All life in the Everglades hangs by a wet thread — the fresh water required to sustain the vast and varied species, threatened by human intervention. The thread is growing weaker all the time.
This lush but fragile landscape is primarily a marsh of scattered tall grasses. Everglades National Park, which covers about 1.4 million acres, contains only part of the watery expanse known as everglades. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness makes up the majority of the park.
At the heart of the Everglades is a "river of grass," six inches deep and 50 miles wide, a body of water that flows so slowly the movement is imperceptible. From its origin along the shores of Lake Okeechobee, the river drops only 15 feet on the voyage to saltwater Florida Bay.
Don’t be fooled by the river’s placid nature though, for this is a land of indescribable wonder. Scaly alligators share the marshes with flamingos, roseate spoonbills, egrets and herons, pelicans, cranes, hawks, ibis, storks, frigate birds, kites, skimmers, and hundreds of other colorful birds.
The shallow waters of Florida Bay constitute a little less than one-third of the Wilderness. Most of the bay’s tiny keys serve as nesting sites for birds, and the salt water teems with fish, bottle-nosed dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, and manatees. You pretty much need a boat to access Florida Bay and the fascinating Wilderness Waterway, a 99-mile marine trail that takes you from Everglades City and the Ten Thousand Islands on the north to Flamingo on the south. Along the waterway you’ll see virtually every organism that lives in the Caribbean.
A 38-mile road leads from entrance of the National Park to a visitor center at Flamingo on the southern coast of Florida. From this road, several trails head into the Wilderness, most of them day-hike routes of less than one mile. Four longer trails, ranging in length from four to 13 miles, also can be accessed near Flamingo. When embarking on foot or canoe trails, visitors should carry in all the drinking water they’ll need.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness.
Everglades National Park, which contains the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness, has four main areas and three entrances located in different cities around South Florida. Find directions to the following areas online:
Shark Valley is in the very heart of the Everglades. From the visitor center, walk bike, or take a narrated tram ride along the 15-mile loop road into Shark River Slough, the main drainage channel through the park. Alligators, wading birds, turtles, deer, river otters, and raccoons are frequently seen along the Shark Valley Road.
Royal Palm is the departure point for two interpretive walks: the Anhinga Trail and the Gumbo Limbo Trail. Expect to see plenty of wildlife along the Anhinga Trail, a world famous boardwalk trail bordering Taylor Slough. The Gumbo Limbo Trail is a paved path through a hardwood hammock. On your ride to Flamingo there are many trails to explore in between.
Flamingo features a visitor center, restaurant, campground, picnic area, small store and marina. Services offered at the marina include boat launching ramps, canoe and small boat rentals, charter fishing boats, and regularly scheduled sightseeing boat trips.
From the Gulf Coast Visitor Center the town of Everglades City, take a boat -- your own or a scheduled sightseeing boat tour -- to explore the vast mangrove estuary of the Ten Thousand Islands.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
Safely exploring a wilderness by water requires careful preparation and planning. Plan at least two routes before arriving at the park in case your first choice is already filled. If you require assistance planning your trip, call or stop by the Gulf Coast (Everglades City) or Flamingo Visitor Centers. You may also find answers to your questions by visiting the Everglades National Park website.
Because of the heat, severe storms, and intolerable numbers of mosquitoes, summer (June –October) is not the best time of year for a wilderness trip. The winter months (December–April) tend to be more pleasant.
Nautical charts are necessary for finding your way in the wilderness and are useful in planning your trip. Charts may be purchased at the Coe and Gulf Coast Visitor Centers, Flamingo Marina, and Everglades NP Boat Tours, or ordered from the Everglades Association. Some sites are not indicated with a tent symbol on nautical charts. Consult visitor center maps before departure. Much of the water is quite shallow, and you can ground your boat quickly. In addition to damaging your boat, groundings destroy precious seagrasses and benthic communities that provide food and shelter to creatures inhabiting these waters. Always refer to nautical charts and tide charts for a safe boating excursion. The 99-mile Wilderness Waterway attracts interest because it connects Flamingo and Everglades City. Most paddlers allow at least eight days to complete the trip. This route is recommended for experienced paddlers only. Arrange in advance for a vehicle shuttle. There are many areas of very shallow water that may be encountered along the Wilderness Waterway. Powerboats over 18' long may have to detour around Alligator and Plate Creeks. The "Nightmare" and Broad Creek are passable only to paddlers at high tide. To prevent prop dredging, which results in increased turbidity and the destruction of submerged natural features, boats with drafts of two feet or more, including the propeller, should not use the waterway.
