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.
DRIVE TIME: Big Cypress is in South Florida, about 55 miles west of Miami and 40 miles east of Naples.
THE WAY: From Miami, take US 41 west 55 miles to the Big Cypress National Preserve Visitor Center. The Florida Trail passes right by the visitor center. Its Big Cypress southern trailhead is on Loop Road and the northern, on I-75 (Alligator Alley).
TRAILS: The Florida Trail-which, when completed, will stretch 1,100 miles to Florida's western panhandle-runs through Big Cypress for 41 miles. A 9-mile segment lies south of US 41, and 32 miles lie north of it. On the Florida Trail Association's Big Cypress National Preserve map (see Guides below), the trails marked to the west of the Florida Trail (known as the Blue Loop) are in disrepair and have been abandoned by hikers.
ELEVATION: Just above sea level. Contact the preserve about water levels before you go.
CAN'T MISS: Camping on a pine island in the midst of a sea of saw grass.
CROWD CONTROL: The Florida Trail is rarely crowded, though the busiest times are February and March weekends. The best hiking is from January to April, when temperatures are cooler, bugs are fewer, and water levels the lowest.
GUIDES: The Hiking Guide to the Florida Trail ($5), laminated maps Big Cypress North and Big Cypress South ($2.50), and maps are available from the Florida Trail Association, (800) 343-1882; www.florida-trail.org.
WALK SOFTLY: Even when the trail goes through the deepest part of the swamp, do not cut new paths in the saw grass or through cypress domes.
CONTACT: Big Cypress National Preserve, (941) 695-4111; www.nps.gov/bicy.