A local’s guide to the Everglades

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How to explore the wide-reaching wetlands of the Everglades

The first time you visit the Everglades, you begin to comprehend just how much of it is vast nothingness. Pristine and largely inaccessible, it’s a flat, wet terrain not really meant for humans. Because Everglades National Park is often called the country’s most threatened park, that’s fortunate for the plants and animals that call it home. For visitors, that means views here are spread out and typically low to the ground: alligators and mangroves spotted on foot, by bicycle, kayak or from the back of a whizzing airboat.

Sadly, the Everglades are ravaged by human influences, including the decimation of Seminole, Calusa and other Native American tribes by disease and forcible removal, the disruption of water flow with the building of a 20th-century canal system and the modern-era crisis of invasive species. A trip to the park is an opportunity to appreciate the survival of the Everglades’ natural beauty despite all that.

The rural communities surrounding the park are another exciting reason to visit, offering a glimpse of a Florida that’s more Carl Hiaasen than Jimmy Buffett, more johnboat than Caribbean-bound cruise. Things move slower here. You might as well do the same.

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A local’s guide to the Everglades

A local’s guide to the Everglades

A local’s guide to the Everglades

Jessica Lipscomb has lived in Miami since 2016 and in Florida for most of her life, growing up in Orlando, attending college in Gainesville and working in Naples for several years. She spends her days enjoying Miami’s beaches and local businesses, and her nights working on The Washington Post’s Morning Mix desk, which publishes stories in the early hours of the morning.

A local’s guide to the Everglades

A local’s guide to the Everglades

A local’s guide to the Everglades

Lisette Morales McCabe is a multicultural Nicaraguan-born photographer based in southwest Florida. Her work focuses on identity, gender, ecology and food heritage. She’s the author of the photobook “The Pulse of Nature, Spirituality in the Florida Swamps” (2023). She’s a member of WOPHA, Voices of the River of Grass, Diversify Photo and the Authority Collective.

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How to get there

A car is essential to see the sprawling (and sometimes remote) attractions of Everglades National Park. If you’re flying into Southwest Florida International Airport to stay on Florida’s west coast, you’ll probably enter the park through the Shark Valley Visitor Center on U.S. Highway 41. If you’re flying into Fort Lauderdale or Miami airports on the east coast, you can choose to visit the park via Shark Valley or venture farther south to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center in Homestead. There is no public transportation to the park, and the National Park Service does not recommend arriving via ride-hailing apps, because return transportation is often unavailable.

The best time to visit

For much of the year, South Florida is muggy and hot, making a summertime trip to the Everglades less than ideal. Hurricane season, from June to November, brings its own sense of unpredictability. The winter season, from December to March, is typically the busiest time of the year, for good reason: The weather is more likely to be pleasant, the mosquitoes are dormant and human visitors are generally less cranky.

Where to stay

Coral Gables

A quick drive from Miami International Airport, this picturesque city has easy access to the park’s two main entrances. The historic Biltmore Hotel — and its on-site golf course and spa — offer old-school luxury in the heart of the Gables, while the boutique Hotel St. Michel has more affordable accommodations in a walkable area close to the action. There’s also no shortage of Airbnb options for groups, families or those who crave more privacy. If you want to check off two national parks on your trip, you can also book a boat tour of the nearby Biscayne National Park, which is 95 percent water.

Everglades City

If you’re looking for a laid-back vibe in the heart of the Everglades, this fishing village is where you want to be. The Everglades Adventures Hotel Suites by Ivey House is a no-frills option that’s walkable to everything in town. If you’re looking to camp, try the adults-only Everglades Isle RV Resort, also in town, or the Trail Lakes Campground in nearby Ochopee for tent campsites or cabin rentals. You can also book a stay in a chickee hut, traditionally an open structure built with a thatched roof in Seminole and Miccosukee communities. Clyde Butcher has a secluded two-bed, two-bath cottage and a one-bed, one-bath bungalow available for rent in Ochopee.

