Going Our Way: Fun in Florida’s Everglades and Keys

ALAMY - Double Crested Cormorants Roosting in Mangrove Trees Everglades National Park, where you have to get out of the car to get the full experience.

Who: The Miller family of Alexandria: Michael, 40; Tara, 39; Cole, 10; and Callie, 7

(family photo)

Where: Florida Everglades and Keys

Why: Family vacation

When: April for seven to 10 days

Budget: $5,000

“We want to thoroughly explore the Everglades, see wildlife and learn about ecosystems. With any remaining time, we’d like to explore the Florida Keys. We’re particularly interested in seeing sharks.”

Everglades National Park ranger Ryan Meyer estimates that of the 1 million people who visit the South Florida preserve every year, about 99 percent never get out of their cars to bike, fish, take a boat ride, birdwatch or even walk around the place.

They’re probably intimidated by its sheer size: At 2,500 square miles, it’s the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, and the third-largest national park in the Lower 48. But you don’t have to trek for miles to experience the Everglades in all its oozing, primordial glory. Many of the best walking trails are just a half-mile long, Meyer said, and are accessible via paved roads. It’s also easy to explore by bike or canoe, either on your own or with a guide.

Tara and Michael Miller and their children, Cole and Callie, are part of that energetic 1 percent of the population who want to get out of the car. The Alexandria family has about a week to spend in South Florida next spring, and Tara asked for our help in figuring out how to see the park and the nearby Keys most efficiently. High on their wish list: viewing wildlife, learning about ecosystems, snorkeling, swimming and kayaking. They’d also really like to see sharks.

Okay, but guys? Just remember, no swimming or snorkeling in the Everglades — it’s crawling with alligators. Although, for the record, Meyer says that no gator-related fatalities have been recorded in the park since its founding in 1947.

Survival Tip No. 2: Apply bug spray liberally and often. There are more insects in the park than any other animal.

Getting there and getting around. The park has several entry points, but the main entrance — on the east side, about 35 miles south of Miami — offers the most convenient options for first-timers. Plan on flying into Miami and renting a car. You’ll need it in the park and for exploring the Keys.

Where to stay. There’s no lodging in the park, but the nearby towns of Homestead and Florida City have plenty of options. The Best Western Gateway to the Keys, for example, is 7 1/2 miles from the park entrance. A poolside room that sleeps four people starts at about $140 a night and includes a mini-kitchen, free WiFi, LCD cable TV and continental breakfast.

What to do in the Everglades. Aim for about three days to get a good sense of the park. A few suggestions:

See the excellent exhibits at the Ernest Coe Visitor Center and sign up for free ranger-led walks and activities. (Check the schedule online before you leave home and call ahead to reserve a spot: 305-242-7700, www.nps.gov/ever. The Coe tours start winding down in mid-April, so depending on your exact dates you may want to drive north to the Shark Valley entrance for more options.)

Drive the 38-mile road south to the park’s Flamingo area, stopping to hike any of the short trails you’ll pass along the way. This drive allows you to see all nine park ecosystems, including freshwater sloughs and marl prairies, hardwood hammocks, cypress and mangrove forests, and marine and estuarine areas.

Rent bikes or canoes at the Shark Valley or Flamingo areas of the park.

Take a guided Tram Tour of the Shark Valley Slough with a park naturalist.

Take a narrated boat ride along the mangrove coast from Flamingo.

Take an eco-tour with a private outfitter. Everglades Area Tours (800-860-1472, www.evergladesareatours.com), for example, has naturalist-led outings that focus on birding, photography, hiking, kayaking and fishing, as well as overnight camping trips and sunset tours.

What to do in the Keys. Finally, you can get in the water!

Visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo for snorkeling, diving, glass-bottom boat tours and more (305-451-1202,www.pennekamppark.com).

Visit Bahia Honda State Park, 12 miles south of Marathon, for beach time (it has won prizes), kayaking, biking, hiking and some of the best snorkeling in the Keys (305-872-2353, www.bahiahondapark.com). Justin Zane, who leads snorkeling tours, says that spotting nurse sharks is common there — and don’t worry, they’re not dangerous to humans unless provoked (305-872-3954; $30 adults, $25 kids). The park has six rental cabins, by the way, but you need to reserve 11 months in advance (800-326-3521).

Explore Key West. In addition to the usual fun stuff (Conch Train tour, Hemingway house, sunsets at Mallory Square), there’s also the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, with interactive exhibits (305-809-4750, floridakeys.noaa.gov/eco_discovery.html).

Suggested itinerary.

Days 1-3: Explore the Everglades.

Day 4: Drive 25 miles south to Key Largo and visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Days 5-7: Drive about two hours south to Marathon, a good base for exploring Bahia Honda State Park and Key West. Stay at a chain motel or, for a splurge, consider Tranquility Bay Hotel and Resort (877-898-9808, www.tranquilitybay.com). For $400 and up a night you get a two-bedroom condo on the Gulf of Mexico with a full gourmet kitchen, laundry facilities, HBO, porch with water view, lagoon-style pool, locally inspired art work, fitness center, spa and private beach. It’s about 45 minutes from Key West.

Day 8: Drive to Miami and fly home.

Cost: Round-trip air from Washington to Miami for four people, about $730; lodging, $1,800; one-week midsize car rental through Priceline, $400. Total: $2,930, leaving you well within your budget for food, gas, admissions and attractions.

Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to www.washingtonpost.com/goingourway.

 
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