This land is more liquid than matter, an oh-so-slow-moving river 50 miles wide and a few inches deep. The "river of grass" is the name coined by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the remarkable woman who wrote "The Everglades" (Mockingbird Books) and worked long and hard to preserve this very special part of South Florida.
The Everglades are mangrove swamps and saw grass prairies, palms and pineland, orchids and airplants, sea cows and sea turtles, roseate spoonbills and green herons, skeeters and gators and thousands of other living things that make up the largest remaining subtropical wilderness in the country.
This wilderness, more that 1.4 millions acres of it, half land and half water, is in peril. Decades of almost unchecked development in southern Florida have diminished the water supply that is so crucial to sustaining the rich diversity of life found in the Everglades.
The glades are dependent on Lake Okeechobee, fourth-largest lake in the United States. But between the lake and Everglades National Park (which was set aside to protect the Everglades) are many dams and canals.
Imperiled though the glades may be, they still retain their beauty.
Everglades National Park, the second-largest national park in the continental United States, has plenty of room to roam. But be prepared to get your feet wet on the glades' marshy hiking trails.
Among the pleasures of tripping afoot are close-up looks at six species of palm and many tropical shrubs. Bird watchers will discover a breeding ground for nearly 300 kinds of land and water birds.
Two trails that help interpret the nature of the Everglades begin at the national park's Royal Palms Visitors Center. Half-mile Anhinga Trail offers good views of alligators, turtles and fish. Park rangers often lead guided walks along this trail.
From a wooden boardwalk, hikers can see herons, egrets and the anhinga, a bizarre-looking bird also called the "water turkey" or "snakebird." The anhinga glides through the water with only its slender head and neck extended, looking a bit like a snake. Out of water, it's often seen sitting in trees with its wings extended to dry.
Another half-mile path, Gumbo Limbo Trail, winds through a jungle of tropical trees and ferns. The trees and flowers here are very much the same as those found in Cuba and the West Indies. Also along the trail are statuesque royal palms.
You expect palms in Florida; the pines are a surprise. Seven miles of trail wind through an area of slash pine and scrub palmetto. White-tail deer and the endangered Florida panther roam the pinelands.
Some of the park's longer trails begin at the end of the road, at the Flamingo Visitors Center. Christian Point Trail (four miles), Snake Bight Trail (four miles) and Rowdy Bend Trail (five miles) cross the coastal prairie. Parts of the prairie, near the beaches, look surprisingly desert-like and are characterized by stands of cactus, agave and yucca.
In the northeast part of the Everglades is a vast saw grass expanse called Shark Valley, which features a paved, 13-mile loop road. The road passes close to many alligators, turtles and wading birds. Halfway along, there's an observation tower that offers grand views of the park and the resident gator population just below.
Shark Valley Road is closed to vehicle traffic, with the exception of visitor trams, whose riders get a ranger-narrated tour. You can walk the whole 13 miles, but a better bet is to rent a bicycle and pedal through the glades.
You could spend several memorable days hiking the Everglades, but to fully enjoy the park you need to get out on the water. Ask rangers for the leaflet "Foot and Canoe Trails of the Flamingo Area."
Besides the 100-mile Wilderness Waterway, a number of shorter canoe trails offer opportunities to explore the park's backcountry. These trails range from three-mile-long Noble Hammock Trail to 12-mile-long Bear Lake Trail. Most canoe routes begin near the Flamingo Visitors Center.
Hiking / Florida Everglades Trails 1. Anhinga 2. Gumbo Limbo 3. Christian Point 4. Snake Bight 5. Noble Hammock 6. Bear Lake 7. Shark Valley Anhinga, Gumbo Limbo, Bear Lake, Shark Valley Trails Where: Everglades National Park. Distance: 1/2 mile to 5 miles round trip. Terrain: Subtropical forest, the famed "river of grass." Highlights: Gator gazing, water fowl watching, exotic flora. Precautions: Heat, humidity, bugs. For more information: Contact Everglades National Park, P.O. Box 279, Homestead, Fla. 33030, (305) 247-6211.