Closely linked to the Everglades to the south, a visit to southern Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve is a destination all its own, though many visitors don’t realize it is separate from the Everglades National Park. Big Cypress itself covers an impressive 2,400 square miles and encompasses a huge swath of southern Florida east of Miami.
When Congress created the preserve back in 1974 as America’s first National Preserve, it was to protect the fresh water flow to the Everglades and the Ten Thousand Islands before emptying into Florida Bay. Its 729,000 acres are a natural habitat to many species, including the endangered Florida Panther. Here you will find five ecosystems: Hardwood hammocks, open prairies, Cypress domes, Pinelands, and Mangrove Estuaries.
The Welcome Center
Necessary for most any National Park or Preserve, coming to the information center is always a good idea as a first stop. The Welcome Center is located on the western end of the Tamiami Trail, and was built with renewable resources and energy efficiency in mind. Enjoy both indoor and outdoor exhibits and educational displays that will prepare you for the adventures ahead. During the cooler months, manatees frequent the warm canal waters at the back of the facility along the boardwalk.
Observe Wildlife Up Close and Personal
The Preserve is a fascinating swampland ecosystem brimming with exotic local wildlife such as alligators, southern leopard frogs, wild turkeys, snapping turtles, and the elusive Florida Panther. While the Florida Panther has been in endangered status for years, their population is slowly ticking back up, but sightings are rare.
The bird watching is plentiful here, so be sure bring binoculars. With so much ground area in the Preserve, the number of bird species found in the Preserve is staggering.
Explore the Wetlands in a Kayak or Canoe
This is one of the best ways to experience Big Cypress. Explore the myriad of waterways, which include creeks, rivers, and the bay. You can spend hours paddling different routes, so choose wisely depending on how much time you have. Routes range from three to seven hours. Intermediate rowing skills are required as these waters can be tricky in certain places – don’t overestimate your abilities or the natural conditions.
You never know when an incoming tide, a headwind, or the hot Florida sun can make your day in the water difficult. November through March is the ideal paddling time, as the insects and weather conditions are most tolerable and when the water levels drop.
Camping at Big Cypress
What better way to experience a gorgeous national preserve than to sleep out in it under the stars?
There are eight campgrounds to choose from, and any of them may close seasonally, so be sure to check ahead. Reservations for certain campgrounds can be made online. Others are operated only on a first-come, first-served basis, such as Pink Jeep, Mitchell Landing, Gater Head, and Bear Island. Backcountry camping is also available, with the applicable backcountry permits. Speaking of a night under the stars…
Big Cypress is an International Dark Sky Place
The preserve has been recognized by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) as a Dark Sky Place. With the encroachment of urbanization in the eastern U.S., most places make it nearly impossible to clearly view the night sky due to artificial light pollution from our cities and towns. Big Cypress has one of the last protected night skies where people can still enjoy the magnificence of the Milky Way and clearly witness thousands of stars with the naked eye.
Hiking in Big Cypress
Numerous hiking trails are available, and information on them can be found at the visitor’s center. Whether you opt for a solo hike or a ranger-led hike, you will traverse through different areas of a rain-fed ecosystem which can change dramatically through the seasons. During the wet season, be prepared to hike through water, anywhere from a couple of inches all the way up to waist-deep in some areas. It’s all part of the fun.
During either the wet or dry season, hiking offers many rewards – watching an otter eating a fish, feeling the wind rustle through your hair, discovering tropical blooms, or happening upon a bear track.
Off Road Vehicle Adventures
Do as past generations have done and explore the remote terrain that is impossible to reach by foot. In years past, explorers used airboats or swamp buggies (and some still do). But today, an off-road vehicle will do the trick nicely. Designated trails for off-road vehicles are used for hunting, frogging, wildlife observations, camping, and getting to private property. If you adhere to all regulations for off-roading within the Preserve, it is a fantastic way to see areas few people get to experience.
There are two main scenic drives in Big Cypress National Preserve. Passenger vehicles are welcome on both roads; the only requirement is that you take your time and enjoy the scenery. The wildlife is everywhere.
On Loop Road, meander through 27 miles of pristine dwarf cypress forest, along with pine forests, hardwood hammocks, and an unlimited number of photographic opportunities throughout.
Turner River/Wagonwheel/Birdon Roads Loop Drive is a 17-mile excursion through wet prairies and wading bird feeding environments.
Both are off-the-beaten-path journeys that should not be missed.