Many National Parks out west get all the attention, but surprisingly one of the most unique National parks is right here in Florida. Everglades National Park is one of the largest wetlands in the world and is rare in that it derives much of its water from rainfall. Between the unique ecosystem and the rich biodiversity, I highly recommend everyone take a day trip to the Everglades from Miami, particularly to Shark Valley.
We visited the Shark Valley Everglades Visitor Center in December 2021 and had a fun and very educational day. Though our day did not go as planned due to crowds, I think our experience can provide insights for planning your own Everglades from Miami day trip! I will explain some information about the Florida Everglades and tips for having an awesome time at Shark Valley in this post.
Where are The Everglades Located?
To start, The Everglades is a massive National Park that spans 1.5 million acres. It is located in South Florida, so a day trip to the Everglades from Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Naples is reasonable. There are actually three different National Park entrances that each offer their own unique way to experience the park. As you approach the park, you will see businesses advertising airboat rides and what not, but none of these are actually in the National Park.
We visited the Shark Valley Everglades entrance which is the closest entrance to the Everglades from Miami. There is also the Flamingo Visitor Center south of Homestead and the Gulf Coast visitor center, southwest of Marco Island. Most of the area is undeveloped and there are very few roads to get around the Everglades. Service is also spotty, so make sure to have a plan before driving down there!
The History of The Everglades
The Everglades have a fascinating history that we learned all about on the tram tour. It was undeveloped and inhabited by Native Americans, including the Calusa, Tequesta and Seminole nations, until the late 1800’s. Development began in the early 1900’s and at least 50% of the area was overtaken by cities and agriculture.
Finally in the 1970’s conservation efforts started to protect the ecosystem after learning how important the area is for flood control. The Everglades National Park now protects twenty percent of the original Everglades and have established visitor centers to educate the public on its importance. Much damage has been done by dredging, drainage and the infestation of invasive species, but the park is working to protect what is left.
The Shark Valley trail that we explored here was created in 1946, when the Humble Oil Company found oil here and started drilling. Luckily, it was not profitable and the National Parks bought the land soon after. Originally, they let visitors drive the trail to the tower, but quickly found it causing too much wear and tear, as well as littering and destruction. Now you can only explore this part of the Everglades by foot, bike or tram.
Tips for Taking a Day Trip to The Everglades from Miami
If you are looking to take a day trip to the Everglades from Miami like we did, you will want to choose between two of the four visitor centers. The Shark Valley Everglades entrance is about an hour away and features a tram tour, a bike trail and a few exhibits and walking paths. The Flamingo Visitor Center is about two hours away and offers pontoon boat tours, paddle rentals and exhibits and hiking trails. The Gulf Coast Visitor Center is also two hours away, but if you are going to make the drive, I think Flamingo is a better option.
Regardless of which entrance you choose, you will want to make sure to arrive early. Parking at the Everglades fills up fast and they often restrict admission to a certain amount of people. Rentals also get filled quickly, though you can often reserve them online before leaving.
I recommend bringing a lunch since there are few restaurants or shops along the way and it gives you more flexibility. You will also want to wear light clothing, bug spray and sunscreen, so you can stay comfortable in the wetlands all day! There is no way to see it all in one day trip to the Everglades from Miami, so you can always stay overnight if you want a few days there. The Flamingo campground has some lodging options or you can stay close by in Homestead.
Things to Do at the Shark Valley Visitor Center
From here I will focus on the Shark Valley Everglades Visitor Center, where we spent our day trip. This is one of the best National Parks Visitor Centers I have been to, as it had a lot of informative exhibits, a great gift shop and helpful rangers. Though you can walk around and see some alligators and birds, the main thing to do visiting here is take a tram or bike tour.
The Shark Valley bike trial is fifteen miles round trip and they offer bike rentals for $22. It is very popular and takes most people two to three hours to ride to the observation tower and back. You can choose to go as far as you like and turn around at any point.
There are some rentals available online, but they sell out quick. If you really want a rental, get there right when the park opens and see if you can still reserve one. You can also bring your own bike for free if you choose.
The Shark Valley tram tours are offered every hour and are two hours long. This is a great way for people of all ages and abilities to see the park from the comfort of a tram and learn a lot too! The tram takes you to the observation tower and back. It costs $28 per person and along the way you will see alligators, anhinga, blue herons, spoonbills, hawks and potentially even a crocodile!
The observation tower offers stunning views of the park and is well worth making it too. If you do not want to pay for either tour, you could walk the 15-mile round trip walk, but it would not be fun in the usually hot weather. There is also an entrance fee to get in the park, so plan to spend a little to make your experience worth it.
Our Day Trip to The Everglades from Miami
We visited Miami for Christmas break, so we knew it was peak season. However, we still underestimated just how busy it would be and did not get an early head start on our Everglades from Miami day trip. We arrived at the Shark Valley Visitor center at 10 AM (which was way too late) and saw a huge line of cars!
