Alligators. Most Floridians (raises hand!) will tell you we love them. And coming here and not seeing an alligator in the wild is a bit like going to the Galapagos and missing out on spotting the famous tortoises. And while Florida’s federally protected native reptile, the American alligator, is hardly endangered anymore, it can take a bit more searching to see an alligator in Florida than some news headlines out of the Sunshine State (about alligators on golf courses and in garages and backyard swimming pools) might lead you to believe.
That said, anywhere there’s freshwater–a lake, river, even a retention pond–is fair game for possible seeing an alligator. In fact, I was picking blueberries recently with my family just north of Tampa, imagining for a spell I was someplace like Maine, when we spotted a small gator lurking in a pond on our way back to the car.
Someone had thrown a tennis ball in the lake and the alligator was mouthing it like a toddler with a pacifier (the ball kept bobbing just out of reach). I felt kind of bad for this urban alligator. Luckily, there are better spots to see them in Florida.
Spotting alligators in the wild in Florida
The entire state is fair game for having an alligator encounter (hopefully at a safe distance) from dry land, or from a boat if you’re on the water. I did learn recently from a ranger in the Everglades, however, that the whole thing about running zigzag to get away from an alligator is a myth.
Alligators are ambush predators, so it’s closest to the water–where they often lurk just out of sight–where you’re least safe in their presence.
From a safe viewing distance on land, an alligator is hardly going to waste any energy giving actual chase to pursue you (they’re more like one lunge and done, the ranger explained).
Where to see wild alligators in North and Central Florida
The University of Florida in Gainesville doesn’t have an alligator as its mascot just to be cute. At my alma mater, it’s even possible to see alligators on campus, that’s how hardcore we gator fans are (just kidding, I couldn’t care less about Gator football or any other college sports). Here are a few other places to see alligators around Gainesville.
La Chua Trail, Gainesville, Florida
It’s an easy three-mile walk along the La Chua Trail, on the outskirts of Gainesville within Paynes Prairie, to reach the Alachua Sink, where many times I’ve seen as many as one hundred alligators along the way. On parts of the trail that aren’t boardwalk, it’s even possible to find them sprawling across the path sometimes (wait from them to slink well away and give them a wide berth as you pass).
Lake Alice, Gainesville, Florida
Right on the campus of the University of Florida, the open-water marsh environment of Lake Alice is another wildlife area that’s a popular place to see alligators as well as other Florida freshwater denizens like soft shell turtles and all manner of wading birds. Don’t miss the bat house right across the street, where hundreds of the winged mosquito-killers come flying out at dusk in thick clouds.
Lake Wauburg, Gainesville, Florida
We used to go waterskiing on Lake Wauburg, eight miles south of the University of Florida campus, as college students. It belongs to the school and is a popular recreation are as well as another haven for seeing wild alligators, which you can often spot from the shoreline (only swim in the roped off area).
Sweetwater Wetlands Park, Gainesville, Florida
Stroll along 3.5 miles of crushed gravel trails and boardwalks at Sweetwater Wetlands Park, another Gainesville gem for alligator spotting that’s also very accessible and most always dishes up with lots of other Florida wildlife sightings (birds and butterflies galore!), too. Alligator breeding season is from April through September, so keep your ears open for their loud mating calls during that time. Fun fact: the park, a manmade wetland area, is even shaped like the head of alligator. How’s that for auspicious for a potential alligator sighting?
Where to see wild alligators in South and Southwest Florida
Everglades National Park is the most obvious place to go looking for alligators in the wild, but there are many other places in South and Southwest Florida where you can strike it lucky with gator sightings.
Anhinga Trail, Everglades National Park, Homestead, Florida
Whenever people tell me they have one day to see the Everglades and ask where they should go to see alligators, I either point them to an airboat tour outside the park or to the mile-long pathway along the Anhinga Trail within Everglades National Park. Here, you can often spot alligators lurking just inches below you from the safety of an elevated boardwalk that winds over shallow, freshwater environments (this is the perfect place in the Everglades to visit with young kids as well as people with mobility issues, as it’s easy to push a stroller or wheelchair along the boardwalk).
Alligator Alley between Fort Lauderdale and Naples, Florida
Every time I cross from between the east and west coasts of Florida along the highway called Alligator Alley, also known as Interstate-75, I find it hard to focus on driving for all the alligators I spot sunning themselves in the canals lining both sides of the highway. It’s hard to drive more than ten minutes along this stretch without seeing an alligator, they’re that abundant. There are a few boat ramps and pull-off areas where you can park the car for a closer look–just don’t pull off on the shoulder of the road, as traffic hauls along Alligator Alley despite there being so much to see.
Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Naples, Florida
You’re strolling deep in the heart of a true Everglades ecosystem when you visit Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in the western Everglades, just 30 miles east of Naples. Hundreds of alligators live here in addition to white tailed deer, otters, endangered Florida panthers and even painted buntings (a bird that look like all the colors of a Crayola box swirled together to magnificent effect).
A walk along the 2.25 mile long Corkscrew Boardwalk offers your best shot at seeing alligators in the wild as you meander through pine flatwoods and over marshy areas out into the largest old-growth bald cypress forest in North America. Simply splendid.