A baby alligator at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

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Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Our first stop is the visitor center at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, northeast of Naples on the western edge of the Everglades. It only takes about two hours to drive from Sarasota to this entry point, but once there, you’re on the edge of a vast new world. While Everglades National Park includes much of what we think of as the Everglades, it’s really an enormous interconnected system. The national park contains 1.5 million acres of wetlands that stretch from Marco Island on the southwest coast all the way over to Miami and down to the start of the Florida Keys. Add to that the 729,000 acres of Big Cypress National Preserve, located in the south central part of the state, the 75,000 acres of Fakahatchee Strand State Park farther to the west, and the 700,000 acres of the Everglades Agricultural Area to the north.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary has been protected by Audubon volunteers for over a century. It’s a stunning outpost in the middle of suburbia, a jarring reminder of what the state has lost as its population has exploded.

A commercial fishing boat

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Historically, water dripped south across the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee, creeping a quarter a mile a day through grassy swamps and marshes before reaching Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. But beginning in the late 1940s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers disrupted that natural flow, building canals, dikes and levees in order to control flooding, create drier land for agriculture and divert water to the growing cities of South Florida. That blockage has led to lower water levels in the Everglades, with more fertilizer from farms and chemicals from industry permeating the wetlands and harming wildlife.

The sanctuary is much more than a grim history lesson, however. We venture outside the visitor center to a winding, 2.3-mile boardwalk that takes us through pine flatwoods, prairies, marshes and into a stand of towering bald cypress trees, some as tall as 130 feet, and some more than 500 years old. Baby alligators sun themselves in the lettuce lakes, while otters glide along the swamp’s surface and anhingas air-dry their wings. Dedicated birders peer through binoculars and whisper about their finds. Corkscrew is a hushed, sacred space, at least until my kids spot an alligator.

Even though they’ve seen alligators at Myakka River State Park many times, the gators at Corkscrew rest just a couple feet away from the boardwalk. Looking through binoculars at the sleepy eyes of sun-drunk gators, my 5-year-old, Felix, freaks out. Weeks later, he’ll tell everyone within earshot that he saw “hundreds and hundreds” of alligators in the Everglades. That’s a stretch, but I won’t correct him.

A cypress grove in Big Cypress National Preserve.

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Everglades City

After the afternoon at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, we pull into Everglades City (population: 426) as the sun fades. Founded in the early 1920s by advertising magnate Barron Collier, the town was built to serve as base camp for the completion of the Tampa-to-Miami Tamiami Trail. Prisoners, Seminoles and women worked together to hack the path for the road out of the Everglades with what was called a “walking dredge,” a lumbering mechanical beast that ripped up the ground in front of it. They also used dynamite, setting off nearly 2.6 million sticks in the process of building the road.

The town was a wet spot during the dry years of Prohibition, and was home to the Collier County courthouse, a hotel, a bank, a hospital, a movie theater and even a streetcar. Parents sent their children to school in the nearby town of Chokoloskee by boat. 

Reminders of those days still stand in Everglades City. Most residents today work on commercial crabbing and fishing boats, operate airboat tours or staff restaurants and lodges. The school is one of only two in Florida that still serve kids from kindergarten through 12th grade.

An egret hunts for its meal

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Hurricane Irma hit Everglades City with an 8-foot storm surge in 2017. Many buildings still bear its scars, none more notable than the legendary Rod & Gun Club, an old-school fishing lodge with buildings that date back to the 1870s. Irma damaged the club’s roof so severely that its second story remains inaccessible, but you can still stay in the Club’s rustic cabins. That’s where my family is posting up during our Everglades adventuring.

The main building is dim, with dark polished wood paneling, and it’s quirky. Dead animals are mounted on the walls and tables. The room keys don’t have electronic strips; instead, they have the rounded diamond shape of motor lodge keys from decades past, with a printed guarantee that the Club will pay the postage if you drop one in a mailbox somewhere far away.

The Rod & Gun Club

I’m game for a throwback experience, but the lodge still doesn’t accept credit cards, which means I need to pay cash. But guess what? The only ATM in town, in a grocery store down the way, won’t let me take out more than $200 at a time, while our total bill for three nights comes to $420. When I wake up, I learn there’s no coffee machine in the room, and while breakfast is advertised as starting at 7 a.m., there is, in fact, no breakfast, and therefore no coffee, available anywhere on the property.

After locating espresso in the nearby town of Chokoloskee, we set out to explore Big Cypress National Preserve, a vast expanse just to the east that is made for hiking. Tamiami Trail cuts right through it, running from the blink-and-you-missed-it outpost of Ochopee to the southeast, with dirt roads angling off to the north and south.

For a quick wildlife hit, we stop at H.P. Williams Roadside Park, where you’re almost guaranteed to catch at least one massive lazing gator. For a more substantial tour, we take a 1-mile stroll along a boardwalk in Kirby Storter Roadside Park, farther to the east. We wander through a dry grassy area back into a deeper swamp, where wood storks stalk gator holes, pecking in the ground and hunting for an afternoon snack.

But to really see Big Cypress means going off the grid. A series of trails cuts through its northern section. Wide enough to accommodate ATVs or swamp buggies, they’re also open to hikers, and a ranger at the visitor’s center offers another tip: The park allows off-trail hiking, which means that if you can find a way through the razor-blade sawgrass and sticky mud, by all means, go for it. (It should go without saying, but you should know what you’re doing, and bring along plenty of water and other supplies, if you want to try this.) You can also drive to more remote, officially sanctioned trails if you journey off U.S. 41.

