The best way to see Everglades wildlife, other than the 15-mile bike ride in Shark Valley, is to camp out and take time to explore by hiking or kayaking. The deeper into the wilderness you go, the more opportunities.
Most people think of the Everglades as a national park at the southern tip of Florida, but the reality is that the Everglades is a vast eco-system, a “River of Grass” more than 60 miles wide and 100 miles long.
Between its source at Lake Okeechobee and its delta in Florida Bay, the Everglades flows over a porous limestone shelf through agricultural areas, wildlife refuges, water conservation areas and two national parks — Everglades National Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Everglades National Park campgrounds
And there are more than 50 primitive campsites in the Everglades backcountry, most accessible by boat from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City.
Camping feesÂ DO NOT include park entrance fees, which are $25 for a private vehicle and $20 for motorcycles, good for 7 consecutive days. An annual pass to Everglades National Park is $40. Seniors over 62 may obtain a lifetime pass to all national parks for $10. You can obtain eitherÂ pass at the park entrance.
Long Pine Key Campground
Long Pine is near the Homestead entrance to Everglades National Park and features 108 drive-up sites available first-come, first-served for $20/night (2017 rate).
Reservations are not accepted at this campground, which is near the entrance to the park and the Homestead Visitor Center.
This is a beautiful campground, located in a forest of a tall pines with largeÂ sites large offering good privacy.
While you cannot reserve a space, it rarely fills up, rangers advise. When you go to check in, you are told to choose a site and then come back and pay for it. On the night we stayed there, those who arrived after the ranger left were met with a sign that said “Pick a site and see us in the morning.”
Long Pine is only a few miles from the fantastic Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm, which means it provides a good opportunity for one of those only-if-you’re-camping experiences: Going go to the Anhinga TrailÂ after dark with a flashlight to see how the alligators behave when they’re active. (They eyes glow red when you shine them with a flashlight.)
The campground is adjacent to the lovely 7-mile-long Long Pine Key trail, a favorite withÂ fat-tire cyclists, and the pretty nearby Long Pine Key Lake.
FiveÂ things you should know about Long Pine Key Campground:
- The bathrooms are clean and convenient, but there are no showers.
- Your cell phone will get lousy reception, if any.
- No firewood is sold. We picked some up at the Home Depot in Homestead on the way into the park. You can forage for dead wood and kindling.
- This campground does not accept reservations. Sites are assigned first come, first served.
- Long Pine Key Campground is open seasonally from November 15 – May 31. It is closedÂ June 1 to November 14.
Reservations are accepted for the 234 drive-up sites at Flamingo, which are $20/night for boondockers (no hookups). Â Electric hookups are available on 41Â sites in the T-Loop and run $30/night (2017 rates).
Reservations can be made for the Flamingo Campground by calling 1-877-444-6777 or online through Recreation.govÂ for winter season, dates Nov. 20 – April 15. Reservations are not necessary off-season.
A ranger station/visitor center is located at the campground, and there is a concession for canoe and kayak rentals at the marina, which also has a store.
The Flamingo campground is in a largelyÂ open field withÂ few trees, open to Florida Bay.Â It can get breezy at times.
Mosquitos here, as in all of the Everglades, can be fierce, so be prepared. This is where the breeze can help, so sites near the water may have fewer mosquitos.
More than 300 species of birds spend the winter in Everglades National Park, and there is ampleÂ opportunity to see crocodiles and manatees in the marina area and the services, such as boat rentals, tour boats and the cafe.
Bring your kayak or canoe to explore backcountry trails, and small motorboats (5 HP max) are allowed in many areas.
ThreeÂ things you should know about the FlamingoÂ Campground:
- The campground has a marina where you can rent boatsÂ or board a tour boat.
- Half of campsites are available for drive-up campers, so there may be sites available in person even if the online booking site indicates the campground is full. Call ahead forÂ availability (239) 695-0124.
- Flamingo is the southern terminus of the 100-mile Wilderness Waterway.
There are a number of designated ground sites, beach sites, and elevated camping platforms (chickees) available in the park, most in the Ten Thousand Islands and along the rivers that feed the islands, and most are accessible only by boat from Flamingo or Everglades City.
Winter is the best season. Summer’s are hot, muggy, miserable and dominated by insects, not the least of which is Florida’s state bird — the mosquito. Â Relatively speaking, mosquitos lay low in winter (but not completely, so you still need to be prepared).
A backcountry camping permit is required for wilderness campsites and issued the day before or day of your trip. Reservations are not accepted.
From April through November 16, wilderness permits are free of charge and can be obtained at either the Flamingo or Gulf Coast (Everglades City) ranger stations.
From late November throughÂ April, wilderness permits are $15 plus $2 per person per night. The maximum backcountry stay is 14 days.
Reservations for backcountry site are made only in person up to 24 hours in advance at the Homestead or the Gulf Coast (Everglades City) Visitor Centers.
A few tips on getting back-country permits:
- Download the official Everglades National Park Backcountry Trip Planner, which includesÂ a map ofÂ 48 backcountry sites.
- For sites where only one or two campers are allowed, campers often arrive at the ranger stationÂ a day earlyÂ to secure permits. If you seek a permit for the day you arrive, be flexibleÂ and have alternative sites in mind.
- There are a higher number of permits for beach camping onÂ Cape Sable, so it’s easier to get same-day permits.
- A few back-country sites are accessed via the Florida Keys and you can reserve these by telephone the day before.
Big Cypress National Preserve campgrounds
This 1,200 square mile preserve boasts a wide variety of Everglades eco-systems, not the least of which are cypress swamps, of course. The northern section off of Interstate 75 (Alligator Alley) is a prime destination for hunters in season and off-roaders, although hikers and mountain bikers are becoming more common.
