Contributed by Michael Restivo, Mike off the Map
Visiting a national park conjures images of long, expedition-style backpacking journeys across rough, untamed terrain, climbing high peaks, and getting lost in the backcountry of the wilderness. I have many a time found myself deep in the landscapes of our national parks but I have also come to find that it doesn’t take a long drawn out journey to explore the wilderness. Sometimes it only takes a day trip and a few hours to get lost within the trees and wildlife. One of these places, touching the northern edge of the Everglades, is the area known as Shark Valley, a 15-mile looping road that only requires a couple of hours and strong legs to get a wild experience among the herons, the turtles, and the alligators.
Shark Valley is only 30 minutes south of Florida International University and is extremely easy to find following the Tamiami Trail. Park entrance is just $10 and valid for seven days, so one can come and go from the park as they please. (Repeat visits are always recommended!) There are several ways to see the park: via tram, bicycle, or by foot. The bicycles rent for $7 an hour and are the more popular modes of transportation. The paved road runs in a large loop along a mangrove canal and lush forest, before dramatically changing into the wide-open plains and grasslands extending all the way to the tip of the Florida Peninsula.
Riding along the trail, large alligators bask along the roadway, no fence separating them and the bikers. The alligators are extremely docile and won’t bother anybody who doesn’t bother them. What is truly extraordinary about Shark Valley is that every trip yields different wildlife depending on the season. Winter is when the air is cooler and the alligators are out en masse, crossing roadways and interacting with each other in the water. In the spring, the mangroves are green once again while the alligators retreat to nest and mate, and the birds and turtles roam freely through the park.
Seven miles into the park, at the point where the route curves into the return leg, there is a large watchtower that offers majestic views of the surrounding vast flatlands. Just under the watchtower are two large watering holes frequented by gators and birds alike. Rarely but surely, there is even the opportunity to see them interact, in a friendly or even a menacing manner. After surveying the vista, there are smaller trails that lead off the main path, accessible by foot that edge a small pond offering an up close encounter with the alligators that reside there. The trails lead right to the tall grass that separate the road from the expanse of the Everglades wilderness.
At the curve after the watchtower, the scenery dramatically changes. No longer flanked by lush trees and mangroves, the Everglades opens up into an open field stretching for miles across the grasslands. The wildlife becomes sparse here, save for a few alligators who find their way into the canal channels. About three-quarters of the way to the finish there’s a lonely bench and resting spot. Though oddly placed in the wilderness, it makes for a quirky break area.
Rounding the final curve, the Visitor Center returns to view and here the trail ends. Just off the road, those who have energy in their feet can take one of several wooden footpaths leading back into the bush for encounters with birds and alligators. For the more adventurous, Shark Valley tours are also offered at night during a full moon.
What makes Shark Valley truly extraordinary is its accessibility, wide variety of animals, and opportunity for up-close interactions. There are very few places where one can come within arms distance of alligators and reptiles and the trail is never the same twice. Going at different seasons will amount to a different experience each time and I recommend riding the trail at least once or twice a year. The sights and the animals are wildly unpredictable, but for those who want to see the best of the Everglades without going too far from home, Shark Valley offers the perfect alternative.