Visit Shark Valley to discover the “True Everglades,” be awed by close encounters with wildlife, and take in the spaciousness of the vast River of Grass and the big subtropical sky.
“River of Grass” (aka The Everglades)
The Everglades may not look like you expect them to. Partially, this is because of a misrepresentation in the entertainment media. But also it’s because the Everglades National Park covers such a large and diverse area, including mangrove forests, and islands in the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay.
However, a majority of the Everglades looks like a never-ending flat field of grass – dotted with small islands of shrubs and trees. This is the freshwater marsh covered in sawgrass that gave the Everglades the official name (everglade = old timey for “forever” + “grassy open place”) and the nickname “River of Grass” (made famous by Marjory Stoneman Douglas). The local native Americans called the area Pa-hay-Okee, which means “grassy waters.”
Almost the entire southern section of Florida is a humongous, very shallow, and extremely slow-moving freshwater river fed by multiple springs in Central Florida and spreading out on its way south. This has changed somewhat with canals diverting a portion of the water to enable agriculture and build towns, e.g., Miami.
One of the best ways to experience the “True Everglades” and get a feel for the river of grass and its wildlife is by entering Shark Valley…
Shark Valley – Quick Facts
Shark Valley provides one of the four main entrances into the Everglades National Park. That is, four access points if you count arriving by boat via the Flamingo marina.
From the Shark Valley Visitor Center you have access to the Shark River Slough, the extremely slow-moving, sawgrass covered, wide body of water that carries water from Lake Okeechobee to Shark River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.
Why is it called SHARK Valley? The sharks referenced in olden days were spotted downriver near the sea – not all the way up in Shark Valley. Up here it’s GATOR land!
That’s right, at Sharky Valley one of your Everglades expectations will be met immediately: you will see lots of alligators up close. Also there are all kinds of water and wading birds, like herons, egrets, ibis, spoonbills, and anhingas – and turtles. They are so plentiful and close, you’d think you’re in a zoo. Except this isn’t a zoo. There are no fences, and you can walk, bike, or ride a tram right along all the wildlife.
What To Do in Shark Valley
The main attractions at Shark Valley is the natural scenery and the abundant wildlife. It’s just a matter how you want to explore the area.
The main path is the 15-mile asphalt Shark Valley Tram Trail Loop that takes you to the 65-foot high observation tower and back. One way is slightly meandering along watering holes crossing over pipes especially popular with gators. The other way runs straight, parallel with a canal.
The most relaxed access is taking the 2-hour trolly tour, with the added bonus of a shade roof and an informative guide. The tram stops plenty of times to observe wildlife and take photos. During the covid-19 pandemic, tram tours operate on a limited schedule.
Sidenote: we had never opted for the “guided tour” until visiting the Everglades – and we learned so much. For example: turns out that those gators are a lot lazier than we thought. The gators hanging in the water holes are often just keep their mouths open for a fish to float in. Then they don’t have to eat again for days because they exert so little energy. Huh. Who knew? We might do guided tours more often now.
You can rent a bike or bring your own – even an electric-assist bike.
You can walk.
Whatever you do: bring plenty of water, wear sunscreen, and maybe put on a hat.
Closer to the visitors center and just off the Tram Trail, you can access two shorter trails (Bobcat Boardwalk, Otter Cave Hammock Trail) to explore hammocks and other nature more closely.
It can’t be said often enough: birding is extraordinary at Shark Valley – not just because of the abundance, but also because of the close encounters at the canal and gator holes, especially during the dry season.
The Shark Valley Visitor Center offers the usual educational displays, restrooms, drinks, snacks, souvenirs, and the expert advice by our beloved National Park Rangers. However, due to COVID-19, as of this writing (9/2/20) the visitor center remains closed. Check for updates via NPS.gov.
Shark Valley Location, Hours, Fees, FAQs
COVID-19 Update: As of this writing (9/2/20) the Shark Valley Everglades National Park entrance is open – however, the visitor center remains closed.
Official website: https://www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/shark-valley-tamiami.htm
8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Mid-December – Mid-April
9:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Mid-April – Mid-December
Shark Valley Visitor Center is located on Highway 41 (Tamiami Trail) – approx. 70 miles east of Naples, 25 miles west of the Florida Turnpike, 30 miles west of Miami.
While Shark Valley is definitely not in the city of Miami, this address works for mobile device maps:
36000 SW 8th Street, Miami, FL 33194
The regular entry fee to the Everglades National Park is good at all park entrances for 7 days.
Prices as of September 2020: car ($30) – motorcycle ($25) – pedestrian / cyclist ($15)
Purchase a preferred digital mobile ticket online – to minimize contact when entering the park.
The annual pass for Everglades National Park is $55.
Personally, we always recommend the annual America The Beautiful pass, which gives you access to over 2,000 National Parks, Monuments and other sites. Even if you don’t go to more parks, it’s a worthy system to support. As of 9/2/20 it’s $80 per year if you don’t qualify for any other discounts. You can purchase the pass at any National Park or online.
The 2-hour tram tours are handled by an authorized concessioner of the National Park Service and can fill up far in advance. So you should plan ahead and book a tour as soon as possible. Currently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are offering a lot fewer tours than usual. Check the Shark Valley Tram Tour website for updated info and to book a tour. Regular adult ticket as of 9/2/20 costs $27.
Pets… are not allowed on the Shark Valley Tram Trail.
Fishing… is possible right outside the park across the Tamiami Trail in the canal running along the highway.
Timing is Everything
Plan your visit to Sharky Valley, and any other parts of the Everglades National Park, for anytime other than summer. It’s just too hot. In the Everglades (and most of Florida), there’s also the distinction between the dry and wet season (May – November). During the dry season (December – April), you have a better chance to see wildlife as they congregate around the remaining water aka gator holes. Of course, during the cooler, drier months it will be more crowded, too. And that can cause some other issues, e.g., overcrowded parking lots.
With Shark Valley, it’s especially important that you show up early because on-site parking is extremely limited. You may be stuck in a line of cars waiting for parking spots to open for so long that your scheduled trolly will leave without you (they’ll try to put you on the next one). As an alternative, it’s possible to park on the grass off the Tamiami Trail (the cross-state part of the old Tampa to Miami highway). But it can be a bit of a walk back into the National Park from where you left your car.
As with all nature place, the early morning is especially rewarding as animals wake up and are active looking for food. And the evenings are especially glorious with the subtropical sunsets over the big Everglades sky.
More Photos from Shark Valley
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Let’s Inspire Each Other
Have you been to Shark Valley or one of the other sections of the Everglades National Park? What was most memorable to you? What tips do you have to share? Tell us about one of your wildlife encounters. How about one of your favorite parks?
Please leave a comment below based on these questions or whatever you think might inspire someone else to take a break and get outside.