Cypress trees and a great white heron in Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park is the third largest National Park in the lower United States (after Death Valley National Park and Yellowstone National Park). At 1,508,571 acres, it is also the largest subtropical wild area in the lower 48 states. The property has been declared a Wetland of International Importance, a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.
Most American National Parks were created to safeguard some natural feature or features. Everglades National Park was created to protect a fragile ecosystem. In the park you'll find 36 species that are listed on the Federal Threatened or Endangered Species List, including the American crocodile, American alligator, Florida panther and the West Indian manatee. You'll also find more than 50 species of reptiles, 40 species of mammals, 300 species of fresh and saltwater fish and 350 species of birds.
In 1978, Congress designated 1,296,500 acres of the Everglades as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness, locking up this fragile landscape forever for the protection of the wildlife and vegetation that live there.
A typical American alligator in the Everglades
The Everglades is actually a very slow moving system of rivers fed by Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River. The waters tend to move southwest at about 1/4 mile per day. Humans have lived in this area for thousands of years but it was only in the 1880's that a serious impact was felt from human uses of the land. It was in 1882 that industrial-strength drainage of the region for residential and agricultural use began. Since then, the ecosystems of the park have suffered significantly, and repair and restoration of the environment is a very politically charged issue.
December to April is the dry season in the Everglades. Humidity is low and temperatures usually vary from 53°F to 77°F. Water levels drop off and most of the animals gather around central water holes. That makes winter a good time to visit and check out the wildlife. The wet season runs from May to November and brings humidity levels above 90% and temperatures consistently above 90°F. Rainstorms are frequent and drenching downpours can drop 10 to 12 inches of rain at a time.
As a large part of the Everglades is overflowed by a river between 40 and 70 miles wide, tropical hardwood hammocks are often the only dry land around. The hammocks rise only a few inches above the flowing water and are often covered in southern live oaks. The taller oaks form a canopy under which thrives populations of white indigoberry, wild coffee, poisonwood and saw palmetto. In places, the live oaks give way to gumbo limbo and wild tamarind but hardly anything grows taller than maybe 50 feet. The hammock base is usually so overgrown that it is nearly impenetrable, but that provides an excellent habitat for reptiles and amphibians. Southern bald eagles, northern cardinals and barred owls often make their homes in the trees of the hammocks. You'll also often find white-tailed deer, bobcat, Everglades mink, raccoon and opossum living in the hammocks. These mammals sometimes attract the critically endangered Florida panther in its search for lunch.