Naples

More sleepy than Miami but more lively than Everglades City, Naples is another base-camp option within a reasonable distance of the park. The centrally located Inn on Fifth is a pricey hotel on Naples’s bustling Fifth Avenue South, while the Naples Garden Inn is a budget option that is a quick drive to the beach and restaurants. And, of course, there are plenty of Airbnbs.

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A local’s guide to the Everglades

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Things to do

Take an airboat ride

Pick a company, any company. But don’t miss out on an airboat ride when you’re visiting the Everglades. It’s one of the best ways to see local flora and fauna, and your captain will be able to take you places you’d never find on your own. There are plenty of operators located along the perimeter of the park, regardless of whether you’re coming from the east or west coast. Buffalo Tiger Airboat Tours, pictured above, is a Miccosukee-run company that offers sunset tours with 24 hours’ notice.

BTW: Bring bug spray, the good stuff (anything with picaridin or DEET). Otherwise, prepare to slap and scratch until you reach a Zen-like state of acceptance and become one with the mosquitoes.

Browse Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery, then go on a nature tour

Clyde Butcher may as well be the official landscape photographer of the Everglades. For decades, the honorary gladesman has been capturing the essence of Florida’s wilderness, inspiring both ecotourism and preservation efforts. Much of that work is on display at his Big Cypress Gallery, located in the middle of the Everglades on scenic U.S. Highway 41. The gallery also offers swamp tours where adventurous visitors can trudge through the wetlands or take a photo safari to get their own evocative shots.

BTW: The gallery has plenty of souvenirs available for purchase in what you might otherwise call a gift shop desert.

52388 Tamiami Trail E., Ochopee, Fla., 34141 | 239-695-2428 | Website

Visit the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters

The Skunk Ape is basically South Florida’s version of Bigfoot. Dave Shealy, the proprietor of the headquarters, is considered the preeminent expert of the upright cryptid, which is said to scale trees and crave lima beans. Shealy claims to have seen the Skunk Ape near his property three times, and his shaky video of one of those encounters has hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. The research center sadly doesn’t have much information about the sasquatch, but you can pick up some Skunk Ape merch and take a selfie with a statue of the creature outside the shop.

BTW: The on-site Everglades Adventure Tours offers canoe and kayak rentals, as well as birding safaris and other excursions. Or, for a few bucks, you can check out the HQ’s reptile exhibit, which boasts a roughly 24-foot python named Goldie.

40904 Tamiami Trail E., Ochopee, Fla., 34141 | 239-695-2275 | Website

Send a postcard from the smallest post office in the U.S.

The smallest post office in the country can be found in the tiny, unincorporated community of Ochopee (pronounced oh-CHOP-ee, from the Seminole word for farm). The building, which fits exactly one postal worker, measures less than 62 square feet and was originally used as a shed for a nearby tomato farm. The post office makes for a nice photo op and is a great excuse to mail a postcard from your trip.

BTW: You can purchase a postcard there if you forget to bring one from another part of your travels.

38000 Tamiami Trail E., Ochopee, Fla., 34141 | 800-275-8777 | Website

Explore the Seminole Tribe’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum

After U.S. troops invaded Spanish Florida in the 1800s, starting the Seminole Wars, a few hundred tribal members were able to disappear into the Everglades for safety. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation pays homage to the tribe’s special relationship to that environment. Inside, you’ll find exhibits highlighting Seminole traditions on the reservation, as well as rotating exhibits showing a more contemporary way of life. Outside, you’ll find a winding boardwalk through a sprawling cypress swamp where up to 70 species of plants and wildlife can be seen.

BTW: The museum is in a fairly remote area north of Everglades National Park, so download a nice long podcast or audiobook for the drive. You might also plan on taking an airboat ride up in that area to make a day of it.

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34725 West Boundary Rd., Clewiston, Fla., 33440 | 877-902-1113 | Website

Ride the Shark Valley bike trail

Stretch your legs and get a lay of the land on two wheels at Shark Valley. The National Park Service rents bikes to visitors for a very reasonable $23 per day, and the 15-mile bike loop takes about two to three hours to complete. Don’t miss the observation tower, which offers sweeping views of the landscape. The visitors center also offers a two-hour narrated tram ride, which costs $29 for adults, $23 for seniors (62 and older) and $15 for children 3 to 12.