While Andrew waited in the line, I decided to scope out the entrance. I realized quickly, that you can park on the road leading up to it and walk in instead of waiting for cars to leave the parking lot one-by-one. Once parked, we entered the park and found that there were no more bike rentals! We were bummed, because that had been our plan, but we saw some tram tours still had availability so we decided to do that.
While waiting for our tour, we walked around and saw plenty of alligators and birds pretty close to the main area. If seeing gators is your goal, you will have no issue here! However, there is not much to do at the Shark Valley Everglades if you are not taking a tour. We simply had our picnic lunch in the car, since it is not exactly a park for picnics.
One aspect I really enjoyed was the gift shop! They had some really unique shirts, stickers and souvenirs here. I brought my National Parks passport and made sure to get a gator stamp!
The Shark Valley Tram Tour
Our Shark Valley tram tour started promptly at noon and I quickly realized we made the right decision. We had originally wanted to do the bike tour because I associate National Parks with active experiences. However, I think here you benefit from the tram tour more because of how informative it is. Without a guide, I would have no clue about the landscape or birds I was passing by. With the tram tour, our guide stopped at all the best spots and knew of some crazy sights he had seen earlier in the day. He showed us where to look for an alligator eating a Bernese Python and I never would have seen that had I been on a bike!
The tram tour takes you to the Observation Tower, which is a must-see at Shark Valley. It is stunning how vast The Everglades are and seeing it from a bird’s eye view really proves this. The lone crocodile in this area also likes to hang out around here, so make sure to look out for her too!
We sat in the back because we thought it would be better for taking pictures, but next time I would sit as close to the front as possible. It was a little hard to hear in the back and the front of the tram gets to see all the sights first. Still every seat is pretty good and there is a ton to see!
During this tour, our guide provided entertaining talks about the ecosystem, the Native Americans that once lived here, the vast biodiversity, the invasive species and environmental issues effecting the Everglades and much more. From this perspective, we found this Everglades tram tour to be worth it! At two hours long, it is just the right length to learn a lot and also have time to explore. If you plan to visit, I recommend booking a tour online before you go, so you can make sure to experience Shark Valley to the fullest!
Events and More at Shark Valley
In addition to the hourly tram tours, occasionally ranger-led events occur as well. Currently, there are two free daily walk and talks that occur at the Everglades Shark Valley Visitor Center. The 45-minute Soar, Swim and Stroll talk is held at 9:15 AM and includes topics about the history and wildlife. At 1:15 PM daily, the Flora, Fauna and Fun talk discusses plants, water and animals. Neither tour is guaranteed, but can be a fun and educational add-on to fit in to your visit.
Another unique event you can do in the Everglades from Miami is take a full moon bike ride. These only occur once a month and require a reservation one week in advance. Considering it happens at night when the park is mainly shut down, this is better as a separate experience.
Lastly, if you have a group of 12 or more, you can book a group tour. Educational programs, like field trips, are welcome here and encouraged to call ahead to make the most of this experience.
Know Before You Go: Visiting the Everglades Shark Valley Visitor Center
Everglades National Park is a true natural wonder. Visiting here provided me with a lot of insight into the environment of South Florida, the dangers of invasive species and the importance of biodiversity. It also was a fun way to be outside and appreciate nature. I think an Everglades from Miami day trip is convenient and worthwhile for most travelers. If you want to go to the Shark Valley visitor center as we did, keep these tips in mind before you go.
- The best time to visit The Everglades is during the dry season, which is November through March. There are less crowds from April through October, but it is often hotter, and a chance of storms.
- The Everglades visitor centers are open from 9-5 during the wet season and 8-5 during the dry season. The entrance to Shark Valley opens at 8:30 AM.
- The cost to visit the Everglades is $30 per vehicle or $15 per person. You can purchase an America the Beautiful pass for $80 and receive free admission to National Parks for everyone in your car for the year.
- You should bring ample water, sunscreen, and bug spray to the Everglades. I also recommend bringing lunch or a snack.
- Dogs are not allowed at the Everglades Shark Valley entrance. However, they are allowed at other campgrounds in the Everglades.
- Bike rentals and tram tour tickets can be booked online at this website.
- The Shark Valley bike trail is 15 miles long and takes between 2-3 hours for most to traverse.
- The tram tour takes two hours and goes to the Observation Tower and back.
- The Biscayne National Park in Florida is close by and worth visiting to check another park off your list!
Want to visit the rest of the National Parks in Florida? Check out this guide!
Have you been to the Everglades before? Let me know which visitor center you visited if you have! For more ideas for things to do in nature, check out my guide for the best places to visit in Florida for nature lovers.