“You’ve Gotta See This” is author and photographer J.M. Hoffman‘s occasional column about unusually enticing destinations. Connect with him on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, or stop by his photography website for more exotic photos.
It’s the only spot in the world where alligators and crocodiles live together, and maybe the only spot in the world where your phone is sufficient for great photographs of exotic wildlife. It’s home to brightly colored chicken-like birds and to the world’s third largest herons, to the aptly-named snakebird and to the oddly-named Marbled Godwit, to say nothing of more raptors and reptiles than you can shake a stick at. (Please don’t shake sticks at the animals.) It’s a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve, Cartagena-Treaty specially protected area, and Wetland of National Importance. It’s the Everglades, the world-famous “river of grass” that runs through southern Florida. And you’ve gotta see it.
It’s even easy to get to. Keep reading for details.
What You’ll See
There are alligators, of course, mere feet away:
along with their young (which I think are amazing):
There’s the multi-colored Purple Gallinule:
and herons of every sort:
with, of course, fish for them to eat:
And did I mention the baby alligators?
Along with much more.
By far the easiest and most convenient way to see the copious wildlife in the Everglades is at Shark Valley. A quick drive from both Naples (90 minutes) and Miami (60 minutes), Shark Valley is an easy day trip if you’re already in Florida, and certainly worth flying down for, because it offers a 15-mile scenic loop with perhaps the highest concentration of wildlife you’ll ever see.
What happened is this: In 1946, the Humble Oil Company (now part of Exxon-Mobil) discovered oil in the Everglades. To get to it, they built a seven-mile raised path out of ground dug from a trench. The oil turned out to be sub-standard and Humble Oil abandoned the project. But the path and the trench remained. Like the famed oases of Etosha in Namibia, this trench in Shark Valley provides water in the dry season, attracting a stunning abundance of wildlife. And the path, now paved, brings you right alongside.
Just so we’re clear: There are no sharks in Shark Valley. It’s called that because its water runs south into Shark River, which in turn is so named because of the bull sharks once spotted there. But it is a valley, if only because it’s several feet — yes, feet! — lower than the surrounding ground formed by the marl prairies to the west and the natural ridge to the east upon which Miami was built. (Special thanks to the super friendly and helpful staff at the National Park Service for helping me get this straight; I think I got it right.)
But there are wild alligators, and lots of ’em. Don’t worry, though. In spite of their proximity, they’ve never seemed threatening to me. My understanding is that they don’t associate people with food so they’ll leave you alone if you’re not aggressive. The National Park Service has details on their safety page.
What to Expect
Shark Valley has it all.
You can walk as much of the loop as you like, easily spotting wildlife within the first few feet. Or you can rent a bicycle there and bike your way around. Or you can take the 2-hour tram ride which is ideal for families. So no matter your preference, you’ll get to see amazing wildlife in its serene natural environment right in front of you.
The visitor center offers restrooms and tap water, and, for a fee, a variety of other cold drinks and snacks. (There’s no real restaurant in Shark Valley, but across from the entrance is the Miccosukee Restaurant. I’ve never tried it.)
The only difficulty might be parking. The lot ($25 for up to seven consecutive days) fills up pretty quickly during peak times. But if you can’t get in, you can park outside and walk to the entrance, about half a mile. (You’ll be charged an $8 pedestrian fee, also good for up to seven consecutive days.)
Keep in mind the very hot Florida sun. No matter when you go you’ll want a hat and sunscreen.
How to Get There
The entrance to Shark Valley lies on the southern side of the Tamiami Trail — also called “US 41,” “State Road 90,” and, on the Miami side, “SW 8th Street” — which runs east-west from Miami to Naples, and then up to Tampa.
If you’re already in Florida, set your GPS for “36000 SW 8th St, Miami, FL 33194.”
And if you’re out of state, make your way to anywhere in the Miami or Naples area and base yourself there. Try to book lodging in advance, because prices — especially in Naples — skyrocket during peak times.
When to Go
February and March are ideal.
The Everglades has but two seasons: wet (May to November) and dry (December to April). You want to go toward the end of the dry season, when the excess water in the canals at Shark Valley attracts the most wildlife. You’ll probably get to enjoy the glory of sunny, warm, dry days, and as an added plus, you’ll probably be taking a break from the most dreary part of winter.
If you do go during the wet season, you’ll have to put up with high humidity, and mosquitoes will be your primary wildlife. I don’t recommend it.
What to Bring
Even in February, Shark Valley can be very hot, and there’s no shade on the path. So you’ll want to bring hats and sunscreen. And even though you can buy water and snacks there, you may want to bring your own. You probably won’t need insect repellent in February, but it won’t hurt to have it with you.
There is a gas station across from the entrance to Shark Valley, but no other place to fill up for miles, so it’s a good idea to set out with a full tank.
In terms of cameras, take a look at the “Consider Your Equipment” section of my “Five Tips for Better Wildlife and Nature Photographs.” But unlike almost everywhere else in the world, the wildlife here is so close and abundant that almost any camera will do.
Tips and Tricks
The park doesn’t open until 8:30am, but you can enter on foot at any time, either parking on Route 41 or, in the morning, just outside the gate (in which case you should return to your car before 8:30.) I like to arrive at sunrise, when most of the wildlife is illuminated by gorgeous light from the east, and when the park is quiet.
The wildlife is around all day, but mornings are better than afternoons for photography. The canal was dug to the west of the path, so morning light shines on the animals while trees to the west block afternoon light. The alligators usually remain hidden until a couple hours after sunrise.
Midday is often too hot to do much outdoors. If you plan to be at Shark Valley all day, consider devoting the midday hours to the tram. But:
Tram rides fill up quickly. You can pre-order tickets for the morning and afternoon tours, but you have to buy tickets for the midday departures in person.
And Once You’re in the Area
Once you’re in the area, you may also want to take an airboat tour. Private providers are plentiful along Route 41. (Be aware that these are very loud, loud enough, I believe, to damage your hearing. Ear protection is usually provided for children. You may want to consider bringing high-quality ear plugs.)
To the west of Shark Valley is Big Cypress National Preserve, with a completely different ecosystem. This is an easy stop on the way back to Naples, and not too far out of the way if you’re returning to Miami.
In either Miami or Naples, consider heading out on a sunset dolphin watch. These, too, are plentiful. (When you’re out on the boat, try not to fixate on your phone so much that you miss the dolphin right next to you!)
So What Are You Waiting For?
Now’s the time! Book your February getaway to Miami or Naples. Reserve a hotel room for a few nights. Rent a car. Then look forward to a few days in one of the world’s most impressive nature locales. And don’t forget to tag me with any photos you post to Instagram.