Big Cypress National Preserve, the Everglades’ wild neighbor, comprises of 729,000 acres. Because of this freshwater swamp’s importance as a watershed to the Everglades, it was designated a national preserve in 1974.
What’s the Difference Between National Parks and National Preserves?
National parks are generally a large area of land that has been protected to preserve its natural resources or historical features. The regulations of what is acceptable in a national park are much more stringent than what can be done within national preserves.
National preserves allow certain activities that may take place according to the topography of the land such as fishing, hunting, oil or gas extraction. The activities chosen to take place within a preserve cannot jeopardize the natural resources of that particular land.
The Weather at Big Cypress National Preserve
Just like its neighbor, the Everglades, Big Cypress maintains a dry and wet season. November – April is dry season with temperatures ranging from a high of 80 to lows in the mid-40’s – in other words, a Florida winter paradise.
Hours of Operation and Entry Fees
Big Cypress National Preserve is open 7/days/week, 24 hours a day. The park entrance is always open, and Big Cypress does not charge an entry fee.
Visitor Centers in Big Cypress National Preserve
You’ll find two visitor centers located here. Big Cypress Swamp Visitor Center welcomes you to the Preserve’s west-side entrance, just 2 miles east on Tamiami Trail (Hwy. 41) and the SR 29 intersection (look for the flashing signal). You’ll find indoor and outdoor exhibits as well as printed material, and a film detailing stories of the swamp and recreational activities available.
The Oasis Visitor Center is located approximately 20 miles east on Tamiami Trail. This center is larger and provides items for sale, brochures, indoor exhibits and an introductory film about the Preserve. There you’ll find a boardwalk and perhaps your first glimpse of alligators in their natural habitat. These alligators are not enclosed, having free-will to come and go as they please. The narrow waterway beneath the boardwalk connects with other waters and swamps within the Preserve.
Campgrounds in Big Cypress National Preserve
Several backcountry campgrounds are located throughout the Preserve, however, the most popular campground with RVers is Midway. Midway Campground, located just east of the Oasis Visitor Center, consists of a large oval loop with 26 RV sites plus an additional 10 sites for tents. Each large, paved RV site has an electric hookup, picnic table and fire ring. Potable water is available at the entrance in order to fill your fresh water tank. A dump station is also on-site.
Midway is open year-round. You’ll only find camp hosts here November through April each year. January – April, sites can be reserved for a maximum of 10 days or 14 days for the remainder of the year. The campground loop surrounds a lake giving each site a waterfront view. There is one modern restroom, however, there are no showers.
Reservations can be made 6 months in advance to the date of your arrival at www.recreation.gov and a 50% discount is provided with your America the Beautiful Pass. This is a well-maintained, peaceful campground right in the heart of Big Cypress.
Another front-country campground, Monument Lake, located just west of the Oasis Visitor Center, is open September through April 15th each year. Frequented by RVs, there are 26 sites available, but there are no hookups. Potable water and a dump station are available, and generators are allowed between 6 am and 10 pm daily. There’s also a modern restroom, however, no showers. Reservations can be made in the same manner as Midway.
Do not expect Wi-fi within Big Cypress. Midway has no cell service, however, cell service “may” be available in Monument Lake due to a few cell towers in the vicinity.
Stargazing at Big Cypress National Preserve
Big Cypress has been designated an International Dark Sky Place. It was the first national park/preserve east of Colorado to be given this title. If camping within Big Cypress, it is asked that any outside lights be turned off in the evening. It’s an awesome place to catch the show of stars that dance through the skies during yearly cosmic events, and during a full moon, the sky will seem amazingly bright. Check the visitor centers for any stargazing ranger-led programs.
Tours, Adventures and More!
Big Cypress, while more manageable to see and not the magnitude of the Everglades, provides an abundance of sights, sounds and adventures. Nature enthusiasts will not be disappointed.
- Several commercial operators, permitted by the Preserve, conduct tours throughout Big Cypress. This list of providers, as shown on Big Cypress Swamp Visitor Center’s page, is an overview of tours given, as well as the operators who also venture into Everglades NP. https://www.nps.gov/bicy/learn/management/permitted-commercial-operators.htm.
