Forty species of mammals live here, including whitetail deer and the rare Florida panther. (Photo: National Park Service)
Forty species of mammals live here, including whitetail deer and the rare Florida panther. (Photo: National Park Service)

Florida’s River of Grass

Now’s the time to visit the Everglades and, with the water low, see concentrations of wildlife.

I confess: the first time I stepped out of my rental car and strolled the gray-planked walkway of the Anhinga Trail, I was underwhelmed. This was a national park—the familiar arrowhead-shaped brown and green signs said so—and I’d read that it represented a prime example of the unique sawgrass prairie of Florida’s Everglades. But where were the stunning vistas? 

They are here, I later learned, not as in the saw-blade snowy peaks of the Tetons or the startling sandstone cliffs of the Grand Canyon; rather, they’re in sublime sunrises and sunsets over sawgrass marshes and sloughs, and through islands of hardwood hammocks and palmetto pinelands. And, for those in private jets, they’re in sweeping aerial views of this water-dotted landscape that will take your breath away. As with many things in life, it’s all a matter of perspective. 

The heart of North America’s famous sub-tropic peninsula is an immense, almost imperceptibly south-flowing stream of seasonal runoff. The stream starts just south of Orlando in the watershed of the Kissimmee River. It gathers in broad, shallow Lake Okeechobee. From there, the Glades flow 60 miles wide and 100 south over limestone, bringing parched, dormant wetlands magically to life each spring and summer. The water sustains hundreds of species of native wildlife, fills swimming pools in Miami, waters valuable winter tomato crops and gives Florida Bay its rich charge of fish-growing nutrients and vital fresh water. Okeechobee is only 21 feet above sea level. The hydraulic “tilt” is so slight that a drop of rainwater hitting the lake takes the better part of a year to reach the Gulf of Mexico.

The Everglades are home to one of the world’s most diverse communities of plants and animals. The fertile peat-and-marl ecosystem sustains 16 species of wading birds, from the common white ibis to the endangered wood stork. Forty species of mammals live here, including the ubiquitous whitetail deer and the rare Florida panther. This is also the most accessible habitat remaining for most of us to glimpse American alligators in the wild.

Now is the time to visit the Glades and, with the water low, see concentrations of wildlife. Late winter through early spring is not only a delightful time to leave the snow and cold up north—it’s also the tail end of the so-called winter dry season here. The weather is pleasant, if sometimes cool by the measure of sun-spoiled Floridians.

When you arrive, head first for the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm, the core state park formed in 1916 that evolved eventually into Everglades National Park. From Miami take the Florida Turnpike (Route 821) south until it ends, merging with U. S. Highway 1 at Florida City. Turn right at the first traffic light onto Palm Drive and follow the signs to Everglades National Park. The Ernest Coe Visitor Center, open 365 days a year, offers interesting displays and an introductory film. Anhinga Trail is another mile to your left. You’ll see wildlife galore, herons to gators.

The Shark Valley Visitors Center is also worth including on your itinerary. From Miami, take the Florida Turnpike to U.S. Highway 41 (Tamiami Trail) for 25 miles and then take exit 25A. Alongside the Visitors’ Center is the entrance to a 15-mile park trail that you can hike or bike. Bicycles are available for rent. You can also take a private two-hour open-air tram tour with a naturalist. (Call 305-221-8776 for reservations.) Halfway along the trail is a 45-foot observation tower that offers 20-mile vistas on a clear day. 

Eco Pond in the Flamingo area on Florida Bay is a good place to spot an alligator. Take the Florida Turnpike south until it ends at U. S. Highway 1 and then right to Palm Drive. The Flamingo Visitor Center is 38 miles from the park entrance (approximately an hour’s drive). Here you can rent a canoe. Kayaks, bicycles and even houseboats are also available, as is a guided two-hour boat tour of Florida Bay and the mysterious mangroves. 


“There are no other Everglades in the world,” wrote Marjory Stoneman Douglas in the opening line to her 1947 book, The Everglades: River of Grass. If you live in Florida or plan to visit anytime soon, you owe it to yourself to read this engaging volume, which was first published in 1947, the same year the U.S. Congress set aside 1.5 million acres to preserve the Everglades. 

By then, nearly a century of dredging, damming, diking and draining had transformed much of the free-flowing River of Grass into a complex of controlled levees and canals. Water that had flowed slowly but steadily toward the Florida Keys was diverted toward Miami to benefit real estate developers on the coast. Inland, sugarcane growers got rich. In 1928, the completion of U. S. Highway 41—the Tamiami Trail—from Naples to Miami through Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades effectively cut off the -natural north-to-south flow of fresh water. The great River of Grass withered; wildlife diminished.

The good news is that an encouraging state-federal cooperative restoration effort is now underway to “re-plumb” the source of the Everglades’ water in central Florida. The aim is to send more cleansing, nourishing water south. Meanwhile, key sections of the Tamiami Trail are being elevated to reconnect the historic flow from Lake Okeechoobee to the mangroves of Florida Bay.


Private jet travelers have many airport options, including Miami International (longest runway, 13,016 feet), Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International (9,000 feet), Southwest Florida International in Fort Myers (12,000 feet) and Tampa International (11,002 feet). For Everglades National Park reservations, entrance passes and information, visit or call (305) 242-7700.

Thomas R. Pero is publisher of Wild River Press and the author of two books about fly fishing.