Camping, Hiking, And Paddling Big Cypress National Preserve: An Awesome Everglades Alternative

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The first (and main) stop on our South Florida road trip was Big Cypress National Preserve.  We spent three nights camping there, then spent two nights in Homestead, and stayed one more in Everglades City at the Ivey House.

The first thing we did was stop at the Gulf District visitor center, then the Big Cypress Welcome Center.  Our main goal for the day was to find a nice campsite and eventually, we found a great one at the Monument Lake campground.  Once we were all set up we decided to check out the loop road since the campground is pretty close to it.

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While it may not be anything like the scenic drives in Utah, it’s Florida scenic and we both loved it.  It felt like we stopped at every little bridge to take pictures of the cypress trees and air plants.  We even saw a small gator at the first stop.

It was a nice, relaxing trip with stops at the Fakahatchee Strand and Florida Panther preserve for some hiking, too.  We don’t really cook at campsites yet (I would love suggestions on easy things and a good camp stove) so we went into Everglades city for food every day for breakfast and dinner.  And we ate at the same restaurant, Island Cafe, every time.

I really loved Big Cypress and definitely want to go back and hopefully do some kayaking or boating next time.  It’s a totally different experience seeing it the park by water.  If you want a less busy alternative to Everglades National Park, Big Cypress is perfect.

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Where is Big Cypress National Preserve?

Big Cypress National Preserve is a 729,000-acre swampy area in South Florida, just north of the Everglades.  It is technically in Ochopee, Florida.  The nearest cities are Miami and Homestead on the east with Naples and Everglades City to the west.

How much is Big Cypress National Preserve?

Free!  You may need to pay for camping or permits once inside the park, but entrance is free.

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What to bring to Big Cypress National Preserve

  • Bug spray – This is a must year-round, but especially if you’re visiting in the summer.  I like this bug spray.  If you’re going in the summer, you may even want to consider a head net, even though they look a little silly.
  • Sunscreen – If you’re planning on swimming at all in Florida, get a reef safe sunscreen.
  • Water – You’ll want to stay hydrated in the Florida heat and a Hydro Flask will keep your water cold all day long.
  • Hammock – If you’re camping, a hammock is a must.  If you’re staying in a hotel, it could still be fun to set up and relax in if you can find some good trees.  I love my Kammok hammock.
  • Water shoes – There is a good chance you’ll be hiking in water at some point.  You’ll want to bring good water shoes, or at least shoes you’re willing to get wet.  I would recommend closed-toe shoes and pants for hiking in water so you don’t get cut by the sawgrass.
  • Hiking poles – This can help you stay steady and help you move snakes and things if you come across any.  I don’t have hiking poles yet, but I would get these if I was going to get them soon.

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Camping in Big Cypress National Preserve

There are eight campgrounds in Big Cypress to choose from.  They are open different dates, spots available vary, some take reservations, others don’t.  I’ll give a brief overview of each, but you can find everything on the park website.

Bear Island

  • 40 sites for tents and RVs
  • Sites 1-12 are open year-round, 13-40 are open August 15-April 15
  • $10 per night
  • No drinking water available
  • No dump station or RV hookups
  • Vault toilets available

Burns Lake

  • 5 tent sites, 10 RV sites
  • Open August 15-April 15
  • $24 per night
  • No drinking water available
  • No dump station or RV hookups
  • Vault Toilets available

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Gator Head

  • 9 tent sites available
  • Open August 15-April 15
  • $10 per night, ORV permit required
  • No drinking water available
  • No dump station or RV hookups
  • Vault Toilets available

Midway

  • 10 tent sites, 26 RV sites
  • Open year-round
  • $24 per night for tents, $30 per night for RVs
  • Drinking water available
  • Dump station and RV hookups available
  • Restroom available

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Mitchell Landing

  • 11 sites available for tents and RVs
  • Currently closed due to high water (as of May 2019)
  • $24 per night
  • No drinking water available
  • No dump station or RV hookups
  • Vault Toilets available

Monument Lake

  • 10 tent sites, 26 RV sites available
  • Open August 15-April 15
  • $24 per night for tents, $28 per night for RVs
  • Drinking water available
  • No dump station or RV hookups
  • Restrooms available

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Pinecrest

  • Group camping only, 4 sites available (8 tents, 15 people each)
  • Currently closed due to high water (as of May 2019)
  • $30 per night
  • No drinking water available
  • No dump station or RV hookups
  • Vault Toilets available

Pink Jeep

  • 9 tent sites available
  • Open August 15-April 15
  • $10 per night, ORV permit required
  • No drinking water available
  • No dump station or RV hookups
  • Vault Toilets available

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Where to stay near Big Cypress National Preserve

Big Cypress is pretty big, but the main things to see and do are on the west side of the park, or at least closer to it.  Homestead is another option, but not convenient for visiting Big Cypress, more for Everglades.  So here are hotels in Everglades City and Naples.

Everglades City

Everglades City is a small town on the western side of Everglades National Park and Big Cypress.  There are only a few hotels in Everglades City so you’ll want to book well in advance to make sure you have a room.  When we went in February everything was full except for one night.

Naples

If Everglades City is full and you have no interest in camping, your next best bet will be Naples, about a half hour away.  There are a lot more hotels in Naples, but you’re a little further away.  Prices vary, but will probably be on the pricier side.

