Living Sanibel: The Big Cypress National Preserve
To understand the sheer size of Big Cypress National Preserve-729,000 acres, or 1,139 square miles-you first have to appreciate the immense size of Collier County itself. With a total of 2,305 square miles, Collier County is larger than Rhode Island (1,545 square miles) and almost as large as Delaware (2,489 square miles).
Big Cypress National Preserve was created in 1974 as one of the first two preserves in the U.S. National Park System. It was originally slated to be a part of Everglades National Park in 1947 but too much of the land was held privately at that time to do so. Over the ensuing 27 years, the government purchased most of that land, and Big Cypress was born.
The preserve is primarily in Collier County, with small portions located in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Bordered to the west by Fakahatchee Strand, to the north by the Big Cypress Indian Reservation, and to the south by Everglades National Park, Big Cypress and its neighboring parks and preserves have become the prime remaining habitat for the endangered Florida panther. Other large animals that reside here include the Florida black bear, white-tailed deer, wild hogs, alligators, and, unfortunately, the invasive Burmese python.
Big Cypress has numerous campgrounds, miles of hiking trails, and an estimated 400 miles of official off-road vehicle trails. Any visit to the preserve should start with a stop at either the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center (opened in spring 2010) on the western edge or the Oasis Visitor Center near the eastern edge of the preserve on U.S. 41 (Tamiami Trail). The Oasis facility has a short boardwalk overlooking a freshwater slough that is teeming with alligators, gar, bream, and exotic fish such as tilapia, peacock bass, and oscar. The welcome center has a similar short boardwalk where manatees often congregate during the cooler winter months.
Kayaking or canoeing on the Turner River Canoe Trail is a popular adventure, as is the shorter Halfway Creek Canoe Trail located along Seagrape Drive near the very western edge of the park on U.S. 41. If you prefer to stay dry and on land, try the Turner River/Upper Wagonwheel/Birdon Road Loop Drive. This 16.4-mile drive takes you off the heavily traveled Tamiami Trail through some of the more remote backcountry. Flora sightings along the way include pond and bald cypress trees, coastal plain willows, wild orchids, a wide array of bromeliads, and yellow tickseed. Birds are plentiful along the drainage canals and numerous swamps and marshes, and could include wood storks, snail kites, herons, purple gallinules, and egrets. Alligators, turtles, and snakes, including the venomous eastern diamondback and water moccasin, thrive throughout Big Cypress, so care should be taken whenever you wade into the marshes or swamps in pursuit of the elusive ghost orchid.
Another popular tour is the scenic loop drive (County Road 94) that exits U.S. 41 at Monroe Station and rejoins the highway at the Forty-mile Bend. The 23-mile drive takes you through swamps, hammocks, pinelands, and prairies. Halfway down that road is the start of the Florida National Scenic Trail, a 1,400-mile footpath running from Big Cypress to the Gulf Islands National Seashore in the far western Florida Panhandle. Approximately 45.4 miles of this trail runs through Big Cypress. The first leg, starting from County Road 94 and continuing up to U.S. 41, is approximately 8.3 miles long and can be easily hiked in one day. The trail continues north into the backcountry of the preserve. The length of this section requires overnight backpacking and camping, and should not be attempted by inexperienced hikers.
Many short and readily accessible trails are located throughout the preserve. The 2.5-mile Fire Prairie Trail is in the northwest corner of the preserve on County Road 839. The Kirby Storter Roadside Park is 14.1 miles east of U.S. 29 and offers a half-mile boardwalk into a variety of habitats, ending in a swamp where alligators and snakes are readily observed. This short boardwalk offers an easy way to enjoy the vegetation and wildlife found in Big Cypress without getting your feet wet.
The preserve offers numerous ranger-led activities throughout the winter months. These range from swamp stomps to kayak outings to bicycle rides. Consult the preserve’s website (“http://www.nps.gov/bicy/index.htm”>www.nps.gov/bicy/index.htm) prior to visiting to see if any of these guided adventures can fit into your schedule.
During the wetter summer season many of the preserve’s campgrounds shut down; the Midway campground near the Oasis Visitor Center is among the few that remain open all year. Mosquitoes and thunderstorms make Big Cypress more difficult to experience in the summer months, though shorter morning excursions are still enjoyable.
With its immense size and wide assortment of habitats and wildlife, Big Cypress National Preserve offers a window into the nature of the Everglades and the cypress ecosystems. It is a definite addition to any naturalist’s life list of great places visited.