Everglades National Park is a national park in the U.S. state of Florida that protects the southern 20 percent of the original Everglades. In the United States, it is the largest subtropical wilderness, the largest wilderness of any kind east of the Mississippi River, and is visited on average by one million people each year. It is the third-largest national park in the lower 48 states after Death Valley and Yellowstone.
It has been declared an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance, one of only three locations in the world to appear on all three lists. Humans have lived for thousands of years in or around the Everglades, until plans arose in 1882 to drain the wetlands and develop the recovered land for agricultural and residential use.
As the 20th century progressed, water flow from Lake Okeechobee was increasingly controlled and diverted to enable explosive growth of the South Florida metropolitan area. The park was established in 1934 to protect the quickly vanishing Everglades, and dedicated in 1947 as massive canal building projects were initiated across South Florida. The ecosystems in Everglades National Park have suffered significantly from human activity, and restoration of the Everglades is a politically charged issue in South Florida.
While they are common in the northern portion of Florida, no underground springs feed water into the Everglades system. An underground reservoir called the Floridan Aquifer lies about 1,000 feet (300 m) below the surface of South Florida. However, the Everglades has an immense capacity for water storage, owing to the sponge-like permeable limestone beneath the exposed land.
Freshwater Sloughs and Marl Prairies
Freshwater sloughs are perhaps the most common ecosystem associated with Everglades National Park. These drainage channels are characterized by low-lying areas covered in fresh water, flowing at an almost imperceptible 100 feet (30 m) per day. Shark River Slough and Taylor Slough are significant features of the park.
Sawgrass growing to a length of 6 feet (1.8 m) or more, and broad-leafed marsh plants, are so prominent in this region that they gave the Everglades its nickname "River of Grass", cemented in the public imagination in the title for Marjory Stoneman Douglas's book (1947), which culminated years of her advocacy for considering the Everglades ecosystem as more than a "swamp".
Tropical Hardwood Hammocks
Hammocks are often the only dry land within the park. They rise several inches above the grass-covered river, and are dominated by diverse plant life consisting of subtropical and tropical trees, such as large southern live oaks (Quercus virginiana). Trees often form canopies under which animals thrive amongst scrub bushes of wild coffee (Psychotria), white indigoberry (Randia aculeata), poisonwood (Metopium toxiferum) and saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens).
Dade County was once covered in 186,000 acres (750 km2) of pine rockland forests, but most of it was harvested by the lumber industry. Pineland ecosystems (or pine rocklands) are characterized by shallow, dry sandy loam over a limestone substrate covered almost exclusively by slash pines (Pinus elliottii var. densa). Trees in this ecosystem grow in solution holes, where the soft limestone has worn away and filled with soil, allowing plants to take hold.
Coastal lowlands, or wet prairies, are salt water marshes that absorb marine water when it gets high or fresh water when rains are heavy. Floods occur during hurricane and tropical storm surges when ocean water can rise several feet over the land. Heavy wet seasons also cause floods when rain from the north flows into the Everglades. Few trees can survive in the conditions of this region, but plants—succulents like saltwort and glasswort—tolerate salt, brackish water, and desert conditions.
Marine and Estuarine
The largest body of water within the park is Florida Bay, which extends from the mangrove swamps of the mainland's southern tip to the Florida Keys. Over 800 square miles (2,100 km2) of marine ecosystem lies in this range. Coral, sponges, and seagrasses serve as shelter and food for crustaceans and mollusks, which in turn are the primary food source for larger marine animals. Sharks, stingrays, and barracudas also live in this ecosystem, as do larger species of fish that attract sport fishing.
The busiest season for visitors is from December to March, when temperatures are lowest and mosquitoes are least active. The park features four visitor centers: on the Tamiami Trail (part of U.S. Route 41) directly west of Miami is the Shark Valley Visitor Center. A fifteen-mile (24 km) round trip path leads from this center to a two-story observation tower.
Tram tours are available during the busy season. Closest to Homestead on State Road 9336 is the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, where a 38-mile (61 km) road begins, winding through pine rockland, cypress, freshwater marl prairie, coastal prairie, and mangrove ecosystems.
Several walking trails in the park vary in hiking difficulty on Pine Island, where visitors can cross hardwood hammocks, pinelands, and freshwater sloughs. Starting at the Royal Palm Visitor Center, the Anhinga Trail is a half-mile self-guided tour through a sawgrass marsh where visitors can see alligators, marsh and wading birds, turtles, and bromeliads. Its proximity to Homestead and its accessibility make it one of the most visited sites in the park.
Camping and Recreation
Camping is available year-round in Everglades National Park. Frontcountry camping, with some services, is available at Long Pine Key, close to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, where 108 sites are accessible by car. Near Flamingo, 234 campsites with some services are also available. Recreational vehicle camping is available at these sites, although not with all necessary services.
Endangered and Threatened Animals
Thirty-six federally protected animals live in the park, some of which face grave concern for survival. The American crocodile is found only in South Florida within the United States. Overhunted for their hides, today they are protected from hunting, but are still threatened due to habitat destruction, and injury from cars when they cross roads to reach waterways. Roughly 50 nests exist in Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, and about 1,000 crocodiles currently live in Florida.