If your travel plans include a trip near the southern tip of Florida, you might want to venture out to a park called Shark Valley. While the name conjures up images of the movie Jaws, you won’t find any sharks. Instead, you’ll find the best place there is to get close to wild alligators in Florida.
Shark Valley is a part of the Everglades National Park and is located on the south side of US 41, referred to by the locals as The Tamiami Trail, near the Miami Dade-Collier County line. The park’s name reflects its location in the Shark River Slough (pronounced “slew”). Slough is a term for wetlands or as in this case, a swamp. But don’t worry, you won’t need an air boat or even wading boots to experience this real life animal adventure as this park has a well maintained, paved road which loops 15 miles, designed for walking, biking or more relaxing travel on one of the an open-air trams that offers guided tours. Entrance to the park can be by foot, bicycle or car for a reasonable fee.
Visitors to the park are then welcome to educational displays, a park video, informational brochures as well as views from an underwater camera. A website maintained by the National Park Service features both English and Spanish language video to help prepare for and maximize your experience at this truly unique park.
Once inside the park boundaries, your up close and personal exposure to native wildlife begins. Shark valley is the best place to get close to wild alligators in Florida. You might not walk more than a few feet before you spot a good sized “gator” basking on the bank of the shallow canal that flanks the west side of the paved road that leads to the observation tower located at the midpoint of the loop. Or you might see another descendant of monsters that dates back to prehistoric times crawling across this same road to enter the wetland area over which The Bobcat Boardwalk Trail was built. This elevated walkway is just steps past the Shark Valley Visitor Center and allows for an easy stroll through the marshes and hardwoods for 0.4 miles.
Various trees and plants are marked with small plaques to allow for proper identification which adds to you appreciation of the complex ecosystem that is the Everglades. The vegetation also provides loads of shade and there are several spots to stop and rest. From covered areas with welcoming benches, you can quietly sit and observe the native wildlife.
The park includes an observation tower located seven miles down the paved trail and is the midpoint of the loop. While this concrete structure appears sorely out of place, it provides an amazing 360 degrees view of the surrounding area and allows you to appreciate subtle various changes in elevations that create changes in the landscape from sawgrass prairies to the little islands of hardwood trees. There is also a dock to view, you guessed it, more alligators as well as other native creatures. While you can travel on foot, most opt to pay for the guided tram ride or rent a bike to complete the trek. You are allowed to bring a bicycle into the park and many locals do just that.
While each day is different and the selection varies by season due to changes in water levels in the park, (end of November through the end of April or May are usually the best) you are likely to observe all types of birds including ibis, wood storks, spoonbills, cotes, and herons to name a few. Mammals, such as raccoon and deer, can also be spotted. Snakes and small lizards are not uncommon but look quick as they move fast. Turtles are often spotted among the water foliage.
Of course, alligators, the main attraction, are everywhere. They come in all sizes from small hatchlings to one big enough to shallow a grown man. They can be seen slowly undulating their tails to glide thought the tannic colored water or just floating below the water’s surface with only their eyes and nostrils above the waterline. They will be sunbathing on the side of the road with their jaws wide open to help dissipate the heat or sleeping in the middle to the road while both bikers and hikers give them a wide berth. Remember, Shark Valley is their home along with all the other wild animals that reside here, so, like the signs warn – keep your distance and don’t try to feed or touch these prehistoric beasts as they will and do bite.
So whether you are a visitor, new retiree or established local, make plans to travel back in time and spend some quality time at this truly one of a kind park. Shark Valley is, at its core, a portal into the past where you get a true sense of what South Florida and the River of Grass was like before man drained and “paved paradise and put up a parking lot”.
Facts about Shark Valley
Shark Valley Visitor Center is located at 36000 SW 8th Street. Miami, FL 33194.
8th Street also known as Tamiami Trail or US 41.
The park is about an hour from Miami, 25 miles west of the Florida Turnpike on Tamiami Trail.
Park Hours are 9:15 am to 5:15 pm daily with hours subject to change.
Entrance Fees are $10 per Vehicle, $5 for pedestrians and bicyclers 16 years and older. The Park Fee is good for entrance into the Park at any of its other locations within 7 days.
The parking lot fills up quick during peak season, weekends and holidays. Free parking might be available just outside the park.
Amenities include Restrooms, Concession Stand, Gift Shop, Ranger-led programs
Tram Tours depart every hour from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm during the dry season and are run by the Shark Valley Tram Tours during the dry season. Some tours operate during the wet season – contact the park for updated information.
Tram Tour Prices:
- Adult $22
- Child (3-12) $12.75
- Senior (62+) $19
Bike rentals are also available from the Shark Valley Tram Tours starting at $9/hour on a first come, first served basis. All bikes come with a helmet and basket. Florida law requires riders under 16 years of age to wear a helmet.
Remember to dress appropriately – comfortable shoes, a hat and sunscreen are recommended and stay hydrated.