Encounter the Everglades in The Palm Beaches

November 4, 2021

The Palm Beaches may be known as a luxury resort destination, but hidden amongst its opulence lies a natural treasure: the Florida Everglades.

A different kind of extravagance in the western wetlands of Palm Beach County, the Everglades burst in biodiversity with a plethora of species flourishing in the northern remnants of Florida’s most-delicate ecosystem. Big cats, wild orchids, raptors and alligators roam the stretches of protected land that stand between South Florida suburbia and Lake Okeechobee 
 
Whether you want to take a casual stroll on a boardwalk or unleash your inner Florida Man and go marsh mucking, there’s an Everglades encounter for all walks of life. 

Explore in Grassy Waters Preserve

Grassy Waters Preserve is composed of 23 square miles of undeveloped Everglades habitat, which is ironic because its protection is largely due to being purchased by Florida’s most-famous real estate developer. In 1904, Henry Flagler purchased the large wetland tract to supply drinking water for the fast-growing communities surrounding Palm Beach. Today, it still serves as the primary water reservoir for the City of West Palm Beach, while occupying 50 percent of the city’s geography. 
 
Grassy Waters Preserve is the most accessible Everglades encounter in the area. In addition to its location being within city limits, it features the stunning 1-mile loop Cypress Boardwalk that’s both wheelchair and stroller accessible. It’s a great way to be immersed in the wetlands while staying dry. 
 
If you’re feeling more adventurous, plan your visit during one of the Grassy Waters Swamp Tromps. During this wet hiking tour, you can expect to get about knee deep in the water. Enjoy views of the serene swamp water as it reflects the canopy of cypress trees and ferns overhead. Be sure to wear closed-toe shoes with a snug fit — you don’t want your shoes to get sucked in the muck! Swamp Tromp tours are priced at $5 per child and $10 per adult, and are held once a month.

View of boardwalk, water and blue skies

Paddle the Loxahatchee River

The Loxahatchee River is one of only two National Wild and Scenic rivers in the state and serves an instrumental role in the northern Everglades. The best point of entry is at Riverbend Park, providing a thrilling downstream paddle through its twists and turns between the bald cypress trees. Loxahatchee means “river of turtles” in Seminole, but you can also expect to see raccoons, otters and gators. It’s best to get on the river in the morning, as it becomes heavily trafficked by locals later in the day.  
 
If you’re an avid paddler, take the Trapper Nelson Challenge. This is a 6-hour roundtrip paddle to the legendary Florida man’s camp. Trapper Nelson was a Florida pioneer who homesteaded on the Loxahatchee in the late 1920s. He made his living trading furs and meat from the wildlife he hunted along the river. With the influx of tourism to Palm Beach in the 1930s, Nelson took advantage of the business opportunity by establishing a zoo at his camp to welcome visitors. Trapper Nelson’s Zoo and Jungle Gardens became popular among celebrities and Palm Beach socialites. He soon earned the nickname “Tarzan of the Loxahatchee.”  
 
Canoe and kayak rentals are available at the Jupiter Outdoor Center outpost inside Riverbend Park, starting at $35. Tours and private guides are also available upon request.

Kayakers on a river

Bird Viewing at Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

This wildlife refuge has over 145,000 acres of protected Everglades ecosystems. Established in 1951 under the Migratory Bird Act, this spot is a nature photographer’s dream! Loxahatchee NWR is the gateway to the Great Florida Birding Trail. It’s home to the endangered snail kite, sandhill cranes, wood storks and bald eagles among the total 250 bird species found in the refuge. The spot to get the best nature shots is at one of the observation towers or the photo blind along the Marsh Trail. 
 
Birds aren’t the only flying friends at the Loxahatchee NWR; 40 species of butterflies also inhabit the area. There’s a butterfly garden near the visitor center to view them up close. Also nearby is the Cypress Swamp Boardwalk, a half-mile trail that’s cooled by the shade of the cypress canopy draped in Spanish moss. The entrance fee is $10 per day and passes can be purchased in advance online.

Three sandhill cranes in a marsh

Take an Airboat Tour with a Local Gladesman

If you’ve never been on an airboat tour, it’s a can’t-miss experience! It’s exhilarating to race through sawgrass as you dodge herons flying overhead. Get some wind in your hair as you propel at high speeds in the backcountry of Palm Beach County. 
 
You’ll feel transported to the pioneer days of Old Florida, coasting past hunting camps on stilts that have been passed down over generations. These relics of a land remembered may not be around much longer since construction of new camps are no longer permitted. Captain Wayne Gilbert, Jr. shares tales of the Glades during a two-hour private airboat tour. Prices start at $375 and must be booked in advance through Airboat Rides West Palm Beach.

Airboat ride at sunset

Trek the Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail

If you’re a true trekker, this is your calling! The Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail runs almost 62 miles through both Martin and Palm Beach counties, spanning from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Okeechobee. It commonly takes five days to complete the entire length of the trail, with campgrounds and accommodations available along the way. The Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail is part of the Florida National Scenic Trail, one of only 11 trails given this designation in the country.
 
The trail begins at Hobe Sound Beach and meanders through Jonathan Dickinson State Park, Riverbend Park, J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area and DuPuis Wildlife and Environmental Area, with its terminus at the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail. This experience may be challenging in distance, but it’s the ultimate way to see how the Everglades connect to local coastal ecosystems. Of course, you always have the option of just hiking a portion of the trail.

Sign indicating Ocean to Lake Trail
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Mandy Mizell
Mandy Mizell
Mandy Mizell is a local blogger, avid paddler and beachcomber. With a background in Environmental Science, she is a self-proclaimed Florida naturalist. Her blog, thegloballocal.world, inspires people to live global and stay local with ways to experience culture, respect the environment and live the best of the Florida lifestyle.