Everglades National Park (Shark Valley) south Florida Visited: January 21, 2005 NPS Site Visited: 133 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? At 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. This review covers the Shark Valley area, which consists of a loop road leading to an observation tower through a freshwater slough ecosystem.
BEAUTY (8/10) A freshwater slough ecosystem is, at its essence, a wide slow moving river. It looks like a flat, wet prairie with its tall grass, tree outcroppings and big blue sky. However, it is a River, its widest girth measuring 60 miles. This freshwater wetland environment attracts the usual suspects: American alligator, egrets, anhinga, herons, storks and moorhens. They are all here in healthy numbers just a few feet from the loop road.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10) South Florida is a very young land mass, appearing anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, a veritable newborn. Native Americans are thought to have crossed the Alaskan land bridge over 10,000 years ago, predating the Everglades. Since their creation, the shallow Everglades slowly meandered on its way to the Florida Bay. Human interaction was limited to a few Indian tribes until the turn of the century when full-scale settlement began in South Florida.
Since then, humans have drained the Everglades, disrupted and redistributed the water flow with canals, dumped sugar cane runoff and untold other waste products into the “River of Grass” and demolished and filled portions for development. The Everglades are in critical condition and there are no plausible solutions, only stopgap measures. Everglades NP is our most endangered National Park.
CROWDS (4/10) Because of its easy accessibility, large crowds flock to Shark Valley. The Park’s website recommends reserving your place on the hourly tram tours. We secured last minute spots during trips in both April and January but overflowing crowds prevented us from entering the Park during the week between Christmas and New Years; at noon a Ranger told us that no parking spaces would be opening in the next hour and that the day’s tram tours were all full.
The large crowds prevent any in-depth discussions with the Tour Guides. If you end up on the wrong side of the tram, the five-wide seating prevents opposite side viewing. The most important thing to know about the tram tour is to SIT ON THE LEFT SIDE. If you don’t you will curse the people to your left.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5) The Shark Valley Visitor Center is located a few hundred yards south of Route 41, the Tamiami Trail. It is 24 miles west of Miami and Route 821, the Florida Turnpike. The 15-mile loop route to the observation tower and back is fully paved and accessible via tram tour, bicycles or foot.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5) Not much here, save the laminated pictures of birds and wildlife of the Everglades. The small gift store next to the bike rental booth is chintzy but fun. Check out the alligator head hats.
COSTS (1/5) Park entry is $10 per car or free with the National Parks Pass. Tram tour rides are expensive, running $13.25 per person. Bike rentals run $5.75 an hour. The loop road is 15 miles round trip. Bringing your own bicycle(s) might make the day more affordable.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5) We saw no Rangers in the Shark Valley Visitor Center area. Two volunteers staffed the Visitor Center and could not help us with camping information regarding other parts of Everglades NP. Private tour guides, not Rangers, lead the popular tram tours. With at least one hundred tourists per one guide, it is difficult for your questions to receive individual attention, especially if you are seated in the second tram.
TOURS/CLASSES (5/10) The Shark Valley Tram Tour, while not affiliated with the National Parks Service, is a terrific, but expensive introduction to the Everglades. It is like an Everglades 101 class with its large crowds and basic information. We loved the tour a few years ago when we knew nothing about South Florida and bird watching but felt a little bored this time around.
There are a few Park-related exhibits in the tiny Shark Valley Visitor Center but do not expect quiet learning in the walk-in closet sized space. There is no space for an introductory film. This heavily visited Site deserves a larger and better Museum. As it stands, the National Park Service has outsourced the learning experience in the most easily accessible portion of one of its flagship Parks.
FUN (8/10) Why oh why didn’t we remember to sit on the left side of the tram? We had obstructed views but still enjoyed the ride. The tour guide will point out all the birds flying, feeding and nesting along the way. Gators are too numerous to count – they get saved for last. We heard some of the same stories as we did the first time we took the tour, like the Italian mom who jumped in the canal and saved her son from a gator’s grasp. The punch line is still funny.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10) Walk along the boardwalk trail or just behind the VC to get your first (and best) glimpses of gators, herons of all sizes and colors and maybe even a purple gallinule. A bike ride or tram tour is not prerequisite for excellent photo opportunities. Much of the wildlife congregates right there along the “Gallery.” We overheard one British tourist exclaim that he had come hoping to see anything; he had no idea these beautiful species would all be at arm’s length just a few yards from the parking lot.
On that note, you might want to keep an eye on any small children. We think Shark Valley is an ideal place to take kids. Just make sure they don’t stray too far – there are no protective barriers between you and nature’s most efficient predator, the American alligator.
The tram tour is something the entire family can enjoy; nothing strenuous about hopping on and taking a ride through this river of grass. Shark Valley is an easy day trip from Miami, or even Naples. Don’t’ forget your camera or your binoculars; both will get used frequently.
USA-C2C.com is an independent website, not affiliated in any way with the National Park Service, the National Parks Foundation or any of their partners.