The federal government didn’t step in to protect Big Cypress Swamp until 27 years after Everglades National Park was founded. In the 1960s, Dade County (now Miami-Dade County) hatched a plan to build what would have been the world’s largest airport, five times larger than JFK, right in the middle. Thankfully, conservationists, hunters and Native Americans organized to defeat that plan.

But Big Cypress’ designation as a national preserve, not a national park, leaves some of the land here open to human use. Companies can still hunt for oil and gas in the ground and people tool around on off-road vehicles. In addition to hundreds of thousands of acres of untouched swamp, you’ll also find roadside attractions like the smallest post office in the United States (a tiny shack) and the quirky Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, a kitschy tribute to the Everglades’ famous humanoid cryptid.

It’s free to peruse the Headquarters’ gift shop, stocked with T-shirts and beer koozies emblazoned with the skunk ape’s furry face, but to venture into the tiny wildlife display in the back will cost you $6. My sons don’t have to twist my arm to convince me to pony up for us to see Goldie, one of the largest pythons in captivity in the world. At 21 feet long and roughly 400 pounds, she’s a behemoth. She doesn’t budge while we check her out. In another cage, a smaller python writhes up against the glass, flicking its tongue. If you’ve ever wanted a profile pic of yourself with a python without having to actually touch one, here’s your chance.

The Shark Valley Visitor Center offers panoramic views.

Shark Valley Visitor Center

While the Everglades may look flat, I learn at the national park’s Shark Valley Visitor Center that subtle elevation changes do exist. The Visitor Center, located an hour east of Everglades City, sits at about seven feet above sea level, lower than Miami to the east and Naples to the west. That makes Shark Valley a real valley, even if there’s no hill in sight.

Biking through Shark Valley is a great way to see wildlife up close.

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To explore Shark Valley, you can bike along the concrete pathways or sign up for a tram tour. We do the latter, and our guide explains how the landscape here changes with the seasons. The Everglades receives roughly 65 inches of rain during its wet season, May through November. With heat indexes that frequently climb past 100 degrees Fahrenheit, 90 percent humidity, swarming mosquitoes and vicious no-see-ums, the Everglades is virtually unvisitable during its long hot wet season. In the dry season, as water levels contract, 80 percent of the aquatic life is killed by predators. The surviving 20 percent repopulates the swamp once the rain starts falling again.

The tram ambles to the south for almost 8 miles, over which the elevation drops by a foot. We pause so we can ooh and aah over napping mama gators with their babies piled up next to them. After an hour or so, we pull up at the Shark Valley Observation Tower in the center of the Shark River Slough, the heart of the heart of the River of Grass.

Built in 1965 of limestone dug out of the surrounding landscape, the tower rests on the site of a capped oil well drilled by Humble Oil in 1946. Humble, which later became part of ExxonMobil, discovered oil at the site, but it was too dirty to be profitably refined. In exchange for tax breaks, the company ceased drilling and turned the land over to the federal government. The tower reflects the era in which it was built. It’s a Space Age structure, with a long, circular walkway that reaches into the sky. The views from the top will take your breath away.

The Ten Thousand Islands are one of the world’s largest mangrove systems.

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Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park is the third largest national park in the lower 48 states, which makes it difficult to explore in even a few days. But if you plan well, you can see a lot.

The day after Shark Valley, we drive all the way to the eastern edge of the park. The trip shows you where a lot of the water that’s been diverted from the Everglades ends up—in huge nurseries and at farms that stretch past the horizon in and around Homestead, which is the most convenient place to stay if you want to explore the park’s southernmost reaches.

Entering the park through the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, near Homestead, reveals dozens of hiking trails and campsites. Another long, winding drive will take you to the Flamingo Visitor Center at the very southern tip of the Florida mainland, where you can hit the water in a canoe or kayak.

For a cool slice of history, make it a priority to tour the park’s long-defunct Nike Missile Base. In the early 1960s, as part of an attempt to deter Soviet bombers from striking the U.S., the military installed 300 batteries of surface-to-air missiles around the country and placed three of those firing stations, armed with nuclear-tipped missiles, in the Everglades to defend against potential attacks from Cuba. The base inside the park once housed between 130 and 150 soldiers, who left evidence of their presence: paintings of missiles and mosquitoes on crumbling concrete, junked cars they pushed into nearby ponds, huge mounds of earth that would block the heat from the ignition of the missiles if they ever needed to be launched.

A kayaker prepares to explore Ten Thousand Islands

Image: Alamy Stock 

The missile base tour doesn’t do much for my kids, who are too young to find interest in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The highlight of the trip for them comes in another section of the park, when we hop on a pontoon boat in Everglades City to tour the section of the Everglades known as the Ten Thousand Islands. The cruise takes you through the complicated network of mangroves that hugs the coast all the way out to the Gulf of Mexico. Cheerful dolphins leap in the wake of the boat, their blowholes winking at us, while those of us on the boat spy huge flocks of white pelicans grooming themselves, plus magenta-streaked roseate spoonbills and ibises, known locally as “Chokoloskee chicken,” because people in town used to eat them.

This landscape of brackish water and tangled mangroves is both familiar to someone from Sarasota and also otherworldly, a place where I’d easily get disoriented if I happened to drop my cell phone over the side of the boat. The journalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, often credited with inspiring support for the protection of the Everglades thanks to her book The Everglades: River of Grass, called this part of the system “the most magnificent mangrove forest, and the greatest, in the American hemisphere.”

As one Everglades National Park ranger puts it during a tour, the Everglades may lack the dramatic vistas of America’s other famous parks, places like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Zion. At those parks, our guide says, the scenery screams at you. Everglades National Park isn’t like that. “The Everglades whispers,” he says, “but the more you listen, the louder those whispers become.” It’s taken me decades to finally visit the Everglades, but only three days to hear those whispers.

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