Even though south Florida is home to many family-friendly activities, Everglades National Park is perfectly situated for even just a quick visit, and visiting the Everglades with kids should be high on your list. On the Atlantic coast you have Miami with its sunny beaches and posh, South Beach hotels. On the Gulf coast, beautiful stretches of beach and warm Gulf water with a laid-back vibe make it one of our family's favorite places to visit.
To the south, the Florida Keys and Key West get a lot of attention, and who could argue - it's like taking a Caribbean vacation without needing a passport. The activities and sunsets go on for miles down there.
Right in the middle is one of America's largest National Parks - the Everglades - and at over 1.5 million acres, it's the third-largest National Park in the lower 48 states. It's actually larger than Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Yosemite National Parks.
You might wonder why 1.5 million acres of swamp and wetlands are worth protecting, but as we learned, this ecosystem is incredibly diverse and critical to all of the surrounding areas. Plus, it is really cool for kids!
Everglades National Park turned out to be an interesting and fun park to visit, and we learned so much while we were there. Read on to find out why we loved it!
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Visiting the Everglades with kids - what to see and do
Take a tram ride through Shark Valley
From the Shark Valley Visitor Center, book a 2-hour tram ride through the valley. The tour is narrated by trained naturalists, and you're likely to see a variety of wildlife like alligators, birds, and snakes. Trams leave from the visitor center several time a day.
Rent some bikes and set out down the Shark Valley Trail
While you're at Shark Valley, consider exploring the park by bicycle. The Shark Valley trail is a 15 mile loop that is paved the entire way. Very little elevation change means it's good for the whole family and should take between 2 to 3 hours to complete. Halfway through, you'll arrive at the observation tower which offers up awesome panoramic views of Everglades National Park.
Get the kids involved in a Junior Ranger Program
Each of the visitor centers have Junior Ranger booklets to pick up, or your can print them off before you set out. They have a variety of hands-on things to do for kids during their visit and lots of wildlife to watch out for.
Book an air boat tour through the mangrove jungle
This was number one on our list of things to do in Everglades National Park with the kids, and it did not disappoint.
It was awesome!
An air boat is the best way to get around the marshy grasslands and the mangrove waterways in the park.
We booked through Everglades City Airboat Tours and had a blast. They are great for families because they provide everyone with headsets, so everyone can hear each other and also listen to the captain narrate the tour. If you're lucky, you may get to see a manatee.
The kids especially loved zipping around the mangroves, and we even got up close and personal with two wild alligators.
Find a trail to hike and explore the park
There are several good hiking trails around the park where you can spot all kinds of wildlife. The Ahinga Trail is an easy .8 mile-long boardwalk trail that begins from the Royal Palm entrance (Homestead) and is great for families.
Pineland Trail is a half-mile walk through Florida pine forest.
Mahogany Hammock Trail is an Everglades boardwalk trail that leads you through dense jungle where you'll find the largest living mahogany tree in the United States.
Get on the water and explore Ten Thousand Islands
Ten Thousand Islands is the area on the west side of the park and is defined by narrow waterways, dense mangrove islands, and thick stands of gumbo-limbo trees. If you're up for it, hire a guide and paddle through them while looking out for dolphins, otters, alligators, and even sharks. Kayak rentals are available at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.
Sample the swamp cuisine
Seafood rules here in south Florida, and in the swamp, that means alligator, frog legs, and other delicacies. We had lunch in Everglades City at the Oyster House Restaurant & Bar where we shared their gator, grouper, and frog legs trio. We always like to try the local fare when we travel, and this one was pretty good! If your kids aren't too picky and you're looking for a fun thing to do in the Everglades for kids, eating some fried gator or frog legs may do the trick!
BONUS: Make a stop at the Big Cypress National Preserve Oasis Visitor Center
Right along US 41 between the Shark Valley and the Gulf Coast Visitor centers is the Big Cypress Oasis Visitor Center. We weren't planning on visiting, but the billboards enticed us to check it out.
