Everglades National Park covers 1.5 million acres in southern Florida. Over a million people visit the third largest national park in the United States each year, which is home to one of the largest wetlands in the world. Established in 1947, Everglades National Park has nine different habitats, including marine and freshwater canyons. The waters of the Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee, and the Shark River flow west through Big Cypress National Preserve into the Ten Thousand Islands. It also heads east into Biscayne National Park and south into Florida Bay.
After the 19th century, settlers came to farm. Needing the land to dry up, these newcomers failed to understand that The River of Grass was so much more than a worthless swamp. They failed to appreciate the importance of the vast labyrinth of canals and low-lying areas that provided food and home for birds, fish, reptiles, flora and fauna. According to the National Park Service, “dams, locks, canals, levees, and roads have been constructed that divert valuable water from natural wetlands.”
Years after the Everglades became a national park, a number of projects have been implemented to protect the biodiversity of this ecologically sensitive area. It is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance. Water is essential here.
There are many ways to explore the park—a good place to start is at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center in Homestead, Florida. The visitor center is about a 2 hour drive from Miami. Located 38 miles past the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, Flamingo Marina offers incredible opportunities to experience the park’s beauty from the water.
At Flamingo Adventures at Flamingo Marina you can rent a canoe or kayak, take a narrated boat tour or rent a houseboat. Flamingo Adventures At Everglades National Park is the only place where you can rent and stay in a houseboat in the United States. If you’re considering a houseboat vacation in the Everglades, here are 10 tips (in no particular order) for enjoying the experience while observing this watery, wondrous world.
Note: I was a guest of Flamingo Adventures At Everglades National Park on a houseboat and all opinions are mine. Due to water conditions, we were unable to drive the houseboat to Whitewater Bay, but the tips below remain relevant.
1. Take a boating course specific to the Everglades
My husband and I wanted this water camping experience. Before renting a houseboat through Flamingo Adventures in Everglades National Park, let’s read the requirements. Confused about the course required, we took a full boating course from Boat US, a free powerboat certification program. I’m glad we took the time to learn about boating in my state, but it wasn’t the right course for the Everglades.
When we arrived that afternoon the water level was high due to recent rains. It prevented us from floating under a road – an overpass that went over the Buttonwood Canal – so we used the afternoon to explore more of the park. We took the mandatory boating course in the Everglades and passed the course that evening. We learned about the fragile habitat, creatures, and dangers of running aground in the shallow waters of the Everglades.
After that we felt ready to drive the houseboat. A certified captain at the marina, Chris Taylor, would reset our boat and navigate up the man-made Buttonwood Canal into Coots Bay. He then left our boat and boarded a pursuit boat, leaving us alone to navigate our way into Whitewater Bay. The return trip would be repeated a few days later.
2. Use Everglades National Park Map
There is so much to see on the water. But if you have time to explore on foot, do it. In this case, a map of the Everglades is a valuable resource for finding incredible hikes on both boardwalks and dirt trails. It’s also a great way to plan what you want to see and what’s closest to where you are in the park.
According to a park ranger, you can complete the park in about 3 hours. You may see wildlife, including American crocodiles and American alligators, coexist here. It’s the only place on earth where they do that.
3. Pack a camera
While docked at Flamingo Marina, we loaded the boat and then drove our car to some nearby hikes. We went to the Guy Bradley Trail. We observed shorebirds such as plovers, egrets and snow egrets cavorting in the shallow water that collects there. Next we toured the new eco tents available for rent from Flamingo Adventures in Everglades National Park.
All eco tents are located on raised platforms and offer stunning views of the Florida Bay. Then we walked the elevated boardwalk along the Mahogany Hammock Trail. We observed a forest of old-growth mahogany trees on the higher, drier ground known as the “hammock.” Owls and air plants thrive here. We loved spotting the huge trees and stared in awe as the dragonflies and butterflies flew over the grasses.
4. Prepare your meals before boarding the boat
If you’re used to camping, you know how to prepare for a camping trip. Here’s a pro tip: prepare your meals in your own kitchen at home if you’re not a camper. There is a port shop for supplies but we planned, shopped and hacked our meals ahead of time at home. The onboard kitchen is tiny, and while well equipped, we didn’t want to bother with prep on the boat.
Instead, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the Everglades. We planned simple breakfasts, lunches and dinners and brought my cast iron skillet. The boat’s kitchen includes a tiny microwave, small refrigerator, and stove. The grill is located outside at the stern (or back of the boat) and each unit runs on propane. Go for a simple menu and prepare as much in advance as possible.
5. Bring insect repellent and sunscreen
We were there in May but the bugs are fierce and powerful even in January. I packed bug spray with essential oils but bought a 100% Deet bug repellent while I was there on the advice of the Marina store manager. I usually use natural products to repel bugs at home, but this is where you need the strong stuff. Bring sunscreen for your face and exposed body parts. The sun burns intensely on the water.
6. Bring fishing gear
Do you have your own fishing gear? If not, the Marina Store has inexpensive bait and tackle for sale. My husband bought a rod, got the fishing license he needed and loved spending the early evening fishing from the dock in the marina. We observed ospreys just a few meters from our location. We also planned to fish from the boat once we got underway. My husband caught (and released) a medium sized grouper but several tarpoons bit the bait and swam away.
7. Pack wisely
Plan your outdoor outfits wisely as you won’t have to over-pack (or under-pack). There is a closet on board but not much storage space for clothes. Bring clothing that protects against the sun (shirts with SPF), a brimmed hat, sunglasses, shorts, lightweight hiking pants, closed-toe shoes, and a bathing suit for sunbathing, as you shouldn’t go in the water. The 17-foot American Crocodile named Fred likes to hang out on the dock, but we saw a few others like him along the Buttonwood Canal.
8. Bring hiking shoes
We only brought sneakers instead of boots, which limited our hiking options. We stuck to the elevated boardwalks, but we would have seen more of the park if we’d been wearing our walking shoes. We will return soon to explore other trails.
9. Bring an activity for the evenings
You may be able to access the internet at the marina if you have AT&T cellular service, but other providers are patchy here. You may not get cell service at all while on the water. Bring old-fashioned entertainment like playing cards, games, a jigsaw puzzle, a good book to read or stargazing, and enjoy the sounds of nature as the sun goes down.
10. Be flexible
We were unable to drive the houseboat as the water level never got low enough to take the boat under the Buttonwood Canal flyover. According to Captain Chris, a houseboat is slow and doesn’t have much maneuverability. He said it’s like driving a big truck, but only at speeds of up to 6 miles per hour. It’s different than driving a skiff or a smaller boat in terms of speed and visibility.
Instead of driving the houseboat, we drove a small boat ourselves (also at the marina) up the Buttonwood Canal and into Coots Bay. We took the 90 minute narrated wildlife tour and saw a herd of 10 manatees swimming together around Coots Bay and Whitewater Bay. We observed more crocodiles and many birds including a few anhingas drying their wings on the mangrove trees.
Pro tip: Captain Chris shares these top tips when cruising a boat in the Everglades: “Watch your depths and your speed, it’s easy to get stuck and manatees call it home.
For more information about the Everglades, see these articles: