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The Everglades - Orlando / Florida Guide

Florida Guide > Other Florida

The Everglades will never win the prize for best national park. Unlike some others it can''''t be enjoyed from the comfort of a car. What with the heat, humidity and mosquitoes, the Everglades will never be confused with other tourist locations. Its size alone at 1.5 million acres makes it unmanageable to the unplanned visit. A third of the park is covered with water, and nearly 100 miles separate its eastern and western visitor’s centres. While the Everglades has about 1 million visitors per year most spend less than four hours in the park.

However the Everglades are full of marvels: purple sunsets, skies blacked out by flocks of ibis, tiny alligators clinging to their mothers'''' backs and even night-blooming orchids. If you really want to appreciate this park you need to go with four things, boots, binoculars, insect repellent and patience.

You can get an overview of the Everglades at the visitors’ centre at the park''''s main entrance near Florida City and Homestead, which is less than 50 miles from Miami. There are three other visitors’ centres that you can go to but this one is by far the best and gives you a much better understanding of the park. In fact despite its size the Everglades is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the whole United States. It is home to a dozen endangered creatures, including the Florida panther, the snail kite, the wood stork, the Atlantic Ridley turtle, the American crocodile and the West Indian manatee.

The Everglades was known as the river of grass, and was created by the freshwater runoff from Lake Okeechobee. The water creates a variety of habitats as it makes its way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Sawgrass marshes dotted with islands of hardwoods provide refuges for mammals in times of flooding. Mangrove forests, which are crucial to the wading birds so that they can make their nests. Freshwater lakes with large amounts of wildlife and Florida Bay, which is the start of the Everglades food chain.

However the ecosystem suffers from too little or poor-quality water. The canals and drainage systems that made Florida hospitable to homeowners have rerouted the natural flow of the water. The water that reaches the park''''s boundaries often is polluted by agricultural runoff. The future is not all gloom though and this is because of the $8 billion, 40-year Everglades restoration project pushed by President Clinton and approved by Congress in 2000. The Everglades Restoration Act calls for ripping out more than 200 miles of canals and levees built by the Corps of Engineers in the 1940s to drain the swamps and make way for farms and families. The goal is to revive the natural flow of water while still providing a water supply.

So after all this where should you go and what should you expect to see?

Eco Pond is one of the park''''s sure bets, a place where you are likely to see something any time of the day. A crowd always gathers at Eco Pond even before sun rise. The same people will be back again at sunset as the small pond is a staging area for great flocks of ibis, herons and spoonbills. The birds gather here before heading to the keys for the night. This is the place to have your camera ready for some really great shots.

Royal Palm''''s Anhinga Trail is a boardwalk that zigs zags through a shallow freshwater lake. This is home to alligators, turtles, river otters, herons and hundreds of plants and animals that you may not see but that are vital to the habitat''''s health. The boardwalk is geared to those whose stay is likely to be of the four-hour variety, but the patient visitor will see things like the anhinga bird fishing. It is also known as the snake bird because of its long, slender neck; it dives underwater and spears fish with its beak. To eat its catch, it tosses the fish into the air so that it may swallow it whole, head first.

If it’s alligators you want then Shark Valley, off U.S. Highway 41 in the heart of the Everglades is the place to go. It features a 15-mile looping road along which lie thousands of alligators. A 65-foot observation tower provides unobstructed views of the completely flat sawgrass prairie. A tram takes you around the loop, slowing for the odd bird or pointy nosed turtle.

At the tower, the driver will tell you to keep at least 15 feet from the alligators at all times. While this is very good advice it’s sometimes impossible to heed because a few of them will be sleeping on the edge of the walkway to the tower.

This is not a day out that will appeal to most visitors but if you are interested in wild life then there is a great variety to find in one place over a short amount of time.

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