With critters basking in the sun, boats whizzing by and educational opportunities aplenty, Everglades National Park is a kid’s paradise. Its marshy landscape begs for exploration, with mangrove islands, carved-out canoe paths and a handful of modern visitor centers with interactive exhibits to check out.
The nice thing about the Everglades is that you can traverse its landscape via many modes – airboat, hiking, kayaking, driving and even a tram – so when you or the little ones need a breather, it’s seamless to shift gears while still taking it all in. Make sure everyone is layered in sunscreen, bug repellant and sun-protective gear, like hats, sunglasses and, if needed, long sleeves. Once ready, these are the six best things to do with kids in Everglades National Park.
Forge new connections on your next adventure with the latest advice from our weekly newsletter. Airboat rides are a quintessential Everglades experience © allouphoto / Shutterstock
1. Zip around on an airboat
Airboat rides are a quintessential Everglades experience, where you glide along the marsh landscape on a flat boat with a giant fan-like propeller. It’s refreshing and scenic for kids and adults alike.
Everglades National Park has three authorized airboat businesses: Coopertown Airboats, Everglades Safari Park and Gator Park. All three are located closest to the park’s Shark Valley / Miami entrance along the historic Tamiami Trail. Most operators within the national park and beyond offer a children’s discount. Coopertown Airboats, for example, has discounts for children ages 6 to 11 and free rides for those under 6.
It can be incredibly tempting to reach out to pet wading birds and even friendly seeming alligators, so if you have a particularly hands-on little one, it’s wise to sit toward the middle of the vessel to mitigate temptation. Plus, airboats are typically covered, making the center seats less prone to the often-beaming Florida sun.
The Everglades’ Anhinga Trail is often loaded with sunbathing critters © Francisco Herrera / Shutterstock
2. Hike the Gumbo Limbo or Anhinga trails
Florida is about as flat as a US state can get, so for those seeking non-strenuous hikes, the Everglades is bliss. However, this 1.5-million-acre park only has 30 hiking trails. The majority of the land is freshwater and saltwater habitats.
For kid-friendly hikes, head to the Royal Palm Visitor Center in Homestead. Once you’ve parked, the Gumbo Limbo and Anhinga trails are within 50ft of the visitor center. Just less than a half-mile round trip, the Gumbo Limbo Trail is paved for the stroller crowd and guides you through ferns, royal palms and, yes, large-limbed gumbo limbos.
The Anhinga Trail is a bit longer – 0.8 miles – and often loaded with sunbathing critters, like gators, herons and turtles. When you and yours need a bathroom or diaper break, the Royal Palm Visitor Center is well-equipped.
Bring plenty of sunscreen when you tackle Shark Valley’s trail © Keith Draycott / Getty Images
3. Bike or tram the Shark Valley Tram Road
A 15-mile-long paved circular trail, the Shark Valley Tram Rd is surrounded by islands, with trees, tall grass and the sporadic bathing alligator. No matter how you tackle the trail – hiking, biking and tramming are all options – bring plenty of sunscreen and plan a pit stop at the midpoint: an observation tower with a ramp winding over a gator-dotted waterway.
On the lower-energy side, two-hour ranger-led tram tours start hourly from 9am to 4pm between mid-December and April. Otherwise, the tram has four departures daily, so check the schedule ahead.
For bike rentals, there is a shop attached to the Shark Valley Visitor Center with kids’ and adult bikes with child seats. The Shark Valley area of the park opens at 8:30am, and bike rentals can sell out quickly, so reserve ahead of time to prevent on-site disappointment. The shop also has helmets – it is Florida law for bicyclists under 16 to wear a helmet.
4. Embark on a ranger-led journey (and have your kid become a junior ranger too)
Beyond the educational tram tour at Shark Valley, there are ranger-led adventures from the Royal Palm and Flamingo visitors’ centers in Homestead and the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City. Keep an eye on scheduling, as most tours only occur during the dry season (November through April).
Popular programs include a wildlife-centric stroll along the Anhinga Trail, a “Hidden History” journey on the Guy Bradley Trail and narrated boat tours focused on the geography of the Gulf Coast’s 10,000-plus islands.
Select national parks have junior ranger programs. Kids (and adults) can snag an interactive booklet at a visitor center, complete educational activities within the park and earn a badge. The Everglades is one of these parks and has recently provided a bingo sheet for kids to spot certain wildlife – pelicans, raccoons and even mosquitos – to earn their badge.
5. Canoe or kayak and gawk at more than 350 bird species
Okay, perhaps the Everglades Wilderness Waterway – a 99-mile recreational route connecting Everglades City and Flamingo – may not be the most kid-friendly option for a kayaking excursion. But there are plenty of spots to canoe and kayak in the Everglades for the whole family.
The Flamingo Visitor Center – located 38 miles southwest of the park entrance in Homestead – has an adjacent marina with boat tours of backcountry waters and the Florida Bay. Admission is half-off for kids 12 and under ($20 per child). You can also rent kayaks and canoes at the marina, meaning you’ll receive keys to unlock rentals at nearby ponds and waterways.
Among the most popular nearby destinations for kayaking and canoeing is the Nine Mile Pond loop, which takes you through mangrove islands and grassy landscapes (though it’s actually 3.5 to 5 miles depending on your route). If a do-it-yourself rental is too much to coordinate, Everglades National Park Institute also has guided tours.
6. Learn about Everglades’ history at local museums and visitor centers
Each of the Everglades’ four visitor centers is very much a museum in its own right, with snippets of park history and wildlife exhibits.
For history-loving young ones, the Miccosukee Indian Village has a museum dedicated to the eponymous tribe and their centuries-old roots in the Everglades. The village also has airboat rides and ethical alligator demonstrations, shedding light on the tribe’s relationship with the critters, which has gone from using them for food to conservation.
Perhaps the most comprehensive museum on the Everglades is in Everglades City. The Museum of the Everglades covers over 2000 years of area history, with puzzles, coloring activities and educational crossword puzzles to keep kids entertained.