Royal Palm Visitor Center
The Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm Visitor Center, located only four miles from the Homestead entrance, is one of the easiest and best places to see Everglades birds and alligators.
The Anhinga Trail borders a man-made deep-water canal paralleling an asphalt pathway that marks the beginning of the Anhinga Trail walk.
When the Everglades’ water table starts to drop during the dry season, the canal beside the Anhinga Trail and the deep holes scattered in the grassy plain become holding ponds for fish.
In turn, the canal and ponds draw water birds and alligators: prime conditions for wildlife viewing and photography. When wildlife gathers along the Anhinga Trail in the dry season, there is no better place to be. The boardwalk is wheelchair accessible, but no bicycles are allowed.
One of the Most Popular Stops
Due to its convenient location, Royal Palm Visitor Center and the Anhinga Trail are perhaps the most-visited site for wildlife viewing in Everglades National Park. Animals, fortunately, are so accustomed to people they tolerate—and generally ignore—our presence because Royal Palm is next to Taylor Slough, one of the two major rivers carrying fresh water through the park.
Warning: You need to take steps to avoid vulture damage to your vehicle before your walk on the Anhinga Trail. The vulture population at Royal Palm is quite large. In recent years, they have caused serious damage to windshields, hoods and other car parts.
Walking the Anhinga Trail
The Anhinga Trail starts as a narrow ribbon of asphalt, actually a remnant of an old highway built in 1916 to connect Homestead with Flamingo. Follow the pavement for a few hundred yards, ignoring a boardwalk coming in from the left. You will be walking that later.
The hard road ends at a Y-junction. Go right and in a few steps you will stand on a wood platform overlooking a muddy area where alligators like to sunbathe. This can be a very good place for photography, so it may be crowded.
Leaving the platform, return to the main Anhinga Trail. It becomes a boardwalk looping over the edge of a pond and a dense stand of sawgrass bordered by trees.
Water birds are often present in the trees next to the boardwalk. Air plants are readily visible, too. Alligators may be present next to the boardwalk at the beginning beside the pond or when it turns to the left and passes a shelter where cormorants usually perch on the top looking for fish.
Trees here often have some of largest and most colorful air plants. In this section, alligators are common on the left of the boardwalk, birds are on the right.
Into the Sawgrass
Leaving open water, the boardwalk moves through a thick stand of sawgrass and leads to a T-junction. The walk to the right leads to a fine overview of a marshy area where birds and alligators are common. The left leg is the end loop and the return to the paved trail.
The Anhinga Trail takes its name from one of Florida’s most distinctive birds, always plentiful in tree branches and in the water beside the walkway. The anhinga, also called water turkey or snake bird, swims almost totally submerged, only its snaky-looking long neck and head above water.
The bird is distinctive for how it perches on branches with its wings extended as if in a state of alarm; the practice is called “wing-drying” and “sunbathing." The anhinga spreads its wings to dry its feathers as well as regulate its body temperature, why it often sits with its back to the sun.
Other birds commonly sighted on the Anhinga Trail include a who’s-who of Everglades photo subjects: double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, tri-colored herons, great egrets and snowy egrets. Alligators and turtles are also plentiful. Late in the day, gators sometimes crawl up on the asphalt to keep warm. Feel free to take the gator’s photo but give it a wide berth.
For anyone with the time, the most successful way to view the Anhinga Trail is more than once. Obvious or not, something always is happening. Animal behavior is especially noticeable early in the morning, near mid-day when cormorants go fishing in the canal, and late afternoon.
The Anhinga Trail ends back at the Royal Palm visitor center near the trailhead of the Gumbo Limbo Trail.
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