didn’t know such tour was offered.
The friendly folks at Nely’s Corner in the Marathon gas station, where we ate an excellent breakfast every morning, recommended it to us. The tour is about two hours and puts in at the Turner River on the Tamiami Trail just minutes from their headquarters. It was our mistake to fail to ask where we were going, so we got a second tour of the Turner River.
With the pole boat, we only explored the Northern portion of the Turner River and did not go south into the mangroves. Being a colder day, there was less wildlife, but we still saw a gator, turtle, some birds and a few blooming orchids and bromeliads.
The benefit of the push boat is that it is slow and quiet. It provides photographers and birders a chance to take pictures and scope out wildlife without having to paddle at the same time. I very much liked that part about the tour.
The downside is the small amount of territory that is explored as compared to kayaking or other swamp tours. Additionally, kayaking also provides more exercise. But for those who want a quiet and peaceful experience or who have kids that can’t paddle, the pole boat tour for $119 per person is a nice, though pricier alternative. It also might be worth looking into a half day safari or all day excursion under better weather conditions.
The ticket purchase offers entry into the room at the back of the headquarters which houses many pythons, some baby alligators, free range chickens for alligator lunch, and the legend of the Skunkape which is Florida’s version of bigfoot. Those not going on a tour may pay to enter.
Scenic Drive and Swamp Walks in the Everglades
The final way to see the swamp in the Everglades is to simply take a scenic drive or to actually walk through it. We took a few scenic drives along the Loop Road and Turner River Road which mostly provides views of the manmade canals and associated birdlife. I can’t say that was too terribly exciting in the early January cool weather and high-water conditions.
The other alternative is to walk through the swamp. I was willing to try this up until our kayak guide mentioned walking around water moccasins. Page’s fear of snakes definitely added her to the “NO” category, and I wasn’t sold on trying it alone for more than five minutes.
I recognize swamp lovers think I’m being ridiculous. Kind of like when I hear about someone being afraid of a black bear. They generally are more afraid of you than you are of them. They are happy to leave you alone. Just don’t provoke them. I suppose the same goes for snakes.
The biggest challenge was that I was unfamiliar with appropriate survival tactics, and I was afraid might not see a snake or recognize its natural habitat until too late. Not to mention, there isn’t necessarily a path to follow while swamp walking, and I’m not fond of walking in water and mud anyway.
Guided swamp walking tours are offered by Everglades Adventure Tours, Clyde Butcher Gallery, and the Big Cypress Institute. In fact, I stumbled upon the Big Cypress Institute, which is located on Turner River Road, a little too late. They offer biking tours and swamp buggy tours as well. They appear more educational, but I would keep them in mind for a return visit.
Oasis Visitor Center
Instead of walking in the swamp, we compromised and walked on many boardwalks along the Tamiami Trail. There are short boardwalks at both HP Williams Roadside Park and the Oasis Visitor Center in Big Cypress National Preserve. At both places there is a chance to see several gators in the canal.
At the Oasis Visitor Center, the gators are huge. I suspect visitors illegally feed them which unfortunately makes them dangerous just as with any wild animal that associates food with humans. Check for gators in the canal near the parking area too! Also at the Oasis Visitor Center is the Florida National Scenic Trail.
I coaxed Page into walking on it. I had hoped we’d reach the swamp quickly, and I’d try a few minutes of a swamp walk there. Unfortunately, at the visitor center, the 1,500 mile trail follows a grassy path by a big runway which was built in 1968 for what was planned as the largest airport in the world until construction was halted to save the environment. When the grassy trail changed to mud, we turned around. It was not my idea of fun. More power to those who enjoy that.
Clyde Butcher Gallery
The closest we got to a swamp walk was following an extremely short trail in a swampy area at the Clyde Butcher Gallery. It took less than five minutes. We spotted some nice flowers and also got to see Clyde Butcher’s famous black and white photography.
Kirby Storter Roadside Park
It was difficult to find long walks in the Everglades unless we wanted to walk on dirt roads that most people drive, but we did find a few longer boardwalks. One is located at the Kirby Storter Roadside Park. It was dull at first, but once it entered into the trees and watery area, we found it enjoyable. We spotted a soft shell turtle and a regular one. In addition, the green undergrowth that looked like flowers underwater was pretty cool.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
While all of the above mentioned walks were free, their short nature hardly too any of our time. As a result, we took the advice of a couple guides and ventured an hour north to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Boy did we get lucky! Due to COVID, online reservations were required, and the last entry was 1 or 1:30 pm depending on where you read the details.
We arrived without a reservation just prior to the cutoff time. Since we drove an hour, we went inside the Audubon Center and asked if they had any no shows.
“Yes, we did. Do you have a pass?” asked the lady at the desk.
“No, we have nothing,” I replied.
The lady responded, “Well you have to pay.”
Then I realized she asked, “Do we have any cash?” Lucky for our generation we still carry it! “Yes, we do.”
Clearly, they were not allowed to take a payment at the center, but they pointed to a box and said we could donate there.
“How much?” we asked.
“$14 or whatever you can afford,” they replied.
What a relief! We gave $15 a piece and walked outside to the 2.5 mile boardwalk in order to enjoy the 13,000 acre sanctuary in the Corkscrew Watershed of the Western Everglades. The Corkscrew Sanctuary is an oasis in Southwest Florida that has otherwise been built up and farmed.
History of Corkscrew
Back in the early 1900’s, there was a rookery here, and the Audubon Society paid a warden to guard it from plume hunters who killed adult birds for their feathers and left the young to die. The protection worked. Soon plume hunting was banned and the Corkscrew Rookery remained.
Then came the fight against logging in the 1950’s. Massive 500-year-old cypress trees were being logged for the rebuilding of Europe after World War II. Residents became alarmed as the forest was decimated, and the Audubon Society along others raised the support needed to buy the last virgin bald cypress in the world. These cypress trees are home to the largest nesting colony of the endangered Wood Storks in the USA.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see any Wood Storks as we followed the boardwalk through pined flatwoods, wetlands, a marsh, and the Bald Cypress Forest. Apparently, it was an unseasonably wet winter.
We did, however, spot an egret, a few white ibis, some lizards, pretty flowers, and a family of raccoons. Amazingly, the raccoons were not afraid of us at all. They busily dug in the mud for snails as we snapped lots of photos.
If we hadn’t spotted these smart, pesky creatures at the end, I’m not certain the two-hour roundtrip and the $15 price tag would have been worth it, but it gave us something to do, and it would be spectacular under better birding conditions which if it hadn’t been for the wet December, would have been good.
Overall, these are ways to see the swamp on the Everglades. If I could only choose one tour, I’d likely pick the airboat. I may have liked it the best, however, as it was the first time for me to do it. Regardless, all the ways offer something interesting, and the local guides are very passionate about their environment. The interactive map below provides more details on the tour operators as well as on other nearby establishments. ETB
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