BTW: Rent your bike online in advance; rental inventory goes quickly during peak winter months. And if you’re visiting during a warm season, you might want to stick with the tram, because there isn’t a whole lot of shade coverage to escape from the sun.

36000 SW Eighth St., Miami, 33194 | 305-221-8455 | Website

Grab a smoothie at Robert Is Here

Nothing says “refreshing” after a long day in the sun like a smoothie from Robert Is Here. The beloved local fruit stand has been run by founder Robert Moehling since he was 6, when he was made to sell extra cucumbers from his family’s farm on the side of the road. His “Robert Is Here” sign went up the next day, and locals have been coming ever since. While you can find a variety of tropical fruits and produce, the highlight is the $10 smoothies made of fresh fruit blended with ice — no funny ingredients or additives in sight. There are picnic tables for seating, and kids will enjoy the animal farm, which includes goats, cows and pigs.

BTW: Robert Is Here is farther south in the Homestead area, so it’s a good place to swing by if you’re accessing the park through the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center entrance.

19200 SW 344th St., Homestead, Fla., 33034 | 305-246-1592 | Website

Skip to end of carouselThings locals think you should know

A local’s guide to the Everglades

A local’s guide to the Everglades

A local’s guide to the Everglades

Prepare to spend some serious time in the car before you can spend some serious time in nature. Channel your best “glass half-full” persona with a good podcast, an on-theme playlist or just some contemplative silence – and, crucially, a full tank of gas.

A local’s guide to the Everglades

A local’s guide to the Everglades

A local’s guide to the Everglades

Have a plan B: Bad weather and road construction are a way of life in South Florida. Managing expectations and having an alternate itinerary will make last-minute diversions less of a hassle.

A local’s guide to the Everglades

A local’s guide to the Everglades

A local’s guide to the Everglades

Honestly evaluate whether you have the constitution for camping in the Everglades considering all it entails: punishing heat, crushing humidity and relentless mosquitoes. There’s no shame in being the kind of person who requires air conditioning.

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Where to eat

Breakfast: Sunburst Cafe

This colorful Naples cafe in a nondescript shopping plaza is well-known for its homemade muffins, but Sunburst also serves a full breakfast and some of the best coffee in town. The restaurant can get busy in the mornings, but the staff keeps things moving and gets food out quickly. You’ll find indulgences such as omelets, pancakes, and biscuits and gravy alongside lighter items, such as oatmeal, avocado toast and a vegan breakfast bowl. Sunburst is also a great option for lunch.

BTW: Disco diva Donna Summer became a regular at Sunburst after relocating to Naples, where she lived out her final years until her death in 2012.

2340 Pine Ridge Rd., Naples, Fla., 34109 | 239-263-3123 | Website

Breakfast: Island Cafe

A local favorite in Everglades City, Island Cafe is a casual restaurant with a diner-style menu serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast starts at 6 a.m., making it an ideal spot if you plan to hit the road early (or if you just want to see how the city’s fishermen and airboat captains start their day). You’ll find all the typical fare — eggs, pancakes, biscuits and gravy — at a reasonable price: Almost everything on the breakfast menu is less than $10.

BTW: Island Cafe also offers boxed lunches, so you can grab a sandwich for the road after breakfast.

305 Collier Ave., Everglades City, Fla., 34139 | 239-695-0003| Website

Lunch: La Sandwicherie

In 1988, La Sandwicherie opened its first sandwich counter in Miami Beach, just a few hundred feet from the ocean, and in recent years has been adding locations around South Florida. The branch in Coral Gables sits along the scenic, pedestrian-only Giralda Plaza, where there are plenty of shops to check out after lunch. Sandwiches and salads are made to order, as are smoothies and juices. A personal favorite is the Sobe Club, which comes with turkey, avocado and brie.

