Exploring Big Cypress National Preserve

Photo by Timothy O'Keefe

A day of nature walks and touring in Big Cypress National Preserve

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The 729,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve, located about 10 miles west of Shark Valley, protects some 2,400 square miles of Florida Everglades‘ subtropical wilderness. Anyone driving from the Shark Valley to the Gulf Coast Visitor Centers of the Everglades National Park has to drive right through the preserve.  The natural thing to do is stop for a few hours and explore Big Cypress National Preserve.

Exploring Big Cypress National Preserve

Depending on the time of year, you have several ways for exploring Big Cypress National Preserve.

From late November to early April, free ranger-led tours include boardwalk strolls, guided hikes, and canoe trips. Times for the scheduled  activities are posted in the visitor centers and can be accessed by phone (239/695-4758) and through the online events calendar which is live only during the winter season.

Another possibility is joining an approved tour company for kayak, swamp buggy and other tours. If you want to go off-roading, a guided tour is the easiest way to arrange it. Some are offered year-round, although most operate only during the winter.

Or simply plan your own activities such as boardwalk strolls, exploring one of the scenic drives shown one on this map or wading into the Big Cypress swamp into unknown territory.

Whatever you do, check your gas gauge. You want to start the day with at least a half tank. Gas stations are few and far between.

To stay overnight, book a Big Cypress campsite or a motel in Everglades City. Advance reservations needed for both from mid-December to the end of March.

Boardwalk Strolls

The Kirby Storter Roadside Park, 8 miles west of the Big Cypress Oasis Visitor Center, is not very appealing at first look since it seems to meander only over open sawgrass fully exposed to the Florida sun. But that is only at the beginning of the boardwalk. It quickly enters one of South Florida’s more photogenic cypress swamps whose inhabitants include songbirds, gators and deer. This site is outstanding regardless of the sun’s angle, including mid-day, when the sunlight manages to filter through the thick tree canopy to illuminates a series of small, open spaces. At sunset, immerse yourself in the mysterious night sounds of the Everglades from the boardwalk.

H. P. Williams Roadside Park  offers a short boardwalk on the banks of the fast-flowing Turner River. A stand of tall cypress trees across the river often has a variety of wading birds as well as anhinga and osprey roosting on the branches. The  largest number of  birds are present in in early morning and late afternoon. At mid-day, they move deeper into the cypress swamp. Afternoon sunlight shines most directly on them and the trees.

Interpretive Walk

Deep Lake Interpretive Walk is a half-mile dry walk leading to one of South Florida’s five naturally occurring sinkhole lakes. Located on State Road 29, which also leads to Everglades City, the trailhead is 8 miles north of U.S. 41 and 9 miles south of Interstate 75. A fence and chain link gate may seem unwelcoming but they are intended to help with wildlife management.

To access the interpretive path, open and walk through the gate; be sure to close it after you. The trail moves through a hardwood hammock before reaching a cypress stand and ending at 300-foot wide Deep Lake. Bottoming out at more than 95 feet, the lake is considered the deepest in all South Florida. Numerous alligators may congregate here during the dry season.

Backcountry Hiking

Big Cypress Preserve hiking trails are of two types: designated marked trails and unmarked wilderness walks where you forge out on your own. In any season, sections of these walks will be wet and the water may reach waist high or higher. The dry season, understandably, is the most popular hiking period. Select a wet area, and you probably will be walking in a swamp on your own.

The unofficial start of the 1,400-mile long Florida National Scenic Trail starts at Loop Road which is located 10.1 miles from its west end on Highway 41. Marked with blue blazes, the 7.8 mile walk ends at the Oasis Visitor Center. Unless someone is meeting you on Loop Road, you might want to start from the visitor center and then walk back to it to savor the air conditioning. Either way, it is a long round-trip distance of more than 15 miles. The Florida Trail officially starts at the visitor center and goes to I-75.

Cycling in Big Cypress

Bicycling is limited to certain areas, all of them remote, where drinking water is at a premium. Yet staying hydrated is essential for Florida cycling, so plan accordingly. Cycling in this region demands a cyclist be self-sufficient, able to fix their own flats and maintain their bikes. It is a long drive to the Miami area to find a repair shop. As Big Cypress cycling guidelines point out, any encounter with a wild animal should be respectful and taking unnecessary risks is unwise. Rangers suggest you act as though you were on foot. They point out “You cannot run faster than a bear, and you cannot cycle faster than a bear.”

Big Cypress Loop Road Scenic Drive

Loop Road is one of the most convenient ways to explore two dozen miles of mostly backcountry with a variety of landscapes. Loop Road highlights include Sweetwater Strand with impressively large cypress, a deep culvert where fish congregate during the dry season and Tree Snail Hammock Trail, a short forest path leading to a good population of Florida’s endemic tree snails known for their colorful shells.

Loop Road passes through the historic town of Pinecrest, its most famous sites now largely in ruins. Gangster Al Capone is rumored to have had a home, hotel, and a brothel in Pinecrest. The town also was the location of the notorious “Gator Hook Lodge” in business from the late 1920s to the 1970s. It was the hangout of fiddle-player Ervin Rouse, famous for writing the bluegrass standard “The Orange Blossom Special.” The Gator Hook Lodge, too,  now only is a memory.

After a heavy rain, Loop Road may become messy  and possibly require backtracking to the beginning unless you have a four-wheel drive vehicle. Also known as County Road 94, this 24-mile gravel Loop Road was planned as part of the Tamiami Trail highway. Political pressure moved the route farther north to its current location.  This severely impacted local ventures built in anticipation of Loop Road becoming part of the Tamiami Trail. Today Loop Road is mostly forgotten, which is why the area around it is home to alligators, birds, otters, deer and even the rarely seen Florida panther.

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