Big Cypress National Preserve

Big Cypress National Preserve
Big Cypress National Preserve Sunset
Big Cypress National Preserve
Big Cypress National Preserve
Big Cypress National Preserve

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Big Cypress National Preserve

By: Mercedes Diaz | Dec 19, 2019

Exploring Big Cypress National Preserve

Behold towering cypress strands, miles of serene waterways, and an abundance of wildlife in this remarkable Everglades wilderness. With its exuberant diversity of flora and fauna, Big Cypress National Preserve is a magnet for budding naturalists, outdoors enthusiasts and lovers of the wild and untamed.

Covering an area larger than the state of Rhode Island, Big Cypress National Preserve protects 729,000 acres that border Everglades National Park to the south and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park to the west. Its swampy terrain is comprised of five interdependent ecosystems where predominant cypress forests, speckled with pine uplands and hardwood hammocks, give way to stretches of wet prairie and mangrove estuaries.

If you’re seeking to encounter wildlife, Big Cypress boasts a plethora of animals including some that are threatened or endangered. The Florida panther, one of the most elusive as well as endangered mammals, makes its home at the preserve along with alligators, black bears, white-tailed deer, and over 200 species of birds. Fascinated by reptiles? Of its 51 species of reptiles, 28 are snakes including the Florida scarlet snake, pigmy rattlesnake and Florida cottonmouth.

When to Visit

Timing your visit to Big Cypress depends on which activities you most enjoy and your comfort level with challenging outdoor conditions. The dry season, from mid-November to April, is an ideal time to head out and explore. Water levels are receding from trail areas, migratory birds are abundant, mosquito populations are at their lowest and ranger-led programs have resumed. With the milder weather and receding water levels, there are more opportunities for hiking, canoeing and camping. Canoeing becomes less of an option towards the tail end of the dry season as the water levels reach their lowest point.

Dramatic storm clouds over the prairie, native wildflowers (including orchids!) in bloom and the return of greenery to deciduous cypress trees are some of the things to look forward to during the wet season. With rising water levels, canoeing is back on the table; however, swampier areas of hiking trails will require chest high wading. If you’re uncomfortable with buggy conditions, mosquitoes and biting flies become considerably more of a bother during the steamy wet season. And finally, aside from the most intrepid hikers and outdoorsmen, you won't encounter crowds.

Plan Your Trip

Located on Tamiami Trail, the entry point to Big Cypress National Preserve is approximately 45 miles from Downtown Miami. There isn’t an entrance gate so once you pass the welcome sign you’re in the preserve.

Getting around Big Cypress is pretty straightforward. Tamiami Trail, aka US Highway 41, is the main thoroughfare running right through the park from east to west. Aside from backcountry areas, all front country campgrounds, visitor’s centers and roadside parks in Big Cypress are accessed from Tamiami Trail. Wildlife viewing is abundant along the way, however road shoulders are narrow in certain areas and traffic tends to speed through so frequent stops are not advised.

First time in the preserve? Stop at the Oasis Visitor Center for tips from knowledgeable park staff as well as an introductory park film, small interpretive exhibit and an NPS book-cum-souvenir store. Before you leave, stroll onto the wildlife observation deck overlooking the canal, a hot spot for alligators, gar, and wading birds. If you’re planning to hike the Florida National Scenic Trail, the Oasis Visitor Center marks the southern trailhead.

On the west end of the park, the Big Cypress Welcome Center is the furthest of the two visitors centers. Similar to Oasis, it features indoor and outdoor interpretive exhibits, a film and a short boardwalk where you can observe wildlife.

If you wish to familiarize yourself with the preserve beforehand, check out the National Park Service site for a park map.

Guided Tours

Hiking through the cypress swamp while learning about its plant and animal denizens is a memorable experience with ranger led discovery hikes. Trail locations rotate regularly so you can take the tour more than once and explore a different park trail each time. More of a paddler than a hiker? Join a ranger-led canoe excursion to paddle through Turner River’s diverse habitats - from epiphyte covered cypress strands on the northern stretch to mangrove tunnels and prairies south of Tamiami Trail. Check the park's website for a list of monthly offerings, and reserve a spot by calling the Oasis Visitors Center.

Interested in a swamp buggy tour? From a naturalist-led biking adventure to a swamp buggy ride and Gladesman-led swamp walk, the Big Cypress Institute offers a diverse selection of tours. For a unique experience on Turner River, opt for Everglades Adventure Tours’ guided pole boat eco-tour where you’ll glide peacefully on a traditional Gladesman pole boat manned by one of their knowledgeable guides.

Scenic Drives

If you prefer to explore from the comfort of your car, consider a leisurely drive on one of Big Cypress’ byways.

Approximately 40 miles west of Miami, Tamiami Trail’s 40 Mile Bend marks the turnoff to Loop Road - a scenic 27 mile dirt road (for the most part) that shows off the preserve’s dwarf cypress forests, deep cypress strands and pine lands. Along the way, you’ll pass through the remnants of the once booming town of Pinecrest. Planning to bring your camera along for wildlife shots? Don’t be surprised to find alligators sunning themselves on the side of the road. Pull off at the culverts to see wood storks, great white egrets and more alligators amidst the cypresses.