- Big Cypress Institute partners with the Florida National Parks Association and Big Cypress National Preserve. Their mission is to educate and inspire visitors to become stewards of our environment. They provide many programs and tours, such as the Big Cypress Swamp Hike, Biking Among the Big Cypress, Beginner Birding, Cypress Walk, Swamp Buggy and Hiking in the Fakahatchee Preserve. Most include a naturalist or park ranger to answer any questions and provide in-depth information into the Big Cypress environment. Please check their website at https://www.bigcypressinstitute.org/tours/.
- There are 4 to 5 excellent paddling adventures to be had within Big Cypress. If you do not have your own canoe or kayak, inquire at the visitor center regarding rentals. The paddling trips will range from 3.5 to 10 miles in length.
- Off-road vehicle (OTV) operators can obtain permits at Oasis Visitor Center to drive their vehicles within particular areas of the Preserve. Vehicle inspection and an operator course are required.
- Aside from 200 miles of backcountry hiking trails, four traditional-type trails can be found in the Preserve. Deep Lake, a 1-mile RT hike to its beautiful namesake; Gator Hook, a 4.75-mile RT, can get your feet wet even in the dry season; Fire Prairie’s 5.2-mile RT trail is open to hikers and bikers but should be done only during the dry season; and a 6.2-mile loop portion of the Florida Trail won’t disappoint those wishing to see some wildlife. For maps or information, inquire at the Oasis Visitor Center.
- H.P. Williams Roadside Park is a small park named for the gentleman responsible for construction of Tamiami Trail in the 1920s. The 650’ boardwalk sits on the Turner River (a great kayak/canoe paddle) and provides a wonderful overview of wildlife found in Big Cypress.
- Kirby Storter Roadside Park, provides a shaded picnic area, vault toilets and a 1-mile RT boardwalk taking you from a sawgrass prairie into a cypress swamp. The boardwalk ends at a pond dug out by gators to assure a deep-water source during dry seasons. It also provides a watering hole for wildlife.
- Two scenic drives allow you the enjoyment of nature right from your vehicle. Loop Road, a 24-mile drive (starting at Kirby Storter Park) travels through cypress trees, pine forest and deep strands. There are a few “swamp walk” trails located off Loop Road. If you wish to explore, be prepared to first, obtain a permit from the visitor center and secondly, get wet.
At Mile 15.6, the Tree Snail Hammock Trail is a hardwood hammock where native tree snails can be found. It’s short ¼ mile hike into the hammock. These snails show off their beautiful shells with colored striping. They are delicate so never remove the snails. Due to the nature and habitat of these snails, removing one when attached to a tree could kill the snail. Take photos galore, but leave them be in this shaded haven.
You’ll then drive through Pinecrest, all 1.5 miles of it. That’s what is left of the town where gangster, Al Capone, once had a home. It was a rough and rowdy place in the 1920s with a population of 400. You’ll still see private property with a few residences. Mile 21.9 to 23.9 brings you to homes belonging to tribal leaders of the Miccosukee Indians. They are a private people, please be respectful. Other Miccosukee are scattered throughout Big Cypress Preserve in Indian Villages (some of which you can visit), while the Seminole Indians live in the Everglades.
You’re certainly welcome to get out of your car on Loop Road to experience the myriad of air plants, scenery and even for a closer look at native birds or alligators. A map and details on Loop Road are found at https://www.nps.gov/bicy/planyourvisit/upload/BICY-Loop-Road-Scenic-Road-FINAL-4.pdf.
- Turner River Loop Road begins at H.P. Williams Roadside Park and ends 16.5 miles later at Big Cypress Swamp Visitor Center. This scenic drive introduces much of the wildlife you’ll find living along the canals and swamp on Turner River Loop. You’ll observe the impressive cypress trees that lose their leaves during dry season making for easier viewing of what lies beyond. Cypress trees can live for hundreds of years and love water.
