Where the urban sprawl meets the Everglades, Southwest Ranches resembles nowhere in Greater Miami.
One of the reasons this town was incorporated in 2000 was to stop it being annexed by neighboring Pembroke Pines, and preserve a rural identity and horse-rearing culture.
I’m pleased to say that horses remain an important part of life, in a town full of stables, horse farms, and other equestrian-oriented businesses. There are miles of riding trails in Southwest Ranches, and the main public park even has an equestrianism arena.
Because of the unusual, non-contiguous layout of the town, you’re always close to awesome public parks, shopping, and visitor attractions in adjoining communities.
1. Everglades Holiday Park Airboat Tours and Rides
Waiting for you on the edge of the Everglades is one of South Florida’s top airboat tour operators.
So within minutes of Southwest Ranches you can be zooming through those famous wetlands, getting as close as safely possible to some of the Everglades most iconic species.
On special covered airboats there’s a wide choice of tour experiences to choose from. I went for the stand tour, which flies through the sawgrass and cypress swamp for an hour, with entertaining narration from the captain.
In that time I saw a handful of gators, as well as plenty of birds, a lot of fish, and some brightly colored iguanas. This package includes a 20-minute alligator handling demonstration by the Gator Boys Alligator Rescue team.
2. Sunshine Ranches Equestrian Park
The horseback lifestyle is alive and well in Southwest Ranches, to the point that there’s a public park geared towards equestrian activities.
On ten acres, Sunshine Ranches Equestrian Park includes a series of trails, troughs, washing areas, pens, and an arena.
Something that blew me away here was the Equestrian Oasis, an artist-designed area where you can water your horse, or just relax in the tranquility.
Trails are also open to hikers and dog walkers (on leashes), while there’s an awesome children’s playground with a farming theme.
3. Flamingo Gardens
One exquisite spot adjacent to Southwest Ranches is this unforgettable botanical garden and wildlife sanctuary. On a 60-acre property, founded as a couple’s weekend home on the edge of the Everglades in the 1920s, you’ll find yourself in a tropical oasis.
Floyd L. and Jane Wray planted an astonishing array of tropical and subtropical plants from around the world.
There are now more than 3,000 plant species growing at Flamingo Gardens. These include some of the oldest and largest trees in Florida, while the house is preserved as it was in the 1930s.
As well as the emblematic American flamingo pond, this attraction has an amazing wealth of native species.
Most astounding of all for me was the massive aviary, keeping one of the largest collections of birds in the country. In a series of habitats, there are 250 birds from close to 50 species here.
4. Chapel Trail Nature Preserve
Another of the natural areas abutting Southwest Ranches is 450 acres of wetlands in the care of Pembroke Pines. Like a lot of the local nature Chapel Trail Nature Preserve would be impassable on foot without a boardwalk.
I adore this feature, zigzagging for more than 1,600 feet through the marshland. There are interpretive signs as you go, and it’s a good idea to take your time to admire some of the 120+ animal species documented here.
You may see snakes, alligators, turtles, colorful songbirds, frogs, and South Florida’s famous array of wading birds. As long as you take the necessary measures against biting insects, the hour before dusk is a memorable time to be here.
5. C.B. Smith Park
Laced with water and sitting next to the Pembroke Lakes Mall, this Broward County Park offers a galaxy of recreation in a picturesque setting.
I probably won’t be able to squeeze in everything you can do at C.B. Smith Park. Anyway, to begin with there’s a campground, with 70+ fully-equipped RV sites.
Then there’s Paradise Cove, a waterpark with a lineup of slides, water play features for little ones, and a 410-foot lazy river.
In addition, the AllGolf center boasts a miniature golf course and a driving range, while there’s a huge area for special events, with a capacity of 22,500. Other features include a picnic area, tennis/pickleball, fitness facility, fishing, and basketball courts.
6. The Shops at Pembroke Gardens
With dozens of mostly upmarket stores on palm-lined sidewalks, this lifestyle center opened in 2007 in Pembroke Pines. Just next door to Southwest Ranches, The Shops at Pembroke Pines has a mix of national/international and one-off boutiques.
So I can give you an idea of the scene here, you’ve got the likes of Barnes & Noble, Ann Taylor, a Nike Factory Store, Banana Republic, LOFT, Soma, Sephora, and lululemon.
This place stands perhaps most of all as somewhere to dine. On my shopping trip I saw locations for Havana 1957, Cheesecake Factory, Haagen-Dazs, Fuddruckers, Brimstone Woodfire Grill, and RA Sushi BA, to list a handful. Parking can be tricky in the evening, but a few spots have valets.
7. Long Key Natural Area & Nature Center
On the west side of Flamingo Gardens there’s a 160-pocket of South Florida nature at a stunning elevated oak hammock.
I was thrilled to learn that until the 20th century Long Key was in fact a chain of islands, ensconced in the Everglades’ wetlands.
