Hop aboard the Shark Valley Tram, and you get a two-hour tour along a 15-mile loop, led by an informative naturalist. You'll feel you're deep in the wilds of the Everglades, but riding in comfort with the breeze in your face.
The open-air vehicles offer great wildlife photography opportunities, pausing and even backing up to make sure you get up-close views of basking alligators from the safety of the tram.
It's amazing to see how quickly, despite its log-like appearance (an Everglades speed bump, our guide joked) a wild gator can transform into an eight-foot leaping lizard, powerfully launching itself (thankfully, away from our tram) in the blink of an eye.
Our naturalist offered insightful knowledge about early settlers and human interaction with the land while pointing out birds and other wildlife. He even entertained with Everglades love stories, playing the roles of gossiping gator gals and big-hearted anhinga hubbies to explain mating and relationship rituals taking place like a sawgrass soap opera.
At the midway point, exit the tram and meander up the massive spiral walkway of the Shark Valley tower for a bird's-eye view 45 feet above the wild expanse of the sawgrass prairie.
The naturalist identified wild edibles such as cocoa plum, as well as hazards like the Manchinel tree, whose rain-soaked leaves can actually burn your skin with dripping toxin.
After descending from the high altitude (by Florida standards), walk the canopy-covered trail near the tower, and peer through shady trees for the resident gator. With no tram at the moment to whisk you away, you'll need to use your feet and common sense to maintain a safe distance.
Jump back on the tram and enjoy more miles of scenery before returning to your starting point.
For the more adventurous, bring your bike or rent one upon arrival and explore at your own pace.
Either way, keep your eyes open for surprises; one of our fellow tour participants spotted a python (an invasive species becoming a major problem in South Florida), which sent our guides springing from the vehicle in pursuit. The snake slipped away.
If You Go
What: Shark Valley Tram Tour
Where: Everglades National Park
Cost: Entrance to the national park is $10 per private vehicle. Tour rates are $20 for adults, $19 for seniors, $12.75 for children 3 to 12.
Hours: Departure times May through late December are 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. From Dec. 16 through April 2013, departures are at 9 a.m., 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 12 p.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. Visitation is highest from Dec. 26 through April 30, and reservations are recommended during this time period.
Call: Shark Valley Visitor Center at 305-221-8776; tram ticket reservations, 305-221-8455
Web: Visit Shark Valley Tram Tours at sharkvalleytramtours.com. The Visitors Center website is nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/svdirections.htm.
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