Everglades National Park | AIRBOAT TOURS

Airboat ride into the Everglades

Airboat ride into the Everglades

What’s a trip to Everglades National Park without an airboat ride? There probably aren’t many people who don’t conjure up an image of airboats when the park is mentioned, plus airboats are one of the only ways to get out into the environment that is at the heart of what the Everglades is all about—the river of grass. This refers to what is essentially a prairie, but one with a very slow moving and shallow sheet of water on it, in most places less than two feet deep. The water comes mainly from Lake Okeechobee, but rain also adds to the volume. Airboats were created to glide across this very shallow water, but even they can get stuck if the water level gets too low.

River of grass

River of grass

Canal leads from the dock out into the grassland

Canal leads from the dock out into the grassland

The airboat tourist industry started when the Tamiami Trail (Hwy 41) was built back in the 1920s. The locals used airboats to get around for fishing and hunting, and when tourists started coming through the area and saw the boats, they wanted a ride. Today, the only place in Everglades National Park to ride in an airboat is at Shark Valley, which is bordered by the Tamiami Trail in the northwest corner of the park.

Airboat tour companies located on the northern side of the highway (westbound lane) launch into Water Conservation Area 3A. Though still the same “river of grass,” this is outside the Everglades National Park boundary. There are four airboat companies on the north side of the highway and all are Indian owned. On the southern side of the highway (eastbound lane), all tour companies launch into Everglades National Park. There are three of these companies: Coopertown Airboat, Everglades Safari Park, and Gator Park. All are authorized by the National Park Service to operate tours within the park, and they are the only companies authorized to do so.

As a stickler for writing about the National Parks, I chose one of the companies that ran tours in the actual park, Coopertown Airboats. The company was the first to run airboat tours in the Everglades, and that’s not per Coopertown propaganda, but per an information panel on airboats at the Shark Valley Visitor Center. I’m not here to endorse them, but the service was fine, and I’m sure the rest of the companies in the area offer the same thing. All excel in separating tourists from their money, so expect alligator zoos, restaurants, and other attractions in addition to the rides.

Coopertown Airboats

Coopertown Airboats

The Coopertown tour lasts 45 minutes and ventures about two miles into the Everglades. It is more than just a joy ride. The guide operating the boat stops to talk about the animals and the surrounding environment. His seat is up high so he can see the alligators and birds and will stop so everyone can get a look.

Flock or white ibis scatters as the airboat approaches

Flock or white ibis scatters as the airboat approaches

The boat has wide bench seats, so unless you get a seat on the end, you aren’t going to be able to take any photos. I’m not even sure if you can see that well if you end up in the middle of the boat. During the winter tourist season the tours are booked solid all day long, so don’t put too much hope into getting an empty boat. Either be the first one on to get to the far side of the boat or lollygag so you are the last one on and seated at the end next to the dock. A front seat would be nice, but there is a window to protect people from spray, so you have to shoot out of what is more than likely to be dirty and scratched Plexiglas. The boat does spin around so that everyone can see the area once it gets out to the grasslands, and you can get photos then.

Airboat seats

Airboat seats

Canal that runs into the Everglades

Canal that runs into the Everglades

Mangroves and water lilies

Mangroves and water lilies

Ironically, there is very little area in Everglades National Park that is open to airboats, and if the National Park Service had its way, they would cease to exist. The Shark Valley Area was only added to the park in 1989. A handful of airboat companies had been operating there for fifty or more years, and those in business got to stay in business. No new companies will ever open.

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Last updated on December 31, 2019
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