One of the country’s most celebrated natural areas, the EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK is a vast, tranquil wildlife reserve, with a subtle, raw appeal that lies in stark contrast to America’s more rugged national parks. The most dramatic sights are small pockets of trees poking above a completely flat sawgrass plain, yet these wide-open spaces resonate with life, forming part of an ever-changing ecosystem that evolved through a unique combination of climate, vegetation and wildlife.

Though it appears to be flat as a table-top, the limestone on which the Everglades stands tilts very slightly towards the southwest. For thousands of years, water from summer storms and the overflow of nearby Lake Okeechobee has moved slowly through the Everglades towards the coast. The water replenishes the sawgrass, which grows on a thin layer of soil formed by decaying vegetation. This gives birth to the algae at the base of a complex food chain that sustains much larger creatures – most importantly alligators. After the floodwaters have reached the sea, drained through the bedrock, or simply evaporated, the Everglades are barren except for the water accumulated in ponds – or “gator holes” – created when an alligator senses water and clears the soil covering it with its tail. Sawgrass covers much of the Everglades, but where natural indentations in the limestone fill with soil, fertile tree islands – or “hammocks” – appear, just high enough to stand above the floodwaters.

Brief history

In the nineteenth century, the Seminole and Miccosukee Native American tribes were forced to live hunter-gatherer existences in the Everglades, and still maintain a sizeable presence here. By the late 1800s, a few towns had sprung up, peopled by settlers who, unlike the Native Americans, looked to exploit the land. As Florida’s population grew, the damage caused by hunting, road building and draining for farmland gave rise to a significant conservation lobby. In 1947, a section of the Everglades was declared a national park, which today affords federal protection to a comparatively small area at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. Urban development over the last century has edged the Everglades’ boundaries further south, and unrestrained commercial use of nearby areas continues to upset the region’s natural cycle. The 1200 miles of canals built to divert the flow of water away from the Everglades and toward the state’s expanding cities, the poisoning caused by agricultural chemicals from local farmlands, and the broader changes wrought by global warming could yet turn Florida’s greatest natural asset into a wasteland.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

USA features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

Buffalo thrill: the ultimate way to see America's Great Plains

Buffalo thrill: the ultimate way to see America's Great Plains

South Dakota, one of the USA’s Great Plains states, holds an annual buffalo roundup in Custer State Park. Last week was the 51st event and we were lucky enoug…

21 Feb 2017 • Neil McQuillian insert_drive_file Article
Dive in: 7 unforgettable experiences in the Florida Keys

Dive in: 7 unforgettable experiences in the Florida Keys

Life in the Florida Keys is dominated by the ocean. The simplest trips become postcard-worthy adventures on the Overseas Highway, the link between its countless…

17 Feb 2017 • Georgia Stephens insert_drive_file Article
The best places to go in spring

The best places to go in spring

Springtime is beautiful, with its big blue skies and flowers in bloom, so there may be no better time to travel. If you're thinking about getting away, here are…

14 Feb 2017 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month