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The water is cool against my calves and shockingly clear, reflecting the tangle of cypress roots, pond apples, and Jamaican dogwoods above. But I don’t have time to stop and stare—I need to make miles. I average roughly a mile per hour in the wet segments of this 31.3-mile section of the Florida National Scenic Trail, and today the path has been mostly underwater. I wade through Big Cypress Swamp until dusk before looking for a dry patch. When I finally spot a mound of soil that peeks just above the coffee-colored, tannic drink, I sling my hammock. It’s unusual to camp so close to the water’s surface, a feeling that catches an edge as the night sucks the colors out of the day.
Start hiking the Florida National Scenic Trail from the Oasis Visitor Center. Follow it 9.7 miles north through sawgrass prairies and pine flats to 10 Mile Camp.
Campsite 1: 10 Mile Camp (mile 9.7)
The easy (dry) miles leading to this spacious camp are a perfect warm up for the swamp. Find this trailside, spot (first-come, first-serve) tucked in a pine grove. Top off water in the nearby cypress-filled swamp. (Prefilter through a handkerchief if it’s muddy.)
Campsite 2: Oak Hill Camp (mile 23)
After leaving 10 Mile Camp, continue 13.3 miles north beneath stands of cypress and through calf-deep water to Oak Hill Camp. Set up camp on this forested bump that rises just inches above the water. The smallest campsite in Big Cypress, it can fit only a handful of tents (first-come, first-serve). Warning: It can be buggy here before the first hard freeze. Mesh netting recommended.
After Oak Hill, alternate hiking on dry land and wading through water to mile 30.2, where an unnamed, gravel doubletrack crosses the trail. Turn north (hiker’s left) on the doubletrack and follow it 1.2 miles to the trailhead on I-75.
The first half of this route passes through tall, thick sawgrass, a sedge plant with blades edged with tiny, sharp teeth. (Wear pants and long sleeves.) In the latter half of this route, look for swamp natives like airplants, which grow on the trunks and branches of cypress trees. The cardinal airplant (Big Cypress’s largest) provides a pop of red amid the swamp’s greenery.
Look for alligators and water moccasins near the trail (give each a wide berth). Elusive Florida panthers and black bears also call this preserve home.
Shuttle car 26.167941, -81.072347; 43 miles west of Andytown on I-75 (no commercial shuttles)
Trailhead 25.857384, -81.033544; 1 hour 15 minutes south of the shuttle car on US 41. Season November through March Permit Required (free); register at the trailhead Custom map ($15)