Shark Valley Trail, Everglades National Park
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Rating: See below!
As a trail, Shark Valley isn’t what I’m typically looking for. That’s why I almost skipped it! However, as an overall experience it was definitely worth it. If you are considering a visit, I recommend you do it, and that you spend a little more time savoring it than I did.
Shark Valley is one of the most crowded places in the Everglades National Park, at least in the morning before the sun becomes unbearable. A large parking lot adjoins a small visitor’s center which also houses a bicycle rental concession. The way to see this place is definitely by bike, if you are able, though you might want to bring your own if possible. After standing in line to pay for our rental, we began the process of finding a couple bikes that fit us (the seats are not very adjustable) and that weren’t obviously broken. We never found a pair of perfect ones, but by switching rides halfway through at least we didn’t both have to put up with the same faults the whole way! The 15.8-mile loop trail itself is asphalt with a gravel and grass shoulder, and traffic for bikes and trams is one-way only. The first couple miles saw a lot of foot traffic, but that waned after a while. As usual in this country, the trail is perfectly flat. Getting to travel all that way through this seemingly endless grassland is part of the appeal of the trail. It is one of the few places in the park where you really get a sense of the vastness around you, while remaining in a developed area.
If you don’t have the time, money, or ability to bike, and you want to see more than just walking, you can also take a tram tour run by the park concession. It runs along the same trail and stops periodically to see the sights and for the naturalist to impart some information. It goes out to the observation tower, but you’ll have to walk up the tower yourself to take in the view! The covered tram is a nice way to avoid the sun and the wind, because there is no shade or shelter for bikers or hikers along the way.
The Observation Tower is at the southern end of the trail, and you should check this out before you turn around and head back north. The tower is made of reinforced concrete and it is ascended via a long walled-in ramp, followed by an open spiral staircase if you want to get to the upper level. The walk alongside the crowds reminded me of filing into a pro baseball stadium on a hot summer day! It is pretty crowded, so we had to wait our turn to get a spot at the front of the wall. Once we did, however, it was a wholly different experience to see the Everglades from above! We were able to watch fish and alligators swimming in the pond below, while birds soared across the plains. The “river of grass” that we had read about became suddenly apparent, in a way that posters and panels could never make clear. Despite the jostling visitors around me, I’ve managed to keep a memory of peace and silence as I looked out across that vista.
While the view from the Shark Valley tower is impressive, the more fun part of the ride is all the wildlife alongside the trail (note: no sharks). If you have a pair of binoculars, you’ll be able to see even more. For the first couple of miles, we stopped every time we saw an alligator or an anhinga, but eventually realized that it would take all day to make the journey at that rate. On the return route, with lighter traffic and more open landscape, we were able to spot more diverse animals around us. For me, the highlights were probably seeing a mother ‘gator with a whole clutch of babies, and watching the feeding behavior of a pair of rare Roseate Spoonbills. Getting to see the ever-changing nature of the ecosystem around me, up close, was also educational.
Much like the experience of seeing the vastness of the landscape first-hand, my understanding of the soil and water interplay in the marsh was significantly enhanced by seeing it laid out before me. Inches of elevation separated wet spots from dry ones, and dictated what types of wildlife used each area. While it may not seem like it from the ground, this area really is a “valley,” one of two main routes that freshwater travels through the Everglades on its way to the sea. Especially in the dry season, the water moves very slowly, too slowly to really see it flow. However, it was clear that local fluctuations in water level were occurring, because in places the “periphyton” had been lifted off the soil and rock underneath, and caught up in the grasses. This substance is full of life and nutrients for the plants and animals of the prairies and marshes: it is made up of finely crushed sea shells and detritus, and filled with tiny microbes, algae and bacteria. To those of us used to more conventional landscapes, the slow-draining marl soil looks mucky, dirty, even unhealthy. On the contrary, though, it is an indicator of the vibrance of the Everglades and all the life within it!
To sum things up, the Shark Valley trail is a long, flat, reasonably well-paved trail with no shade or wind breaks. It is crowed with tourists and the rental bikes are dodgy. But I promise that you won’t remember any of that (or much of it) after your full journey. Plan to take at least fifteen minutes at the observation tower, and leave the bulk of your time for the return trail heading back north, so that you can stop and observe wildlife and the landscape around you. Bring more water and snacks than you think you’ll need, because it really does get hot out there. Don’t forget the sunscreen! There are toilets at the Observation Tower and Visitor Center, but you’ll need to hold it along the rest of the trail. If you put in a little planning, get an early start (you can leave even earlier with your own bike), and have the right attitude you definitely won’t regret your visit here!