Alligators, tram tour entertain visitors

SHARK VALLEY, Fla. — Everyone I had asked about Everglades National Park told me that they had a wonderful time on their trips. Locals told me about the field trips they used to go on in elementary school while transplant college students spoke about the fun they had on airboat rides.

While all of this sounded interesting, I had only one real goal during my adventure into the wilds of the national park; I wanted to see an alligator.

Before even entering the park, I had gotten my wish.

Tucked away at the far end of SW 8th Street, past the Native American casino and the large billboards advertising cheap airboat tours, sits the Shark Valley entrance to the Everglades National Park.

With an area encompassing roughly 1.5 million acres of swampy wetlands, the Everglades is the third-largest national park in the country. Unlike many of the other parks, which were preserved because of their natural beauty, the Everglades provide an example of a unique example found nowhere else in the country.

Smiling park rangers manage the Shark Valley outpost, happily pointing tourists toward the area’s facilities or the animals they so desperately want to photograph.

As I drove into the park and paid my entrance fee, I noticed that the roadway was partially blocked by what appeared to be a scaly speed bump.

“Ma’am, is that a real gator?” I asked the woman at the entrance.

At left, an alligator suns itself on the bank of a canal at Shark Valley in Everglades National Park (Photos by Sabrina Rodriguez). Below, next, the Shark Valley tram awaits another load of passengers for the loop tour. Next, the Visitor Center offers park information and souvenirs. Last, the river of grass known as the Everglades meanders toward Florida Bay.

“Of course,” she said cheerily. “This isn’t Disney World, there aren’t any animatronics here.”

After parking, visitors are lead to a waiting area with a gift shop and information center, along with a waiting area to rest before the next tram tour arrives.

An air of excitement is palpable at the initial outpost before the tour starts. Families from all around the world chatter away in German and Norwegian, comparing cameras with one another and pointing out whatever animals they can see.

“Oh look!” squeals my girlfriend, a Miami native used to the idea of predatory reptiles being in close proximity. “Isn’t he the cutest little gator?”

Personally, I wasn’t so sure.

Prior to the tour, patrons are introduced to their guide with an enthusiastic presentation describing the trials and tribulations that have befallen the Everglades over the years as well as the recovery projects that are currently in process.

After this speech, visitors are loaded onto the tram bus where they set off into the swamp.

John, the tour guide, was excited and entertaining. A natural at his job, John seemed just as enthusiastic as his clients to be going out into the Everglades even though the trip is a daily event for him.

The first leg of the tour is a straight road cutting through the wetlands, designed for tourism. Birds fly out from hardwood hammocks and away from the tram while John explains the methods that the indigenous tribes once used to survive in the Everglades.

After roughly an hour, the bus stops at an observation tower seemingly in the heart of the park.

Guests are invited to stretch their legs in a low-lying nature trail and walk to the top of the tower to take landscape pictures from the excellent vantage point it offers.

Along with everyone else on the tour, my girlfriend and I rushed up to the top of the tower for pictures. The panoramas offered by the observation tower are simply breathtaking, offering visitors a glimpse of the sheer size of the Everglades.

After 20 minutes, guests are loaded back onto the trams to be shuttled back to the Shark Valley entrance and their cars.

The second half of the tour takes place on a winding road that was originally used for industry, rather than being designed solely for tourist use. For all of the visitors who weren’t able to get their wildlife pictures during the first hour, this back road is swarming with creatures with alligators often laying only a few feet from one another.

The Shark Valley tram tour is an enjoyable way to learn about the Everglades. More relaxing than a bike tour, it offers the same glimpse into the fascinating biome offered by the park while a knowledgeable tour guide shows you the sights that the inexperienced might miss.


If You Go:

Cost: $10 per car to enter the park; $17.50 per person on tram tour

When: Every day of the year.

Where: 36000 SW 8th St., Miami, Fla. 33194.

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