For those looking for a warm getaway during the holidays, the Everglades an ideal national park destination in December. Enjoy mild winter highs in the upper 70s while exploring the largest area of protected subtropical wilderness in the country. Crowds are still reasonable as this month falls just before the park’s peak visitation season which runs from January until April.
At over 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is the third largest national park in the lower 48 states, second only to Death Valley and Yellowstone. It’s one of three places on earth that has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site and a Wetland of International Importance at the same time.
With the Shark Valley Visitor Center about a half hour from the Miami International Airport, the park is very accessible-especially for Northeasterners jetting down from Boston or New York for a few days. Due to its sheer size the park also boasts three additional visitor centers throughout its boundaries.
The Everglades is one of the best places in the entire national park system for viewing wildlife. Diverse habitats that range from coastal prairies to mangrove swamps to pinelands brim with flora and fauna from all ends of the spectrum. Alligators, crocodiles, multiple varieties of both turtles and frogs, manatees and even the elusive Florida panther call this wilderness home. Over 350 different species of birds have been sited in the park including a great variety of egrets, ibises, pelicans, herons, ospreys and of course, the iconic flamingo! With all this wildlife though comes the insects that support it. Although winter is not as unbearable as the rainy summer months, packing bug repellent is critical year round!
As one third of its acreage is covered by water, the best way to see the park is by boat. There are guided concession tours offered in both the southernmost Flamingo area of the park and the northwest 10,000 Island region. Additionally, miles of canoe and kayak trails wind throughout these vast wetlands. For those more comfortable staying on land, a tram tour is offered from the Shark Valley Visitor center as well as numerous hiking and biking trails.
After the loss of the Flamingo Hotel to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, camping is the only option for visitors looking to stay within park boundaries. The closest lodging is in either Florida City or Homestead, near the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center which is the main entrance of the park. In both towns, budget chain hotels are king with the standard range of Best Westerns and Holiday Inns to choose from. Though generic, one can enjoy a comfortable stay within easy access of the park.
If time allows there are also two other spectacular national parks in southern Florida. At about an hour from downtown Miami, Biscayne National Park boasts stunning reefs brimming with marine life that fits nicely into a trip to the Everglades. At about 70 miles west of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park boasts rich military history and incredible snorkeling. Dry Tortugas is one of the most remote units of the park system but worth the trip if you have the time and means!