Keep Track of Where You Are
A nautical chart and compass are your best equipment for staying on route, finding your designated campsite, and returning safely. GPS (global positioning systems) and cell phones are also helpful, but do not rely primarily on this technology to navigate in the backcountry. Batteries may die, equipment may get lost or malfunction, and satellite and cell phone coverage may be spotty at best.
Tides and winds can make paddling difficult. Most experienced paddlers plan to travel between 8 and 12 miles per day. Adverse conditions may reduce your speed to one mile an hour or less. Boaters are expected to know their own abilities, be able to use charts, understand tides and weather, and make appropriate decisions in selecting an itinerary. This is a wilderness.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness has different types of camping opportunities.
Chickees are located along rivers and bays where dry land is inaccessable. They are elevated 10' x 12' wooden platforms with roofs. A walkway leads to a self-contained toilet. You'll need a freestanding tent, since stakes or nails are not allowed. No campfires are allowed on chickees. Some paddlers have difficulty accessing chickees from their boats. A loop of heavy rope may be helpful.
Ground sites are mounds of earth a few feet higher than the surrounding mangroves, located along interior bays and rivers. They tend to have more insects than chickees or beach sites. No campfires are allowed on ground sites. Use gas grills or stoves. Wood, charcoal, or coal-fueled grills or stoves are not permitted.
Beach sites are located on the coast. During ideal conditions, insects may be scarce, but always be prepared for mosquitoes and no-see-ums (tiny biting insects), especially at sunrise and sunset. Gulf waters at beach sites can become rough; seas can exceed 3 feet. Low tides often expose large mud flats, which may make beach access difficult. Campfires must be below hightide line. Sand beaches are often stabilized by tall, grassy plants called sea oats. Take care not to damage them. Sea turtles and crocodiles nest on beaches in late spring and summer. Avoid camping or building a fire where nesting evidence exists. Many beach sites have no toilets. Bury human waste at least six inches below the surface, away from shorelines and tent sites. Urinate directly in the water.
Beware of swift currents and tides when securing vessels overnight; tidal ranges can exceed four feet in some locations. Beach canoes above high tide line and tie down or anchor from three points at landings/docks. Use tides to your advantage in travel. Tide tables are available at the Flamingo and Gulf Coast Visitor Centers or online.
Winds and Weather
Numerous canoes, kayaks, and boats have been swamped by rough seas on windy days. Thunderstorms occur frequently in summer. Hurricane season is June through November. Be prepared for sudden wind and weather changes at any time.
Safety and Current Conditions
Carry fresh water (1 gallon/person/day), compass, nautical charts, anchor, sunscreen, sunglasses, rain gear, mosquito repellent or bug jacket, and tent (with insect netting).
File a float plan with a friend or relative before leaving home, and call that person when you finish your trip. If you do not call by the predetermined time, that person should notify the park's 24-hour dispatch at (305) 242-7740.
Paddlers will encounter powerboats. If you are in a narrow river or pass, and a boat approaches, pull as far to the side as possible, point the bow of your canoe or kayak into the boat's wake, and stop paddling until the boat passes. Powerboaters: reduce speed in narrow channels; Idle past paddlers and give them plenty of space; approach last 100 yards of any backcountry campsite at idle speed to avoid prop dredging and excessive wave action.
If You're In Trouble
Stay with your vessel near a navigational marker or campsite. Set anchor immediately. Try to attract the attention of other boaters. If you have a marine radio, transmit on channel 16. Try calling 1-800-788-0511 on your cell phone, but do not count on cell phone coverage.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.