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What to do in Big Cypress National Preserve

Big Cypress is best seen by water, but there are plenty of activities to enjoy what the park has to offer.  Whether you prefer to get around by foot, kayak, or car, there is something for you to see.

Do the Loop Road Scenic Drive

This is a 26-ish mile dirt road on the southside of US-41.  High clearance 4WD isn’t necessary, but the road is a little pot holey.  The entire road isn’t dirt, but a good portion of it is.  In wet conditions it may be tough going, but during the dry season any car should make it.  Admire the cypress swamps and air plants while keeping an eye out for gators in the water along the road, Florida panthers, and bears.  I would plan1.5-2 hours for this.

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Walk the boardwalks

Florida is the best state if you like boardwalk hikes.  There is a boardwalk at each visitor center, which you should visit, as well as the Kirby Storter Roadside Park.  It has a one-mile boardwalk through a mature cypress strand, ending at an overlook where you might see some wildlife.  We didn’t see any, but it’s a nice walk either way.  Make sure you stop at all of them and enjoy the walks.  Thee Gator Hook Trail is another great hiking option on the Loop Road.  There aren’t many official hiking trails here.

Look for wildlife

You can find tons of wildlife in Big Cypress, just keep your eyes peeled.  You could see alligators, river otters, bobcats, black bears, a Florida panther, and if you’re even luckier, a skunk ape (the Florida swamp version of Bigfoot.)  This is also a great place to go birding in Florida.  You’ll probably find anhingas, egrets, and herons among plenty of others.

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Go kayaking or canoeing

There are four paddling trails that take anywhere from 3-7 hours to do depending on launch and takeout points, paddle speed, and tide levels.  You’ll want to arrange a second vehicle or shuttle ride from your takeout point so you can get back to your car.

Turner River Paddling Trail

  • 9.93 miles
  • It takes 4.5-7 hours and is moderate difficulty
  • The entry point is at US-41 paddling access site west of Turner River Road and takeout points are Chokoloskee Island or the NPS Gulf District Ranger Station.
  • You’ll see a cypress strand, a sawgrass prairie, and intertidal mangrove trees.
  • Watch out for airboats and powerboat traffic in the lower prairie.

Halfway Creek Paddling Trail

  • 7.28 miles
  • 4-5 hours and is moderate difficulty
  • You can add the Halfway Creek Loop to the trail which will increase distance by 3.7 miles and 2 hours.
  • The entry point is at Seagrape Drive, 1/4 mile west of the Big Cypreess Headquarters in Ochopee and takeout points are the NPS Gulf District Ranger station or Chokoloskee Island.
  • You’ll see sawgrass prairies and mangrove forests.
  • Watch out for commercial airboats.

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Lefthand Turner River Paddling Trail

  • 3.65 miles
  • Takes 3-4 hours and is easy to moderate diffuculty.  Incoming and outgoing tides can help.
  • The entry point is Chokoloskee Island or the NPS Gulf District Ranger Station and takeout points are the same.
  • You’ll see intertidal mangrover forests.
  • Watchout for commercial airboats and powerboats.

Sandfly Island Loop Paddling Trail

  • 3.73 miles
  • Takes 3-5 hours and is easy to moderate difficulty.  Wind and fighting the tides can add an hour.
  • The entry and takout point is the NPS Gulf District Ranger Station.
  • You’ll see intercoastal mangrove tree islands, oyster banks, brackish marnie environment, and open bay.
  • Watch out for strong winds in the bat, shallow and muddy bottom with oyster shells, and wakes from passing boats.

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What else to do near Big Cypress National Preserve

There is quite a bit to do and see near Big Cypress, especially if you prefer hiking.  Here are some alternatives to Big Cypress.

Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve

This is a state park preserve a short drive from Big Cypress and is a great place to look for gators.  Keep an eye out for them along the side of the road.  If you want to do some hiking, drive about seven miles in on the scenic drive and head out to the Fakahatchee Hilton.  This is a small house with a nice porch swing and a pond out back full of gators.

The road was closed at this area, so it was just the end of the road.  The road is dirt, but you don’t need high clearance 4WD.  Biking is also popular here.

Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

There is a short hiking trail at the panther refuge.  It’s easy and flat through lots of tall grasses and some wooded areas.  This is a quick stop and should take less than two hours.

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Everglades National Park

Shark Valley is the closest popular part of Everglades to Big Cypress, but it’s only about an hour to the main scenic drive to the Flamingo Visitor Center.  Take an airboat ride (but choose one where they don’t touch or bait gators or offer to let you hold baby gators after), hike the Anhinga Trail, stop at both visitor centers, and do the short boardwalk trails.

10,000 Islands Aquatic Preserve

Do some kayaking, paddling, and camping among the islands, but it can be easy to get lost in the islands.  A handheld GPS that tracks your path would be very helpful if you got lost and needed to backtrack.  You’ll need to use tide tables to help plan a paddling trip here.  If you don’t feel confident in visiting on your own (don’t worry, I wouldn’t) then you can do a narrated boat tour from the Gulf Coast visitor center.

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Have you been to Big Cypress?  What did you think of it?  What is your favorite thing to do there?  Do you want to go?

 

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