Birders and wildlife photographers in the know head to the 17-mile Turner River scenic drive loop. Along Turner River Road, the shallow adjacent canal, rich with fish, amphibians and reptiles, is a magnet for predators like the anhinga and a myriad of wading birds. An alligator or two at intervals along the canal banks and shallows are also a common sight. The entire loop is on rough terrain so the ride tends to be dusty.

Walks and Hikes

Whether you're in the mood for a casual nature walk or day hike, Big Cypress offers a variety of trail options for those who crave some wilderness therapy.

Along Tamiami Trail, you can stop to stretch your legs as well as view wildlife at the preserve's two roadside parks. Pull over at Kirby Storter Roadside Park for a mile-long boardwalk trail leading into a mature cypress strand hosting strangler figs and tillandsias. At the trail's terminus point, there's a gator hole where you can observe the strand's feathered and reptilian residents. Further west on Tamiami Trail, you'll find HP Williams Roadside Park where a short boardwalk along the edge of Turner River Road canal offers views of a dense cypress forest and wildlife that may include alligators, turtles and wading birds.

Planning a day hike? Starting at the Loop Road trailhead, Gator Hook Trail's 4.75 round-trip miles can be traversed on a day's outing. The trail crosses through prairie, cypress strands and dense hammocks dotted with pond apple trees. Mostly underwater during the wetter months, the trail poses a few challenges during the dry season like deep mud, solution holes and cypress knees small enough to trip the unwary.

While you might not be up for trekking the entire more than 36-mile stretch of the Florida National Scenic Trail within Big Cypress, you can do just a few miles starting at the Oasis Visitors Center or from Mile Marker 63 off I-75. Before setting out on your hike, be sure to fill out a required backcountry permit at the trailhead.

Biking Trails

If you prefer to cover ground on bike, the park’s off-road vehicle trails double as biking trails. Riding conditions are rough and muddy in areas so a mountain bike or hybrid with knobby tires is recommended. For an easy 4.5-mile round-trip ride, pedal through Fire Prairie Trail, where once you emerge from a short stretch of forest you’ll have views of sawgrass prairie for the rest of the trail until you turn back. Want to take a stab at backcountry trails? Traverse pinelands and forest hammocks as you make your way through Bear Island’s 20 miles of off-road vehicle trails. From assorted reptiles on the road shoulder to wild turkeys and maybe even a bear, there’s the added perk of running into wildlife along the way. Hunting is allowed in the Bear Island area so high visibility clothing is recommended during hunting season.

Paddling

With its miles of meandering waterways, Big Cypress is an ideal place to explore from the seat of a canoe or kayak. Two of the park’s popular canoe trails, Turner River and Halfway Creek, traverse a variety of terrains ranging from cypress strands to mangrove estuaries and sawgrass prairie. Those seeking to canoe amidst towering cypress strands and tight mangrove tunnels in one trip, should opt for Turner River. Need to rent a canoe or kayak? Canoe and kayak rentals can be arranged for half day and full day use at Everglades Adventures Tours, located just a half mile west of the Turner River canoe launch on Tamiami Trail. For your convenience, canoe and kayak shuttle services are included to both Turner River and Halfway Creek launch areas.

Stargazing

Not only is Big Cypress an outdoorsman’s paradise during the day but it’s also an epic stargazing park at night. Since 2016, Big Cypress has been a designated International Dark Sky Reserve making it the only protected night sky in South Florida where the awe-inspiring Milky Way can be witnessed with the naked eye. Enjoy this unique experience by joining a ranger-led night sky outing that features a narrated stargazing tour and a telescope to peer at the night sky’s faraway galaxies, stars and planets.

Camping

At Big Cypress, there are camping options to fit any style. The park has eight campgrounds, four of which are first-come, first-served. Looking for family-friendly car camping or brought along the RV? Monument Lake Campground offers 36 sites ranging from tent camping (car parking included) to RVs. Its close proximity to Oasis Visitors Center and convenient location right off Tamiami Trail makes it a popular camping spot.

Looking for a more secluded location? Pitch your tent amidst sable palms on the edge of scenic pine uplands at Bear Island Campground. Located deep in the northwest corner of the park, Bear Island is a backcountry primitive campsite that also offers parking for cars and RVs. Hiking in for the night? Just a short 3-mile hike from Bear Island Campground, Pink Jeep and Gator Head campgrounds are accessible only by foot, bike or permitted ORVs (off-road vehicles). If you’re looking to lose yourself in nature on the Florida National Scenic Trail, you can choose from marked primitive backcountry campsites along the way or pitch your tent anywhere on high ground.

Prefer to connect with the outdoors in comfort? Consider staying a few nights in one of the decked-out chickee huts at the privately owned Trail Lakes Campground.

Hunting and Off-Road Vehicles

Unlike Everglades National Park, hunting and off-road vehicle use are allowed in Big Cypress with an appropriate license or permit. Given that the majority of species within the preserve are protected by law, hunting is restricted to a select few such as deer, turkey, and wild hog, and only within designated game management areas during specific seasons as specified by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. If you plan on hiking or biking in backcountry wildlife management areas during hunting season, it’s advisable to wear high visibility apparel.

Big Cypress National Preserve Visitor Info

Big Cypress National Preserve is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Park staff at both the Oasis Visitors Center and the Big Cypress Welcome Center are available between the hours of 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day of the year except for December 25.

Read More:

RV's and Camping in Miami
Explore Nature, Parks & Gardens In Miami
Getting to the Everglades from Miami
Miami's Best Walking and Hiking Trails

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