Although swamps are generally not a top destination choice for wheelchair-users, Everglades National Park (www.nps.gov/ever) may well be the exception. Located in South Florida, this vast track of protected wetlands spans over 1.5 million acres and attracts backcountry enthusiasts from around the world. Granted, these undeveloped areas of the park are not wheelchair-accessible; however there are still plenty of Everglades options for wheelchair-users and slow walkers. In fact, two particular areas of the park – Royal Palm and Shark Valley – boast a bevy of boardwalks and trails for visitors of all abilities.
Located just 20 miles southwest of Florida City, Royal Palm is a well touristed area of the park. Named for the former state park that grew into the Everglades, this area offers two accessible trails that give visitors a good overview of the native wildlife.
There’s plenty of accessible parking in the large lot, with level access to the accessible restrooms, visitor center and gift shop. The Anhinga Trail – one of the most popular trails in the park — is located behind the visitor center.
This newly renovated .8-mile trail begins as a paved path from the visitor center, before it transitions to a wide level boardwalk around the sawgrass marsh. A shaded viewing platform is located midway along the boardwalk, and there’s ample opportunity to catch a glimpse of alligators, turtles and a wide variety of wading birds. And if you get tired, no worries – there are plenty of benches along the way too. Keep a lookout for the namesake Anhingas, that can be seen in abundance drying their colorful wings in the sun, or perched peacefully in the trees along the trail.
The Gumbo Limbo Trail is also worth a visit while you’re in the area. This .4-mile loop trail begins behind the visitor center, and travels through a tropical hardwood hammock. There are plenty of interpretive plaques along this paved trail, and although it’s showing its age a bit and the pavement has a few cracks here and there, it’s still quite doable for most folks. The gumbo limbo trees, with their unique peeling red bark, offer shelter to a variety of avian life; and the royal palms, ferns and air plants add a bit of diversity to the forest. It’s a refreshing stroll, especially on a hot day.
Shark Valley is located north of Royal Palm, on the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41), about 40 miles west of Miami. And although it doesn’t have any sharks, and it’s really not much of a valley, the sawgrass marsh supports a healthy freshwater ecosystem.
There’s barrier-free access from the accessible parking area to the visitor center, which sells tickets to the popular Shark Valley Tram Tour (www.sharkvalleytramtours.com). This two-hour tour is led by a naturalist who points out some of the hidden treasures in the Everglades. The tour stops at the halfway point at a 45-foot high observation tower, where visitors can get a bird’s eye view of the surrounding swamp. Even better, the tower includes a gently sloping ramp that allows wheelchair access to the top deck.
The tour is conducted in an open-air tram, which can be configured for wheelchair access. There’s ramp access up to the accessible car, which features two wheelchair spaces with tie-downs. Advance notice is required for accessible tours, and reservations can be made by calling (305) 221-8455. And since there are no facilities along the way, it’s a good idea to use the accessible restrooms at the visitor center. It’s also a good idea to bring along some water and a snack, as there aren’t any concession areas along the tour route either.
Tram Road is flat and paved, and it’s a good choice for wheelers who don’t opt for the tram tour. There’s a fair amount of bicycle traffic along the road, but it’s pretty wide, so there’s plenty of room for everyone. Be sure and stop and look in the grass alongside the road, as it’s not unusual to find alligators there. And if you hear something growling at you from the water, don’t be alarmed, as it’s probably only the mating call of the harmless pig frog.
The Bobcat Boardwalk, which is located behind the visitor center, is also a good place to get a look at – and a listen to – the swamp inhabitants. This wide level boardwalk winds over the marsh, through a mature gumbo limbo forest. There’s a wheelchair accessible overlook along the way, and although you may hear bobcats rustle in the underbrush, they are usually pretty shy. That said, it’s still a good place to spot alligators, and the forest canopy provides a welcome respite on sunny days.
On Your Way
Although it’s not part of the Everglades, save some time to stop at the Kirby Storter Roadside Park on your way to or from Shark Valley. Part of the Big Cypress Natural Preserve, this accessible rest area is located about 30 miles west of Shark Valley. It features accessible parking, with accessible vault toilets nearby, and level access to a shaded picnic area.
After you’ve had a bite to eat, take a stroll along the half-mile accessible Kirby Storter Boardwalk. There’s level access to the boardwalk which travels through a young cypress marsh, before it transitions to a mature pop ash and red maple forest dotted with orchids. The forest canopy shades the trail until it opens up to a full swamp at the end of the boardwalk. There are interpretive signs along the way, and a bench to enjoy the swamp view at the end. It’s a good place to spot alligators, especially during mating season. And since most people pass right on by this scenic stop, you may even have it all to yourself.