Perfect beaches, stunning sunsets, warm tropical breezes, caribbean vibes . . . Southern Florida and the Florida Keys are the absolute definition of paradise. But in between snorkeling at John Pennekamp State Park, dancing the night away in Miami or chasing your conch fritters with margaritas and a slice of key lime pie in Key West, take on a different kind of adventure: Everglades National Park.
The best way to see all that this unique 1.5-million acre wetlands preserve has to offer is to book a tour with Garl’s Coastal Kayaking. It’s a full-day, three-part adventure that gives visitors up-close-and-personal encounters with the Everglades’ most iconic resident: the American alligator. Along the way, you’ll be introduced to cyprus dome ecosystems, kayak through coastal mangroves and wetland marshes and meet some of the hundreds of creatures–big and small–that call this unique park home.
Here’s seven things you need to know before embarking on your Everglades adventure!
You’re going to spend time exploring a humid, buggy, muddy swamp.
Let me start by saying that this tour is not a comfortable, breezy, relaxing sojourn through the park. The first thing you do is travel by foot into one of the park’s many cypress domes. At certain times of the year (particularly rainy seasons) you’ll find yourself knee-deep in swamp water, shoes suctioning to the muddy floor under your feet, dripping with sweat and viciously swatting away bugs (even though you doused yourself in repellant). It’s not a glamorous outing. But, the experience of being completely immersed in these otherworldly domes is unforgettable. Here, you may encounter hatchlings in alligator holes, witness nature at its wildest and feel as though you’ve walked through a time machine into a prehistoric era as you learn about the incredible flora and fauna that thrive under these tropical canopies.
Yes, you will see alligators (and yes, they get close!)
As you walk through the cypress domes and kayak through the mangroves don’t be surprised… Of course, the guides are always respectful of the nature here and are careful not to disturb alligators and other wildlife or lead tours too close to an unsuspecting gator. But sometimes alligators will pop up right next to your kayak, give you a side-eye glance and quickly disappear once again into the water.
You’ll probably also see some other wildlife . . .
During our tour, we also encountered a 12-foot American saltwater crocodile, dolphins and an array of birds, snakes and turtles. The Everglades are also home to manatees, flamingos, Florida panthers, lemon sharks and even pythons. (Pythons are actually invasive species and harmful to this park’s fragile ecosystem, so if you spot one, let your guide know! They’re trained to remove them from the park.)
You can bring a camera, but you won’t need to.
Garl Hammond (the tour’s namesake) is an incredibly talented nature photographer and, along with capturing all of the wildlife we see on camera, also takes the time to get shots of each person or group as he leads the tour. At the end of the tour, Garl sells access to the photos on Dropbox.
However, for photographers looking to capture some amazing and unique shots, this is an awesome opportunity to do so. Garl knows the Everglades well, so has a sense of where to look for opportunities to capture photos during each part of the tour. (He was the locations expert on the recent Nat Geo film, “The Everglades: A Watery Wilderness.”)
Dress comfortably, and bring plenty of sun protection and water (and a lunch, too!)
Bring LOTS of water! If it’s a particularly buggy season, guides will outfit everyone with protective-but-lightweight mosquito pants and jackets to protect from some of the elements. But, come dressed in breathable, quick-dry clothing that covers you and will be comfortable all day long. (For instance, I wore workout leggings and a long-sleeve sun shirt like this one.) Also, having polarized sunglasses made all the difference when being able to spot gators in the water!
In between your freshwater and saltwater kayak, you’ll stop for lunch, so make sure to pack a sandwich and some snacks for the day (you’ll be able to store them in a cooler).
You don’t have to be an expert kayaker to do this tour, but you will be spending a lot of time kayaking.
The second two thirds of the tour will be spent in a kayak. First, you’ll kayak through a languid maze of freshwater mangroves. It’s a calm, easy, lazy paddle with scenic views and the occasional splash of a curious alligator. After your freshwater paddle, you’ll pack back into the tour van and drive south toward the coast. Before hopping into the water, take a lunch and bathroom break at the docks. Then, paddle out of the bay and into the channel, where you might happen upon sharks, crocodiles, manatees, dolphins and wetland birds as the sun begins to sink below the horizon. If there’s time, your guide might also take you on an after-dark stroll to spot nocturnal animals out and about at night.
The Everglades is unlike any place in the world!
No experience here is ever the same. Different seasons bring variable weather conditions and an ever-changing landscape as tides shift and plants are submerged under the water or exposed to the heavy humid air. This wild swampland harbors many endangered species that thrive in this unique watery environment. As President Harry S. Truman once said: “Here are no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams wearing away the uplifted land. Here is land, tranquil in its quiet beauty, serving not as the source of water, but as the last receiver of it.”
–The Wandering Alligator
Check out these tips and tricks for little ways to save for the next big trip!