Travel further down the road to the sawgrass prairie that stretches as far as the eye can see and is habitat for much of the land loving creatures. The Cabbage Palms there can reach heights of 80 feet and happen to be the Florida State tree. Perhaps not the lush trees that many prefer for a state tree, but it gains redemption in being a useful tree. Native American Indians used these palm fronds to thatch roofs for their dwellings, and hearts of palm (aka swamp cabbage) is a delicacy still enjoyed today. LaBelle, FL, 80 miles north of Big Cypress, hosts a Swamp Cabbage Festival every February. It’s the highlight of the year and draws in quite a crowd. https://www.nps.gov/bicy/planyourvisit/upload/BICY-Turner-River-Loop-Scenic-Road-FINAL_II.pdf.
- Ochopee (O-chop-ee), was once a small unincorporated farming town in the 1920’s. Big Cypress Swamp National Preserve now finds its headquarters as being part of that town. One of the most intriguing historical sites in Ochopee is the smallest post office in the United States. Three miles east of SR 29 and Hwy. 41 sits the tiny shed-like building with its own historical marker. It was converted to a post office in 1953 when Ochopee’s original post office was destroyed by fire. It’s a fully functioning post office with one on-site employee. It serves a three-county area plus the population of Miccosukee and Seminole Native Americans. Stop by for a photo opp, or mail a post card stamped with the “smallest post office” postmark.
- Clyde Butcher, who was inspired by Ansel Adams, began exhibiting his B&W photography in 1970. By the 1980s and then living in South Florida, he became fully immersed in the beauty of Big Cypress Swamp. One of his galleries is located on Hwy 41 in the middle of the Preserve. While Butcher has photographed pristine landscapes across the U.S., he is best known for his love of the Everglades and Big Cypress.
His gallery showcases a collection of his finest black & white photography as well as artistic works by other South Florida artists. Photographs, books, notecards, calendars and t-shirts are available for purchase.
- A Big Cypress Swamp Walk or the Photo Safari Swamp Walk are also offered through the gallery. This 2- and 3-hour tour takes you into the world as Clyde Butcher sees the swamp’s flora and fauna. Your guide will point out orchids, bromeliads, native birds and other swamp-loving creatures. It may not be a walk in the park, but will certainly be the thrill of a lifetime. https://clydebutcher.com/big-cypress/swamp-walks/.
- As noted earlier, some activities are allowed within national preserves that are not otherwise allowed in national parks. One of those is hunting. The game hunted in this Preserve are white-tailed deer, hogs and turkeys. Alligator hunting is not allowed. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission manages hunting seasons within Big Cypress. There are also special permitted hunts scheduled for elimination of the non-native Burmese python. Information can be found at www.myfwc.com.
- Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is a Florida state park, located just 11 miles from Big Cypress. This 75,000-acre park is the largest within Florida’s state park system. The wilderness of the land is truly one to experience. The park manages a 2,500’ boardwalk located on Hwy 41 within Big Cypress giving visitors an opportunity to understand the importance of a strand and what it is. The park itself boasts more native orchid species living here than anywhere else on the continent. The rich diversity of plants and wildlife make this park one of special characteristics.
A 6-mile car ride on one of the park’s roads ends at a hiking trail. You can park there and extend your adventure by hiking another 2 miles (one-way) which ends at an old 1957 hunting cabin on the open waters that is still privately owned by the original family. Park visitors have permission to look around and explore the surroundings. You won’t want to go too far onto the point of land beyond the cabin as it’s frequented often by some healthy-looking alligators. On your hike you’ll enjoy beautiful views of tall Royal palms and a chance to cross paths with local wildlife. If you spot any critters, the park asks that you stop on your way out to report your findings. This helps the ranger and volunteers keep up with wildlife counts on a daily basis.
- Six miles from Big Cypress Swamp Visitor Center, is Everglades City (south on SR 29). In this small fishing community, you’ll find a grocery store, a gas station or two, a few restaurants and a hardware store. If you’re needing supplies, this is the place. Places do close up early, however. Everglades City also has a museum, free of charge, that provides a wealth of knowledge on how this remote part of Florida came to be, the history of its Indians and some interesting photos showing hurricanes it has endured. The Gulf Coast Visitor Center (part of the Everglades National Park) is also located in Everglades City and is the gateway to Ten Thousand Island Wildlife Refuge. See our Everglades National Park article for more information.
