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A visit to the Everglade National Park: Shark Valley’s “River of Grass”

012 Everglades Shark Valley Bobcat Trail 012 Alligator

This is the last in a three part series highlighting a visit to Florida’s unique Everglades.  The first part discussed the Cypress forests of the Everglades and the second part highlighted the coastal mangrove forests near Everglades City.  Today I’d like to share with you a great example of the major component of the Everglades, the “River of Grass” — tens of thousands of acres of partially submerged sawgrass.  Within this flat landscape are some small islands on which grow cypress, palm and gumbo-limbo trees.

The Everglades is characterized by a broad shallow river flowing from Lake Okeechobee into Florida Bay.  This river averages 40-50 miles (75  km) in width, 6 in (15 cm)  in depth and flows very slowly, it taking a month for water to move from lake to the sea.  Highway 41 (Tamiami Trail) runs from Miami to Naples and takes you through the heart of the Everglades, providing easy access to all regions discussed in this series, including Shark Valley.

The Everglades “River of Grass”

Shark Valley represents just a small part of Everglades National Park.   There is theoretically a valley here but the land is so flat you’d never guess there was.  At no point is the land more than a meter above sea level.  Still, the Shark River drains this valley to the sea, hence the name (note: there are no sharks here).  Shark Valley has a Visitor Center with some educational displays and most important a crew of friendly park rangers to answer all your questions and help you get the most out of your trip.

Snowy Egret in Florida's Everglades

Snowy Egret in Florida’s Everglades

The sawgrass plain of Shark Valley is rich in wildlife which includes alligators (which you’re guaranteed to see and likely in large numbers), deer, Florida panthers (which you’re unlikely to see) and a large assortment of birds.  The small animals of the Everglades have been devastated by an introduced species, the Burmese python, a massive snake well-adapted for this environment with a voracious appetite for mammals and birds (and even some smaller alligators).

The point of visiting Shark Valley is to explore the ecosystem and to that end there is a great flat paved one lane road/trail that leads into the Everglades.  This loop trail is 15 miles (24 km) long and gives you the opportunity to ride a bike, take a l-o-n-g hike, or leisurely enjoy a 2 hour guided tram tour (Shark Valley Tram Tour) to see the animals and environment.  So depending on your level of energy and interest, you can decide how to best explore Shark Valley (be forewarned that in the busy travel season you need to reserve spots on the tram in advance or you will be disappointed).  At the far point of the trail is an observation tower, its 45 foot high observation deck giving visitors an opportunity to enjoy vistas into the heart of the Everglades.  A gradual ramp provides easy access to the observation tower deck.

Everglades’ Shark Valley viewed form the Observation Tower

If traveling by myself I likely would have rented a bike and cycled the loop.  But as I was traveling with my elderly dad, I did the Tram Tour with him which was very enjoyable.  The Tram stopped at all major animal sightings (moving forward gradually so that everyone could get photos), had an excellent naturalist guide who spent two hours educating us, and was a pleasant way to see the Everglades.  Most of the photos in this blog post are from that tram trip.

Shark Valley has an additional 2 short nature trails, one of which was flooded and one of which allowed us to walk through a bushy area of the glades (and see that environment).  They’re flat and easy to hike, but the real highlight of Shark Valley is the 15 mile trail leading into the heart of the sawgrass.

We had an enjoyable few days in the Everglades — great weather with lots of wildife spotting and a chance to explore a unique ecosystem.  I think Shark Valley especially would be a great place to take the kids.

(Click on thumbnails to enlarge, right arrow to advance slideshow)

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