Big Cypress National Preserve
After four nights in the Everglades we packed up and retraced our route out of the National Park to the Florida City/Homestead area. After a quick stop for supplies we headed north and then west on the Tamiami Trail. There are two ways to cross the bottom of the Florida peninsula—the fast four-lane Alligator Alley (I-75), or the more scenic two-lane Tamiami Trail (US 41). The Trail runs 264 miles from Tampa to Miami, but it’s the scenic stretch through the Everglades that was worth a few days of our time. This old road was carved out of the swamp in the early 20th century with dredges, one of which has been preserved at Collier-Seminole State Park near Marco Island. Both roads will take you through miles of Everglades’ scenery with glimpses of alligators sunning along the waterways and Everglades’ birds in the trees. But the Tamiami Trail gets you closer to the scenery, and it offers several outstanding stops along the way. It was our kind of drive.
The freshwaters of the Big Cypress Swamp, essential to the health of the neighboring Everglades, support the rich marine estuaries along Florida’s southwest coast. The importance of this watershed to the Everglades National Park was a major consideration for the Preserve’s establishment.
There are actually few “big cypress” in Big Cypress Preserve. The name comes from the great expanse of cypress forest, hundreds of thousands of acres, within the Big Cypress Swamp.
The rugged terrain challenged many early travelers as they established the watery wilderness of the swamp as their home. The completion of the Tamiami Trail in 1928 allowed for easy travel across the swamp for everyone who could afford a Model-T. The road spurred the first major land boom in south Florida causing development along the Atlantic coastal ridge to the east and eventually along the Gulf Coast to the west. For the most part, the swamps in the center of south Florida remained wild.
There are a couple of campgrounds on the Tamiami Trail within the Big Cypress Preserve, but they do not take reservations and only one of them has utilities. We certainly can do without hookups, but it is easier to have electricity and a bonus to have water. Well, we were lucky enough to snag a spot in the best campground. 30 or so sites with water and sewer around a small lake. Very nice.
Our first day was spent driving down to nearby Everglades City, which proclaims itself the Gateway to the 10,000 Islands. It is one end of the Wilderness Waterway, a famous Everglades back country route linking Everglades City to Flamingo. It is the best place in the 10,000 Islands to rent canoes or kayaks, hook up with a guided paddling excursion, or find a comfortable room from which to base your explorations of Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park.
We had an early breakfast in a second even smaller town south of Everglades City in the Havana Café (lots of Cubans live around here).
Then we drove back to Everglades City for an airboat ride through the mangroves and wetlands. There were six of us in the boat and the “captain” slowed down and stopped to point out the wildlife. It was a really neat experience zipping through the water pathways. I took some video which captured the experience, but the files are too big to attach—a photo will just have to do.
After the ride we went to the visitor center, unloaded our bikes and peddled around town and then down to the little town where we had breakfast and the end of the land. Then we peddled back to Everglades City to have lunch at the City Seafood Market. Fresh fish on a deck overlooking the river. We watched the airboats coming and going from the nearby operators.
Then it was back to the visitor center to rent a couple of canoes to paddle out to Sandfly Island. It is 27 feet higher than the surrounding islands because of thousands of years of oyster shell accumulations from the indigenous people. We’d see other large accumulations of shell during our trip.
On the second day we visited the Oasis Visitor Center which was close to the campground and Melinda found out they were having a triathlon for visitors. If we canoed to Sandfly Island, biked through Shark Valley and hiked to certain places we would get a Tamiami Trail Triathlon Sticker for our Airstream. Well, we were already part way there with our recent canoe trip. And Melinda had planned on biking the Shark Valley route, so we wasted no time setting off.
The “valley” is a huge watershed from Lake Okeechobee about 50 miles wide. We’re here in the dry season and water levels are down. The bike ride was about 15 miles round trip with an observation point at the end. The first half was along a ditch/canal with all sorts of wildlife right in front of us.
At the observation tower there were alligators growling in the swamp. It sounded like something from Jurassic Park. Where we parked our bikes there was a sign warning not to leave things unattended or bags on bikes. The crows would get into the bags. Sure enough, when we came back they were raiding two bike bags. And they do know how to operate zippers! One crow ripped out a map from someone’s bag. Another one pulled out a banana and flew off with it. We’d seen the same thing while snowmobiling in Yellowstone, only it was ravens out there (close relatives, also intelligent).
After a quick lunch back at the Airstream we tackled the hike. It was 3.5 miles behind the visitor center to the beginnings of a pine forest—a piece of cake. Even a small change in elevation results in completely different vegetation. The hike was pretty lame with not much extraordinary to see except the carcass of a dead gator. We completed the triathlon and went back to the visitor center to claim our sticker. They told us we were the first to finish which seemed improbable since the program was started at the first of the year. Nevertheless, they took our picture and gave us a big round of applause.
We googled the event later and found out five people finished it the day it opened. Perhaps we had been the first at this particular visitor center?
Leaving the wildness of the Big Cypress Preserve,
Chris and Melinda