Crocodiles, Alligators, and Manatees (oh, my!) at Everglades National Park in Florida
By Meg Brunson
A few years ago, on a solo-trip to Ft. Lauderdale, I took an airboat ride through the Everglades and saw a bunch of Alligators in their natural habitat. The airboat tour was not in the cards for my family this year, so instead we did what we thought would be the next-best thing: visiting the Everglades National Park… when in reality, at the end of the day – I was SO glad we did this FREE activity instead of the paid one!
We started at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center in Homestead, Florida – which is about an hour south of Miami. We watched an introductory movie, and one of the park rangers provided us with a map, Junior Ranger books for the kids, and some guidance on which stops would be the best for our goals of seeing alligators, crocodiles, and manatees! Right outside the visitor center, there was a pond and we saw a baby alligator in there – which was cool, but we were really looking forward to seeing some big gators!
Our first stop was only about 4 miles from the entrance. We stopped at Royal Palm and walked the Anhinga Trail. The Anhinga are birds that we ended up really enjoying. They are black and white and are diving birds, so we saw one swimming completely under the water and poking his head up once in a while – then when they emerge from the water, they sit with their wings spread to dry off. We saw a variety of really amazing birds… and, what we really came for: alligators!
Some of the gators were out in the open and easy to spot – others were trickier to see as they sat camouflaged in their natural surroundings. The search for gators was made easier because everyone there had the same goal – and generally were happy to help by pointing out the gators they found! The trail was a reasonable walk, and the kids loved seeing the gators, turtles, and counting birds (a Junior Ranger activity). I believe we saw a total of 7 alligators in this area – including one who appeared to be “on the hunt” swimming around one of the ponds. Some of these gators were extremely close – right below the raised wooden path we were on!
While there are a ton of amazing stops you can make throughout the park – we knew our time was limited with 4 kids (and the fact that we didn’t start our day till about noon). So, our next stop was the last one on the drive through the Everglades: Flamingo Visitor Center and Marina.
The Marina is where we were told we’d have the best chance of seeing a crocodile and manatees. We walked around for a while before asking a staff member (identified by his orange shirt) for some advice. He immediately pointed out a crocodile – amazingly camouflaged in the water. This guy was much farther away than the gators had been, but we were still thrilled to have seen him!
With the manatees, we didn’t really know what to look for, so having someone point one out really helped. When they were swimming under the water, the surface of the water looked like flat ovals gently moving along the water. They swam very close to the side of the marina and then popped up for air every once in a while. We had to walk around a bit, but we did eventually find an area where they were feeding on some of the vegetation in the water and got to see them being a little playful as well.
Finally, we loved that we could turn our Junior Ranger books in at Flamingo Visitor Center – so while we still had to make the 38 mile drive back out of the park… we were not rushing to get there before the visitor centers closed at 4:30!
At the end of the day we saw turtles, alligators, manatees, a crocodile, and a ton of unique birds and fish throughout a variety of ecosystems. It’s really an amazing experience to be able to observe these animals in their natural habitat – not confined to a zoo or aquarium. And based on my previous experience with the air boat tours – we saw WAY more by visiting the Everglades National Park.
Tips for a Terrific Trip:
- Safety First – stay on the trails. This is not a zoo, there are no enclosures. The trails are there to keep visitors (and animals) safe. The rangers assured me that they’ve not had any issues with injury from the animals.
- Conservation – do not litter. That should go without saying, but it was so sad that we saw ANY litter in this breathtaking park.
- Gas up the car – visiting the park includes driving from one location to another in order to experience all of the various ecosystems and wildlife. There is fuel available at the Flamingo Marina – but personally, I’d rather have a full tank upon arrival!
- Bring colored pencils - as I mentioned, there will be a lot of driving. When you stop at the first visitor center you can pick up Junior Ranger books for the kids. They will provide you with a pencil; having colored pencils will allow them to color the book as well as you drive through the park (crayons might melt in the South Florida heat)!
- Food/Drinks - Pack a picnic lunch or plan to eat from the food truck or the marina store at Flamingo Visitor Center (38 miles south of the main visitor center). As always, bring plenty of water. It’s hot in the South Florida sun (even in the winter)!
- Cell Service – it’s extremely spotty, and we had no service frequently throughout our visit – so prepare for that ahead of time! By the time you get to the entrance/exit of the park you’ll have the service you need to GPS back to your homebase!
Learn more about the Everglades National Park and start planning your trip at: https://www.nps.gov/ever/index.htm - then, read about some of the other adventures we're having on our Year-Long Road Trip!
© 2019 Meg Brunson
All opinions expressed are my own. See more on Instagram!
Meg is a mommy blogger, Facebook marketer, and much more. She is a mom to four kids who live full-time in an RV exploring the US! As a former Facebook employee, Meg remains a Facebook addict and handles KidsOutAndAbout.com's Social Media Marketing in addition to providing freelance services for other small businesses on how to best leverage Facebook as a part of their marketing strategy. Meg also hosts the FamilyPreneur Podcast, a podcast for parent entrepreneurs raising entrepreneurial children. Learn more about Meg at MegBrunson.com!