Big Cypress National Preserve sits adjacent to Everglades National Park, and although both ecosystems work in different ways, they work in harmony with each other and exist because of the other. Be sure to catch the 20 minute film on how they coexist and why they depend on each other.
After the film, get your passports stamped and then head outside and take a peek at the boardwalk viewing area. That's where we saw our very first alligator in the wild just sitting in the small creek outside!
Everglades National Park Visitor Centers
Florida Everglades National Park has four visitor centers that you can visit.
Gulf Coast Visitor Center
From the Gulf side, stop by the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City. It's a small visitor center that also serves as the gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands region of the park. It's only about an hour drive from Naples to get here or 40 minutes or so from Marco Island.
Shark Valley Visitor Center
Shark Valley Visitor Center is located directly west of Miami on US 41 (Tamiami Trail) and is only about an hour's drive from Miami. This is a good spot for families to explore, ride the tram, go for a bike ride, and get their passports stamped. They also have a gift shop to pick up some souvenirs.
Flamingo Visitor Center
Flamingo visitor Center is at the far southern point of Everglades National Park and is about a two-hour drive from Miami. Hiking and canoeing trails can be found here, as well as campground facilities for those planning on roughing it for a few days.
Boat tours can be arranged at the marina, as well as canoe, kayak, and bicycle rentals.
Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center
The Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center is located just over an hour from Miami near Homestead, Florida. There are several hiking trails available from here, as well as a bookstore and special exhibits. Don't forget your passport stamps!
Getting to Everglades National Park
Florida has several major airports, but the two closest to Everglades National Park are Southwest Florida International in Ft. Myers (RSW), and Miami International (MIA).
There are two ways to cross the bottom of the Florida peninsula — Alligator Alley (I-75), or the more scenic two-lane Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41). A drive across U.S. 41 is a great way to see the park and get a feel for the place, and that's what we chose to do.
We drove from Miami over to Bonita Springs, stopping at two of the visitor centers and Big Cypress National preserve along the way. We loved the weathered old crab shacks and kitschy billboards along the road.
Miami to Everglades National Park Shark Valley Visitor Center only takes about an hour, and the distance from Naples to Everglades National Park is only about an hour as well. Key West to Everglades National Park will take about three hours if you're driving up from the Keys.
If you plan on visiting the Florida Keys during your visit, check out our extensive guide on visiting Key West with kids. It's a great place for families, and not that far from south Florida.
Where to stay when visiting Everglades National Park
We've now stayed on both sides of Florida and definitely prefer Gulf Coast Florida over the Atlantic side, but that's just personal preference.
For this trip, we stayed in Miami for 2 nights at the Hilton Cabana Miami Beach because we were also visiting nearby Biscayne National Park. After our visit to Everglades, we drove through Naples to Bonita Springs and stayed at one of our all-time favorite resorts, the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point. With a brand-new water park, it was impossible to resist!
With either option, you'll be less than a two hour drive from the Everglades. If you want to stay right in the park, consider Everglades City. You won't find anything in the way of family resorts, but you will find lots of airboat tours and local places to eat. It would serve as a good home base if you wanted to spend more time exploring Everglades National Park.
Everglades Tips - making the most of the Everglades with kids
- Don't underestimate the heat and humidity! This is south Florida after all, so be prepared with a day pack with water and sunscreen - especially if you are out hiking.
- Don't underestimate the mosquitoes either! You'll potentially be in the middle of America's largest swamp, and this is where mosquitoes thrive. Pack the bug repellent!
- Drive your own car. Don't try to Uber around the park because GPS can get easily confused. You'll have more fun in your own car anyway.
- Make a stop for lunch or dinner at one of the local seafood restaurants. It's good, local food that put a smile on our faces.
- Don't try to visit all of the visitor centers in one day. This park is huge, and you'd be better off splitting it up into 2 days if that's what you want to do.
We think your family will have a great time visiting the Florida Everglades. We sure did!
Have you visited? What was your favorite part?
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