The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk showcases a wilderness section of the Everglades like no other. The boardwalk penetrates a section of the Fakahatchee Strand, the nation’s orchid capital, which is filled with hundreds of air plants.
Fakahatchee Strand is home to 44 native orchids species and 14 types of native bromeliads. Also growing here are another dozen orchids native to the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere. These exotic plants, blown here as seeds by hurricanes and trade winds, thrive in the strand’s “foreign” environment.
The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk penetrates deep into a swamp still containing examples of a rare virgin old growth bald cypress forest and the only place in the world where bald cypress trees and royal palm trees (native to Cuba) create and share the overhead canopy. Resident and migratory bird life here is outstanding. In addition, otter, black bear, mangrove fox squirrel and the Everglades mink have all been sighted here, so look sharp.
The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk is located 7 miles west of the junction of the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) with State Road 29. The boardwalk is located on the north side of the road in an area called Big Cypress Bend, an easy place to find. A large road sign marks the location at the bend in the road. The parking area is next to a landmark Miccosukee Indian village where the trailhead leads to the boardwalk.
Although the boardwalk is part of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, there is no need to visit the ranger station near Copeland, a good distance away. Boardwalk access is free.
The walk starts at a kiosk with a map and information about the preserve. Follow the dirt access path beside a small Indian settlement not to be mistaken for a tourist attraction. As you walk, keep an eye on the canal to the right where an otter could cruise by at its standard 6 mph. At the end of the access path is a a limestone monument and a plaque stating the area was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1966.
The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk enters the swamp near a large variety of ferns, most notably the giant leather fern. Pickerel weed and alligator flag plants also thrive in the placid water. Numerous interpretive signs provide information about the area’s plants and animals. Don’t touch any of the plants or trees that may drape over the edge of the walkway. You never know when some of the leaves could be poison ivy, no one’s favorite.
You will shortly reach two large cypress trees, closeup remnants of the old growth bald cypress forest. The boardwalk was built in this location because it passes through a small forest of ancient cypress giants spared the ravages of logging. The strangler fig wrapped around these trees is not a vine but a fast growing tree that will eventually kill (“strangle”) them. You will see more strangler figs on the walk.
Hopefully by now you have heard at least one woodpecker, quite possibly the giant pileated woodpecker which may be present anywhere on the walk. A pair of binoculars will help pick it out among the treetops where they peck up to 20 times a second to penetrate the bark of a tree. Bald eagles also nest near the boardwalk. They are most visible during the winter months.
The Fakahatchee Strand also is home to the endangered Florida panther, though the chances of ever seeing one are small. Keep watch for wading birds, turtles and white tail deer. The boardwalk ends at an observation platform overlooking what appears to be a small pond but actually is a large gator hole. Unless the water is high, alligators should be obvious here.
On the return leg of the 2,200-foot boardwalk, look skyward for orchids and air plants. As part of the Fakahatchee swamp, this area has a climate differing from neighboring areas. It is warmer here in winter and cooler in summer, perfect conditions for growing orchids. Particularly the fabled ghost orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii, a snow-white orchid found here and several other parts of South
Florida and Cuba. Unless the flower is in bloom (typically in July), the orchid is unimpressive, appearing like a tangle of roots wrapped around a tree, nothing very special until the summer.
Orchid collectors highly prize the ghost orchid because it has never been successfully raised out of the wild. As a result, orchid poaching has been a serious threat. The book and movie The Orchid Thief document one famous heist of the plants from the Fakahatchee Strand and the 1994 arrests of several orchid poachers. Most of all, it gives a glimpse into the mind of those truly obsessed by orchids.
The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk offers only a small glimpse of the old cypress forest and most people leave still wanting to see more. Plans are underway to add a major expansion with several overlooks that will connect to the existing boardwalk. A new platform and shell trail are expected to border Green Heron Lake. Something to look forward to on a next visit.