BTW: If there’s room in your suitcase, it’s worth purchasing a bottle of La Sandwicherie’s famous vinaigrette, which is great on sandwiches and salads.

142 Giralda Ave., Coral Gables, Fla., 33134 | 786-615-2724 | Website

Lunch: The Rod & Gun Club

The Rod & Gun Club is an Everglades City institution, opening in the 1920s with a chef from Bavaria and over the years hosting a guest list that’s said to include Ernest Hemingway, Mick Jagger and five U.S. presidents. Walking in the door is like stepping back in time — the decor and furnishings have been preserved from a former era. Grab a seat on the covered, screened-in porch so you can enjoy lunch and a beer with a waterfront view of the Barron River. You’ll find fried seafood and gator bites, a few simple salads and some basic sandwich options.

BTW: The restaurant only takes cash, so make sure you’ve got some.

200 W. Broadway, Everglades City, Fla., 34139 | 239-695-2101 | Website

Lunch: Joanie’s Blue Crab Cafe

Conveniently located in the middle of U.S. Highway 41, Joanie’s is a great spot to snag a bite between distant attractions. Fried seafood, including grouper, shrimp and gator, is the highlight of the menu. Grab a drink from the beverage cooler inside and settle into a spot outside on the screened-in porch, where you might just catch a glimpse of an alligator along the canal out back.

BTW: Joanie’s is a stone’s throw away from the Ochopee post office and the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, in case you plan to check out either.

39395 Tamiami Trail E., Ochopee, Fla., 34141 | 239-695-2682

Dinner: The Dock at Crayton Cove

Did you really visit Naples if you didn’t have a meal at the Dock? The beloved waterfront restaurant has been serving fresh seafood and other specialties since 1976. Casual yet elegant, it’s the kind of place where you could show up in a sundress or in shorts and flip-flops, and you’d fit in either way. Favorite dishes include the key lime grouper and the lobster potato gratin. Wash it down with a rum-forward Island Negroni or a “Docksicle,” a glass of bubbly with your choice of popsicle placed into the glass upside-down.

BTW: The Dock doesn’t take reservations, so prepare to wait if you’re arriving during peak season (late December to early May).

845 12th Ave. S., Naples, Fla., 34102 | 239-263-9940 | Website

Dinner: Caffe Abbracci

When you’ve washed off your bug spray and thrown a clean shirt over your sunburn at the end of the day, head to Caffe Abbracci for an upscale, old-school Italian dinner. In business since 1989, the restaurant is a mainstay in Coral Gables known for its customer service and classic menu. With items such as pan-seared branzino and a traditional Bolognese, there’s no bad choice. For dessert, don’t miss the profiteroles, an expertly made gelato-filled puff pastry dish crowned with Grand Marnier chocolate sauce.

BTW: Arrive early, or stay for a nightcap, so you can grab a drink at the bar and admire the stunning stained-glass ceiling.

318 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, Fla., 33134 | 305-441-0700 | Website

Dinner: Captain Morgan’s Seafood Grill

A newcomer in the area, Captain Morgan’s brings a contemporary Cuban style to Everglades City’s dining scene. The family-owned restaurant serves up a variety of dishes, including shrimp tostones, roast pork and the chef’s signature seafood enchilado, a dish with stone crab, lobster, fish and clams covered in a slightly spicy sauce and served with white rice and sweet plantains. There are a handful of beers on tap, including local brews, and wines by the glass. The atmosphere is clean, modern and family friendly.

BTW: If you’re just passing through town without time for a full meal, Captain Morgan’s also has an adjacent ice cream parlor and serves Cuban coffee to fuel you up for the ride home.

102 S. Copeland Ave., Everglades City, Fla., 34139 | 239-232-0041 | Website

About this guide

Editing by Gabe Hiatt. Photo editing by Lauren Bulbin. Design by Stephanie Hays. Copy editing by Jordan Melendrez and Jamie Zega. Design editing by Christine Ashack and Matt Callahan.

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