Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve

In Big Cypress' land of exotic plants and lurking alligators, swamps aren't such bad places after all.
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In Big Cypress' land of exotic plants and lurking alligators, swamps aren't such bad places after all.

Little Known Fact: The name "Big Cypress" refers not to the size of the trees, but to the size of the 2,400-square-mile swamp.

Shorts or long pants? That familiar hiker's dilemma faced us as we gazed up the portion of the Florida National Scenic Trail that snaked through Big Cypress Swamp. Temperatures in the 70s (it was mid-February) promised a sweat-soaked day. Definitely a shorts day. Then we noticed the razor-sharp edges of the sawgrass crowding the trail. Being hot and sweaty was preferable to being hot and sweaty and bloody, so we donned long pants and followed the orange blazes through Big Cypress National Preserve.

In summer we would have been facing a hard-to-navigate river of grass draining into Everglades National Park to the south. We opted for winter, though, because that's the dry season. White saline patches on the cracked soil marked where the water had evaporated.

The terrain was so open and flat ~ it takes water a full day to flow half a mile ~ that the only objects obstructing our view of the horizon were the cypress balds, two- to five-foot-high dimpled ridges that trap water and help support the luxurious growth. The walking was easy except where the karst limestone poked through the surface.

These formations, which hold South Florida's freshwater supplies in underground aquifers, looked like someone had tried to make sidewalks by burying blocks of Swiss cheese. The rock holes can grab your foot and twist your ankle, especially if water on the trail makes them hard to spot.

In this land without hills, the surroundings can change even when the ground rises or drops only a foot. Our campsite was on a "high island" marked by palms and shrubs. The day before, we'd crossed a strand, or slough, where the land dips, the water concentrates, and the vegetation thickens.

During our wanderings north from Oasis Ranger Station to Seven Mile Camp and beyond, we didn't see a soul, but we did encounter swamp buggy tracks. Big Cypress' "preserve" designation protects its natural values while permitting some of the traditional uses not allowed in national parks, such as hunting and four-wheeling. It's not as bad as it sounds, though. The day before we'd hiked eight miles through a section south of the ranger station that's closed to off-road vehicles. The area was pristine and there was a campsite halfway through.

Contact Information:

Big Cypress National Preserve

HCR 61, Box 110

Ochopee, FL 33943

941/695-4111

Email: BICY_Superintendent@nps.gov

Location:

Big Cypress is located in southern Florida, near Everglades National Park, 30 miles east of Naples and 40 miles west of Miami.

Getting There:

Follow U.S. Route 41 (Taniami Trail) west from Miami or east from Naples.

Seasonal Information:

Winter, with temperatures in the mid-70s, is best. Avoid fall hunting season. Summer can be unbearably hot and wet with temperatures in the upper 90s.

Wildlife:

The deeper water is where the alligators gather during winter months.

The threatened eastern indigo snake breeds in Big Cypress, and there are also many endangered species in the area, including the wood stork, the snail kite, the southern bald eagle, the red-cockaded woodpecker, the artic peregrine falcon, the cape sable seaside sparrow, the West Indian manatee, and the Florida panther.

Black bears claw crayfish from the sloughs or rip cabbage palmetto apart for its soft fruits.

Insects:

There are always mosquitoes in Florida, even in winter months, and chiggers (redbugs) and yellow flies can also cause discomfort. Also, be aware of ticks. Insects are most active during the months of June, July, and August.

Plant Life:

Spaced at regular intervals are odd-looking cypress trees with small branches and flared, bulbous trunks that help the tree survive in conditions that would drown an ordinary tree. The base of each tree is etched with water-level lines from different seasons and years. Some giant cypress trees survived earlier fates as gutters, coffins, stadium seats, pickle barrels, and the hulls of PT boats to grow to 700 years old.

Each tree holds what at first looks like an eagle's nest, but they are really airplants -- bromeliads and orchids -- growing in the crotches of branches, drawing support from the trees and sustenance from the air. Their red blooms add color to the trail.

"High islands" are populated with slash pine, royal palms, and an impenetrable shrub called saw palmetto.

Facilities:

There are eight primitive campground, seven of which are free (Bear Island, Midway, Burns Lake, Monument, Loop Road, Pinecrest, and Mitchell's Landing). These campgrounds have no water or restroom facilities.

A dump station is available at Dona Drive Campground for $4 per vehicle. Dona Drive Campground also has a potable water supply and nine campsites with picnic tables. This campground charges $4 per night.

The visitor center is located on the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) approximately halfway between Miami and Naples. It is open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except on December 25. The visitor center offers exhibits, a bookstore, and staff to answer questions. There is also a 15-minute movie about the wildlife, water, and seasonal changes of Big Cypress.

Parking:

If accessing trail from 41, park free at visitor center. If accessing from Loop Road, park along road by trailhead.

Permits:

Permits are only needed for use of off-road vehicles in the backcountry; they are $35 per year. Check in at Oasis Ranger Station to arrange to leave a vehicle.

Policies:

  • The trail north of the preserve crosses private land and is open only to Florida Trail Association members.
  • Campfires are allowed.

Hazards:

  • Poison ivy, poison wood, and snakes are common.
  • Bring bug repellent.

Leave No Trace:

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

The Big Cypress brochure shows the trails north of Oasis Ranger Station but doesn't show the trail to the south.

A detailed trail description is available from:

Florida Trail Association

Box 13708

Gainesville, FL 32604

800/343-1882 or 352/378-8823.

Other Trip Options:

  • Big Cypress is practically on top of Everglades National Park (305/242-7700).
  • Collier Seminole State Park is 40 miles west.
  • A half-mile boardwalk through a cypress strand and a scenic drive are located in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve which shares the western border of Big Cypress.
  • And the Florida National Scenic Trail starts its northern journey in Big Cypress.