10 Essential Houseboat Tips in Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park covers 1.5 million acres in South Florida. More than a million people visit the third-largest national park in the United States each year, home to one of the largest wetlands in the world. Everglades National Park, established in 1947, has nine different habitats, including marine and freshwater swamps. Water from the Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee, and the Shark River flow west through Big Cypress National Preserve in the Ten Thousand Islands. It also heads east into Biscayne National Park and south into Florida Bay.
After the 1800s, settlers arrived at the farm. These newcomers needed the land to dry up and did not understand that “The River of Grass” was so much more than a worthless swamp. They did not realize the importance of the vast labyrinth of canals and low-lying areas that provided food and shelter for birds, fish, reptiles, flora and fauna. According to the National Park Service, “dams, sluices, canals, levees and roads have been built, diverting precious water from natural wetlands.”
Years after the Everglades became a national park, a series of projects have been implemented to protect the biodiversity of this ecologically sensitive area. It is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance. Water is essential here.
There are many ways to explore the park – a great starting point is the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center in Homestead, Florida. The Visitor Center is approximately a 2 hour drive from Miami. The Flamingo Marina is 38 miles past the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and offers incredible ways to experience the beauty of the park from the water.
You can rent a canoe or kayak, take a narrated boat tour, or rent a houseboat from Flamingo Adventures at the Flamingo Marina. Flamingo Adventures At Everglades National Park is the only place you can rent and stay in a houseboat in the United States. If you’re looking to vacation on a houseboat in the Everglades, here are 10 tips (in no specific order) for enjoying the experience while observing this aquatic, wondrous world.
Note: I was a guest of Flamingo Adventures at Everglades National Park on a houseboat, and all opinions are my own. Due to water conditions, we were unable to drive the houseboat to Whitewater Bay, but the following tips are still relevant.
1. Take an Everglades-specific boating course
My husband and I wanted this water camping experience. Before renting a houseboat via Flamingo Adventures at Everglades National Park we read the requirements. We were confused as to what course needed and took a full boating course from US ship, a free powerboat certification program. Glad we took the time to learn about boating in my state, but this was the wrong course for the Everglades.
When we arrived that afternoon the water level was high due to recent rains. This prevented us from floating under a road – an overpass that crossed the Buttonwood Canal – so we took advantage of the afternoon to explore the park further. We took the necessary Everglades navigation course and passed the course that evening. We learned about the fragile habitat, creatures, and dangers of getting stranded in the shallow waters of the Everglades.
Then we felt ready to drive the houseboat. A certified captain at the marina, Chris Taylor, would back our boat up and up the man-made channel from Buttonwood to Coots Bay. Then he would leave our boat and jump on a chase boat, leaving us alone to sail to Whitewater Bay. The return trip would be repeated a few days later.
2. Use the Everglades National Park Map
There is so much to see on the water. But, if you have time to explore on foot, you should. In this case, a map of the Everglades is a valuable resource for finding amazing hikes on both boardwalks and dirt trails. It’s also a great way to plan what you’d like to see and what’s closest to where you’re staying in the park.
According to a park ranger, you can complete the park in about 3 hours. You might see wildlife including American Crocodiles and American Alligators co-existing here. It’s the only place on earth where they do it.
3. Bring a camera
While docked at the Flamingo Marina, we loaded up the boat and then drove our car to nearby hikes. We went to Guy Bradley Trail. We observed shorebirds such as piping plovers, herons and snowy egrets frolicking in the shallow waters that gather there. Next, we visited the new eco tents available for rent via Flamingo Adventures at Everglades National Park.
All eco-tents are on raised platforms and offer stunning views of Florida Bay. Then we walked along the elevated promenade of the Mahogany Hammock Trail. We observed a forest of ancient mahogany trees on the higher, drier ground called the “hammock”. Owls and air plants thrive here. We loved discovering the huge trees and watched in awe as the dragonflies and butterflies flit over the grass.
4. Prepare your meals before getting on the boat
If you are used to camping, you know how to prepare for a campsite. Here’s a pro tip: cook your meals in your own kitchen at home if you’re not a camper. There is a marina store for supplies, but we planned our meals, shopped and chopped ahead at home. The galley on board is tiny, and even though it’s well-stockedwe didn’t want to worry about the preparation on the boat.
Instead, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the Everglades. We planned easy breakfasts, lunches and dinners and brought my cast iron skillet. The boat’s kitchen includes a small microwave, small fridge and stove. The grill is outside on the stern (or back of the boat) and every appliance is propane fueled. Decide on a simple menu and prepare as much as possible in advance.
5. Provide insect and sun protection
We visited in May, but the bugs are fierce and powerful even in January. I packed essential oil insect repellent but, on the advice of the Marina store manager, bought 100% Deet insect repellent while there. I usually use natural products for bug control at home, but you need strong products here. Bring sunscreen for your face and exposed parts of your body. The sun is intense on the water.
6. Bring fishing gear
Do you have your own fishing gear? Otherwise, the Marina store has cheap bait and tackle for sale. My husband bought a rod, fished Licence which he needed and loved spending the early evening fishing off the dock at the marina. We observed osprey a few meters from where we were. We also planned to fish off the boat once we started. Hubby caught (and released) a medium sized grouper, but several tarpon bit the bait and swam away.
7. Pack wisely
Plan your outdoor outfits wisely because there’s no need to over-pack (or under-pack). There is a closet on board but not much storage space for clothes. Bring clothes that help protect from the sun (shirts with SPF), a peaked hat, sunglasses, shorts, light hiking pants, closed shoes and a bathing suit for sunbathing, as it does not don’t go in the water. The 17ft American Crocodile named Fred likes to hang out by the wharf, but we saw a few more like him along the Buttonwood Canal.
8. Bring hiking shoes
We only brought sneakers rather than boots which limited where we chose to hike. We stuck to the raised sidewalks, but would have seen more of the park if we had worn our hiking boots. We will be back soon to explore other trails.
9. Bring an activity for the evenings
You might be able to get internet at the marina if you have AT&T cell service, but other carriers are spotty here. You may not get any cell service on the water. Bring old-fashioned entertainment like playing cards, games, a puzzle, a good book to read, or stargaze and enjoy the sounds of nature when the sun goes down.
10. Be flexible
We couldn’t drive the barge as the water levels were never low enough for the boat to pass under the Buttonwood Canal viaduct. According to Captain Chris, a houseboat is slow and doesn’t have much maneuverability. He said it was a bit like driving a big truck, but only at speeds of up to 6 miles per hour. It’s different from driving a skiff or a smaller boat in terms of speed and visibility.
Instead of driving the houseboat, we drove a small boat ourselves (also at the marina) down Buttonwood Canal and into Coots Bay. We did the 90 minute narrated wildlife tour and saw a group of 10 manatees swimming together around Coots Bay and Whitewater Bay. We observed more crocodiles and many birds, including a few anhingas drying their wings on the mangroves.
Pro Tip: Captain Chris offers these top tips when setting sail in the Everglades: “Watch your depths and watch your speed, it’s easy to get stuck and the manatees make their home here.
To learn more about the Everglades, check out these articles: