Shark Valley

An alligator returns to the water at Shark Valley, which has a 15-mile cycling trail that puts you in touch with nature. (Nick Sortal/SouthFlorida.com / February 16, 2009)

There's going to be a sawgrass celebration in gator country on Sunday.

To celebrate the National Park Service's 97th birthday, Everglades National Park will offer free entrance and special savings on activities.

"Sunday is Founder's Day," says Mary Plumb, the park's spokeswoman. "The park service was established on Aug. 25, 1916, by President Woodrow Wilson. It truly is America's best idea. Come out and enjoy your national parks for free."

At Shark Valley, guests can bike the 15-mile loop or ride the tram and catch glimpses of beautiful wading birds and alligators sunning themselves on the road.


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"We're offering a birthday special for buy-one-get-one half-off tram rides," says Bob Nodell, who manages the tours on Loop Road. "On the tram ride, naturalists give a two-hour overview of the park and the sawgrass prairies. The Everglades wetlands is a unique gem for South Florida and the National Park Service."

Stops provide panoramic views of the River of Grass from the mod-looking observation tower.

"The best time to view wildlife is early in the morning, when it's cooler. It's the wet season, so the animals are more spread out," Nodell says of the 1.5 million-acre habitat that is the largest subtropical wilderness in the county. It's also a World Heritage site.

Make reservations, he adds, because tours sell out quickly.

Rangers are reporting unusually low mosquito levels, Plumb says.

Farther south through the main entrance in Homestead, the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, open from 9 a.m to 5 p.m., offers films and educational displays.

Guests can meet at the benches at Royal Palm 10:30 a.m. daily to an take an amble down the Anhinga Trail on a 50-minute, ranger-led tour.

Entrance is fees are being waved on Sunday at 397 U.S. National Parks, which include Canaveral National Seashore, Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida.

Shark Valley hours are from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Tram tours cost $20, $19 for seniors, $12.75 for kids 3-12. Bike rentals cost $8.50 per hour. It's located at 36000 SW Eighth St., in Miami. Call 305-221-8455. Several Everglades Park entrances, visitor centers and hours are listed at NPS.gov/ever.

dchristensen@sunsentinel.com