Wildlife and Your Pets
In this part of South Florida, it’s obvious why pets are not allowed on trails or near water. They are allowed in front-country campgrounds and picnic areas. If brought with you to a visitor center, someone must remain outside with your pet.
Big Cypress is home to many mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians. You can witness otters, black bear, bobcats or a variety of birds taking flight over sawgrasses and open prairies.
Alligators seem to be of interest to most Florida visitors. You won’t have to go far to find them in Big Cypress. Keep a lookout anytime you are near the water’s edge. While they look quite lazy, gators can move fast and even run for short distances on land. Keep a safe distance, and you’ll both be happy. Remember: Never feed an alligator. This causes the gator to lose its fear of humans and can actually cause a gator to attack. Any alligator losing its fear of humans must be euthanized.
Big Cypress is for the birds – really. Anywhere there’s water, you’re bound to see birds, and quite a variety. An anhinga is completely entertaining in its ability to swim underwater and pop up with a fish in its beak. Herons, ibis, egrets and striking water birds are everywhere. The Preserve is also home to eagles, osprey, owls and hawks, to name a few.
Four venomous snakes can be found here – pigmy rattlesnakes, diamondback rattlesnakes, water moccasins and coral snakes. While highly unlikely you’ll come in contact with any, just watch your footing when hiking. There are several non-venomous snakes as well that may be found warming up in the sun along a trail.
Another snake you’re not likely to run into is the Burmese python. Sadly, the non-native snake is wreaking havoc on this tropical ecosystem where they’ve adapted quite well. Due to accidental and intentional release of snakes in this area, eliminating the python is of utmost concern. It is eating native wildlife, such a raccoons, rabbits, bird and alligator eggs and have been known to even eat deer. They are multiplying at a faster rate than what the NPS can control. Scientists and naturalists are finding ways to hunt down females and their nests. When found, many male pythons are tagged with a surgically implanted radio transmitter. In this way, they are constantly tracked and will lead scientists to the female’s nest. In the last six years, 500 pythons have been found and eliminated through tracking devices. One female was found with a nest of 73 eggs! It’s a sad plight for Big Cypress and the Everglades, and a thankless job by those giving their time and effort to this cause but their determination is the only hope for python control. Hunting seasons are also scheduled in Big Cypress. Anyone looking for a challenging hunt should contact the park service for information on obtaining a permit. See our Everglades National Park article for more on the Burmese python.
Due to the topography of uplands habit, the Florida Panther (a puma species) makes its home in Big Cypress as well as the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge. At one time it was estimated that only 30 Florida panthers were left in the wild leaving them genetically stressed due to inbreeding. Biologists introduced 8 pumas from Texas into Florida Panther territory. Genetic diversity tripled! The program has been a great success and through protection progress, education and acquisition of 50,700 acres for the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge, their numbers have increased to an estimated 120 – 230 panthers. Nighttime speed limits are set at 45 mph in all known panther crossing areas in an effort to help their mortality. Humans and their vehicles are now the biggest endangerment to these majestic wild cats. Please do your part to help when visiting this area. See our Everglades National Park article for additional information on Florida panthers.
Female Florida Panther Exhibit at Oasis Visitor Center. This female lost her life to an automobile on Hwy. 41
Big Cypress National Preserve Maps
There are a number of maps to be found on the National Parks website for Big Cypress. A general overview map of Big Cypress lays out points of interest while others maps pertaining to OTV trails or canoe/kayaking trails can be accessed. https://www.nps.gov/bicy/planyourvisit/maps.htm
If ever two pieces of environmentally sensitive lands could help one another out, it’s Big Cypress that is the glue. Its fresh water flow rules supreme to the survival of the ecosystem of this Preserve and the Everglades. No other such ecosystem exists elsewhere. The importance of preservation cannot be emphasized enough for future generations and for Florida’s livelihood. Visiting Big Cypress National Preserve (with a side trip, of course, to Everglades National Park) should show up in RED on your bucket list. We all love our national lands – this one is unique and inspiring.