This is the best part of the Everglades. A fifteen-mile long loop trail takes you right into the heart of the 'River of Grass.' From the 65-foot tall observation tower, it is quite easy to understand where Marjory Stoneman Douglas came up with her now-famous name for this place. It just seems to go on forever in all directions.
You'll see tree islands of several types: willow heads, bay heads and hammocks. Notice how they are teardrop-shaped: wide and blunt at the upstream end, where the water-carried sediments build them up, and narrow and tapered at the downstream end, where the water flows past on both sides, eventually rejoining itself.
Of course, the thing most people go to Shark Valley to see is the wildlife. This is Alligator Central, especially on a cold, sunny day in mid to late winter. As the river dries down toward spring, the wildlife concentrates with it. The observation tower is right in the heart of it. Thanks to some artificially deep areas of water (this was once an oil exploration site) the critters flock here.
I remember visiting the Valley once, and in the span of the 15 miles, we spotted 367 alligators! Of course, there's lots more than just gators. You'll find a huge variety of birds, especially long-legged wading birds, and endangered species like the Everglades snail kite and the wood stork.
How do you get to the tower? You have three choices. If this is your first time to the Everglades, it really helps to understand how the ecosystem works in order to best appreciate it. To do that, take the two-hour tram tour. You'll have either a park ranger or a well-trained concessions employee as your interpreter, and you really learn a lot. If you've got the basics of the Everglades down, you can hike the road, or bike the road. Bikes are available for rental, and sometimes guided bike hikes are available with a ranger.
If you hike or bike, remember to bring plenty of water and sunscreen along -- it can be a long tiring ride, but definitely worth it.