As well as enchanting nature, this environment also has great historical and archeological value. For centuries, Long Key was important to the Tequesta and then Seminole cultures, and there’s evidence of human habitation going back three millennia.
As well as exploring the sublime, oak-shaded trails, give yourself some time to see the Long Key Nature Center. Exhibits detail the history of the Tequesta and Seminole Native Americans, and there’s a short video about Long Key’s natural history.
8. Tree Tops Park
I’m not exaggerating when I say that the public parks around Southwest Ranches are among the best I’ve seen. That applies to Tree Tops Park a couple of minutes away in Davie.
In a breathtaking oak hammock and restored freshwater marsh, this is another superb place to ride your horse. An observation tower here lifts you up to appreciate the canopy, and spot birds on the moss-draped branches.
I have to say it came as no surprise to learn that the oak woods here are a favorite local backdrop for wedding photos and ceremonies.
The park also features a fishing lake with paddle-boats, a children’s playground, an exceptional fitness area, and lots of spots for picnics.
9. East Everglades Levee Trail
For some people, the sight of the boundless spread of water and sawgrass from the Everglades Holiday Park will inspire a need for adventure. The South Florida Water Management maintains a whole matrix of arrow-straight trails here.
These are atop the levees that manage the waterflow in the Everglades, and grant you some amazing views. As I’m sure you’re aware, tree cover is almost non-existent on these trails.
But if you come in the months when the sun is less fierce you’ll see native Floridian species in the wild, from sandhill cranes to alligators.
Even if bicycling through the Everglades sounds like a bad time for you, I think it’s worth visiting the trailhead at sunset. The sky is otherworldly at this time of day, and you’ll see the low sun reflected in the canals.
10. South Florida Hindu Temple
Driving along Griffin Road, my eye is often caught by this spectacular Shiva temple, which was recently expanded.
This magnificent building held its first services in 1998, and is a regular place of worship for more than 1,000 people. It is open daily for people of the Hindu faith to perform pujas, and provides a host of educational classes, including both religious and language studies.
Also on the schedule are Hanuman Chalisa, Rudra Abhishekam, and a monthly hava. Now, people of different faiths are welcome to attend many of the non-religious programs, which include yoga classes.
There are tours by appointment, and you can also step inside the gates, outside of services, to admire the highly ornate exterior and see the lush grounds, roamed by peacocks.
11. Ocean Park Beach, Dania Beach
If you’re luckier than me and catch a break with traffic, the nearest public beach park is 20 minutes away. East as the crow flies, Dania Beach checks all the necessary boxes.
You’ve got alluring white sands, brisk Atlantic surf, a fishing pier, and less large-scale development than neighboring communities.
Depending on conditions, Dania Beach has surfable waves, while a lot of the facilities at Ocean Beach Park were updated in the early 2020s.
Meanwhile the boardwalk leads you north into Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park. As a formerly segregated beach, this undeveloped parcel of shorefront has a complicated but ultimately uplifting story.
12. Pembroke Lakes Mall
Brick and mortar retail is doing well in South Florida, partly because enclosed malls are such a necessity due to the climate. One of the region’s most popular is within shouting distance, Pembroke Lakes Mall.
When I went to press there were 150+ tenants, and not an empty storefront to be seen. No surprise, given the location, but there’s an upscale ambiance to this place.
For a cross-section of the directory, you’ve got Guess, Michael Kors, Vans, rue21, Hot Topic, Muy Mucho, Foot Locker, and anchor branches of JCPenney, Dillard’s, and Macy’s.
One of the more unique anchors is Round One Entertainment, which opened here in 2022. Part of a Japanese chain, this place is a kind of family fun center, with an arcade, karaoke, bowling, sports games, and dining.
13. Vista View Park
One of the more peculiar sights in the area is a substantial hill rearing up over the low-lying landscape at Vista View Park. I probably don’t need to tell you that this landform is manmade.
Created by landfill, the hill is 65 feet above sea level. That statistic doesn’t do justice to its scale. Bearing in mind how flat everything is, the view from the top is impressive, especially early or late in the day.
Another benefit of this elevation is the wind. Vista View Park is a top-notch place to fly a kite or a model airplane.
Additional amenities include an equestrian trail, a fitness facility, a playground, a splash pad, and an area for special events. The park is also a habitat for burrowing owls, which nest here in spring.
14. Cinemark Paradise 24 and XD
My pick of the local movie theaters is a completely unique multiplex that opened in 1999. At the time, Cinemark Paradise 24 and XD was declared one of the most beautiful movie theaters in the country.
Harking back to the movie palaces of old, this place is designed like an Ancient Egyptian temple. Meeting you at the lobby are giant columns, and there are fun Egyptian details throughout.
In the 25+ years since it opened, Cinemark Paradise has been updated several times. When I came, there were two XD screens—essential for big Hollywood blockbusters—and cozy leather recliners throughout.