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February 2001

Florida’s Big Cypress: Wade This Way

In Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve, you'll walk on water -- almost.

When is a trail not a trail? When you need a paddle instead of boots to follow it. Such is the case with the stretch of the Florida Trail that winds through Big Cypress National Preserve. For nearly 6 months each year, the route is underwater. During the peak summer wet season, this tropical wilderness is a primordial soup of swamp, marsh, and sodden prairie.

But then the rain stops, the water drains through the Everglades and into the Gulf of Mexico, and, by winter, the Florida Trail is, once again, a real trail. Follow the path through Big Cypress during this so-called dry season and you’ll experience one of the most unique backpacking adventures in the country. Originally conceived as a 574,000-acre buffer zone to protect Everglades National Park, Big Cypress holds many of the same natural attractions as its famous neighbor, but far fewer visitors.

Even the dry months are damp, I learn soon after beginning my hike. Starting at the Florida Trail’s southern terminus on Loop Road, I head north and begin “swamp slogging” through picturesque saw-grass prairies submerged under a thin layer of water.

The Big Cypress terrain slopes at just 2 inches per mile, creating a fascinating ecosystem where even the slightest variation in elevation can mean the difference between a pine island and a cypress slough. Specially adapted trees grow where others would drown.

The Florida Trail cuts across Big Cypress for 41 soggy miles—it’s slow going despite the near-level grade.

At an island camp in Big Cypress, I sit under tropical gumbo-limbo trees while my boots dry in the sun. It turns out that walking on water is really no big deal after all. You just have to get your feet wet.

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