Planning a trip to Everglades National Park in Florida? Be sure to visit Shark Valley where you will see dozens of alligators, a wide variety of marsh birds, and other interesting wildlife!
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The Florida Everglades is a vast wetland ecosystem located not that far outside of Miami. It's actually the 3rd largest national park in the contiguous United States (only Yellowstone and Death Valley are larger) and is bigger than Rhode Island or Delaware! It was established in 1947 and to really see all of it would take days, if not weeks, since there are so many different areas to cover.
If you are planning a trip to Florida or happen to be near Miami, I highly recommend adding this gem of a national park to your itinerary!
Since we only had an afternoon to spend in Everglades NPS, we opted to focus our time on the Shark Valley Visitor Center so we could do the famous tram tour and see plenty of alligators. We were very happy with our choice and can't wait to go back to see more of the park!
Everglades NPS Overview
Everglades National Park has a unique and diverse ecosystem made up of sawgrass marshes, mangrove forests, cypress swamps, and a network of slow-moving rivers. It is sometimes referred to as the "River of Grass" due to the slow flow of water across the landscape, which only moves about ¼ mile each day.
It is home to rare and endangered animals like the Florida panther, American crocodile, and West Indian manatee. The ecosystem also provides crucial habitat for numerous bird species, and you are likely to see lots of birds that you might not see anywhere else!
Why You Should Visit Shark Valley
There are so many different parts of the Everglades that you are probably wondering why we chose Shark Valley over one of the other visitor center locations.
First off, it's an easy day trip from Miami since it is only about 1 hour from downtown Miami to the Shark Valley visitor's center.
But more importantly, for us, Shark Valley is known for its breathtaking and picturesque landscapes. The expansive sawgrass marshes in the late afternoon light during winter are tranquil and serene and unlike anything else I have ever seen.
There is also a rich array of wildlife at Shark Valley, which is abundant with alligators, wading birds, turtles, and various other species like herons, egrets, and ibises. Even if you don't have time for the tram tour or riding bikes along the loop trail, there are plenty of alligators (even some with their babies!) and birds right along the canal next to the visitor's center.
Our 4th grader had a blast taking these selfies with just a couple of the critters that were literally right next to the trail no more than a 60-second walk from the Shark Valley visitor center. I guffawed when I saw these because I didn't realize that she had stolen my phone to take them.
I was hoping to rent bikes at the visitor's center and ride the 15-mile loop trail, but we arrived later in the day than I had anticipated and we were worried about not finishing the loop before the bike rental station closed. Fortunately for us, there was still room on the last tram tour of the day!
Shark Valley Tram Tour
The park offers guided tram tours that take you through the heart of the Everglades to an observation tower. You can walk or bike the whole loop of the tram road, but plan on it taking you anywhere from 3 to 6 hours.
The tram tour approach turned out to be really great for us because the guides were great and had a wealth of knowledge to share about the ecosystem, landscape, and wildlife. The loop takes you out to an observation tower that offers gorgeous panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
Frequently Asked Questions
The Shark Valley tram tour in Everglades National Park typically takes approximately 2 hours to complete. The tram tour covers a 15-mile loop through the heart of the Everglades, providing visitors with the opportunity to observe and learn about the park's unique ecosystem, wildlife, and vegetation. The tour is guided by naturalists or park rangers who offer insights into the importance of the Everglades and its conservation efforts.
The Shark Valley tram tours run every hour from 9-4 during the winter season of mid-December through April and four times per day during the rest of the year. The tours frequently fill up well before departure during busy seasons and can be booked in advance online.
If you want to make reservations for a tram tour, I highly recommend checking out the schedule posted on the Everglades NPS website for the Shark Valley Visitor Center and booking in advance through Shark Valley Tram Tours, which is the only operator to run the tours in the park.
You can visit any time of year, but the busy season runs from December to April, right after the end of the wet season when temperatures drop and are more comfortable compared to the hotter and more humid summer months.
Winter is also a season of increased wildlife activity in the Everglades since many bird species migrate to the area during this time, making it an ideal period for birdwatching.
If you go on a weekend or holiday during the busy season, be prepared for delays entering the park. The Shark Valley visitor center parking lot is decent-sized, but they do run out of parking spots and then cars have to wait in a sometimes long line and are only allowed to enter one at a time as other cars exit and free up spaces, which can sometimes take a while. Expect longer lines from about 10 AM to 3 PM during this period and adjust your schedule to arrive with plenty of time to spare if you are planning to do the tram tour or ride bikes.
Another option is to park on the main road just outside the park and walk in on foot. It's not a long walk and we saw many cars take that approach the day we visited since the wait to get in to the regular parking lot was around 30-45 minutes.
Crocodiles in the Everglades
We got lucky and happened to see one of only 3 crocodiles that lives in the Everglades. It was hanging out in a pool in the parking lot by the observation tower! This is one of the only places in the world where alligators and crocodiles coexist side-by-side, which makes it extremely unique.
There are a few ways to tell alligators and crocodiles apart, but the biggest visual distinctions are that alligators have a more broad, U-shaped snout, while crocodiles have a narrower V-shaped snout. Also, when its mouth is closed, only the upper teeth of an alligator are visible where as both the upper AND lower teeth are visible on a crocodile.
A joke for your 4th grader: Do you know how to tell the difference between an alligator and a crocodile? One will see you later and the other will see you after a while. (bah-dum-ching)
How Far is Shark Valley Visitor Center from Miami?
This is an easy day trip from Miami since it is only a 1-hour drive from downtown. Be sure to stop at Robert Is Here Fruit Stand on your way to or from to grab an exotic fruit milkshake!
I have a whole post on how to spend 1 day in Miami with kids, if you happen to be staying longer!
Have you been to Everglades National Park? If so, we would love to hear what your favorite experiences were since we barely scratched the surface on this trip!