Tourists and snowbirds, on the other hand, tend to gravitate towards the southern section of the Big Cypress Preserve along the Tamiami Trail.Â The maximum length of stay for any camping activity within Big Cypress is 180 days in a 12-month period
Unlike Everglades National Park, dispersed camping for backpackers and hikers is permitted anywhere in the preserve south of I-75. You must have a backcountry permit, which you can download from this page.
Bear Island Unit campgrounds — Okaloacoochee Slough
North of I-75, campers are restricted to the campgrounds in the Bear Island Unit, which has special restrictions that make access difficult:
Access from US 29 is limited to hikers at a gate on the east side of the highway about a mile north of I-75. You can park inside the gate and trek the two miles to the Pink Jeep Campground.
- Backpackers can access the Bear Island Unit campgrounds from a recreation-area parking lot on the northbound side of I-75 at Mile Marker 70.
- Motorized vehicles and RV’s can access the main Bear Island campground from Turner River Road (County Road 839), a 20-mile drive on a gravel road that you can access from Tamiami Trail. (No access from I-75 or 29).
Be forewarned that these campgrounds are dominated by hunters in seasonÂ and off-road vehicles (ORV) in an area of Big Cypress that has trails designated for noisy swamp buggies and ATVs. But hikers and off-road bikers are beginning to discover it, so don’t be discouraged. Best bet to avoid the noise is during the week.
Bear Island, â€“ Open year round, Bear Island is a primitive campground with 40 sites for tents or RVs. There are no hookups and the only rest room is a vault toilet. No dump station. Each site has a picnic table and a fire ring.
Gator HeadÂ â€“ Gator Head has 9 tent sites, no hookups and is open from Aug. 29 until June 1. Again, there are vault toilets. Only off-road vehicles can access these sites, and you are required to have an ORV permit.
Pink JeepÂ â€“ Nine tent sites are open from Aug. 29 until June 1. There are vault toilets, but nothing else, not even drinking water. Only off-road vehicles can access Pink Jeep, and an ORV permit is required.
ThreeÂ things you should know about Bear Island Campgrounds:
- There is no drinking water or electricity available anywhere.
- No dump stations or restrooms, only vault toilets.
- Campsite fee is $10 per night. Call 877-444-6777.
Tamiami Trail Campgrounds
BothÂ may be used free of charge by campers paying for National Park Service campgrounds within the national preserve. There is a $10 fee for those campers not paying for national preserve campgrounds.
All of the campgrounds in Big Cypress offer access to a multitude of recreational activities, including hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, photography, and off-road vehicle trails. Two of the campgrounds — Pinecrest and Mitchell’s Landing — are along Loop Road, a scenic route deep in the Everglades. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on Loop Road.
Burns Lake â€“ Burns Lake has 10 RV and 5 tent sites, available only from Aug. 29 until Jan. 26. (The day-use area is open all year with backcountry access.) Like most of the campgrounds in Big Cypress, there are no hookups and the only rest room is a vault toilet. No dump station. The camping fee is $24/night. For reservations, call (877) 444-6777 or visit recreation.gov.
Midway â€“ The Midway Campground is the most developed Big Cypress campground with drinking water, electrical hookups and restrooms. There is also a dump station and real rest rooms. Each RV campsite has its own picnic table and hibachi style grill. Covered picnic areas are located around the lake for day use.Â The 26 RV sites are $30/night, and the 10 tent sites are $24/night. Midway is open year-round. For reservations, call (877) 444-6777 or visit recreation.gov
Mitchell’s Landing â€“ Popular with air-boaters, Mitchell’s Landing is open from Aug. 29 until April 15, Mitchell’sLanding is on the Loop Road and has 12 RV/tent sites without hookups, no drinking water and there is no dump station. The campground does have vault toilets, and sites areÂ $24/night. Each campsite is equipped with a picnic table, fire ring, and lantern pole.Â Reservations are not accepted. Camping fees areÂ paid on-site upon arrival.
Monument Lake â€“ Like Mitchel Lake, Monument Lake Campground is open from Aug. 29 until April 15. Unlike Mitchell Lake, Monument does have drinking water and flush toilets, but there are no electrical hookups or a dump station. An RV site is $28/night and a tent site is $24. Â Fire rings are available at the tent sites. For reservations, Â call (877) 444-6777 or visit recreation.gov.
Pinecrest (Group Camping) â€“ Each of the four group sites accommodates up to 8 tents and 15 people. There are no hookups, no drinking water, no dump station and no rest rooms. This campground is open year-round, and each group site goes for $30/night.Â Picnic tables and fire rings are available at each site. There are no covered picnic areas, toilets, hookups, or water. Minimal shade.Â For reservations, Â call (877) 444-6777 or visit recreation.gov.
Big Cypress National Preserve consists of 729,000 acres of backcountry with miles of multi-use trails to explore. Dispersed camping is allowed, and a Backcountry Camping Permit is required. Permits are free and can be filled out online and printed.
State park campgrounds
Read more about Collier-Seminole State Park in this Florida Rambler article.
Southwest Florida near Tamiami Trail
Chokoloskee Island Park, Chokoloskee — Rustic Chokoloskee Island Park has 35 RV sites and a handful of tent sites. The main attraction is the marina, which offers access to the vast Ten Thousand Islands for fishing, birding and kayaking. There are more than 60 boat slips. Rates vary by season with Dec. 1 to April 15 being the most expensive ($51/for RVs and $39/night for tents). Discounts available for longer stays. Visit their web site, www.chokoloskee.com, for more information and to make reservations.