Covering over 1.5 million acres at the far southwestern tip of mainland Florida, Everglades National Park protects the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. A fair portion of the park is actually underwater, and the entire Everglades ecosystem is basically a giant slow-flowing river that is 50 miles wide but only a few inches deep. Fed by Lake Okeechobee, and under constant threat by irrigation in-flows and out-flows and by the redirection of water to Miami and other cities, the Everglades still seem to vibrate with life. Some 300 species of birds breed here, as do 600 different kinds of fish and animals, ranging from rare manatees to abundant alligators (not to mention the gazillions of mosquitoes).

The backcountry parts of the Everglades can be visited by boat, but by road there are only two main routes. In the north, the Tamiami Trail (the Tampa to Miami Trail, a.k.a. US-41) heads west from Miami to misnamed Shark Valley ($25 per car), where you can rent bikes or take a tram tour ($25) on a 15-mile loop through the sawgrass swamps that make up the heart of the Everglades. Gazing at the gators, eagles, and hawks here, it’s hard to believe you’re barely a half hour from South Beach. Just west of Shark Valley, the Miccosukee Indian Village is a somewhat poignant reminder of the plight of the Everglades indigenous people, the Seminoles, whose ancestors fought off the U.S. Army but who now wrestle alligators, run casinos and souvenir shops, and give airboat tours of their ancestral lands.

The main road access to the Everglades is via Palm Drive (Hwy-9336) from the Florida Turnpike or US-1. This route takes you past the Ernest Coe Visitors Center (305/242-7700), where interpretive displays and a pair of nature trails give an appetizing taste of the Everglades (and almost guaranteed sightings of alligators). The road continues nearly 40 miles west to the former town of Flamingo. Although both the residents and the namesake birds have moved on, there is a visitor center (1 Flamingo Lodge Hwy, Homestead, 239/695-2945) operated by the National Park Service.