Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve
By Joyce Kiefer
They don’t move, but you know they’re looking at you. Their golden eyes peer just above the tea-colored swamp water where their bodies float silently. Then a stick falls on the water and one of these log-like alligators suddenly flips up to check it out. I quickly decide this ‘gator is too close for comfort to the water’s edge where I watch him with my husband Bill. We drive off to the safety of the visitor center.
We are in Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida. Across the highway Everglades National Park stretches south toward the Keys. Miami is about an hour away but it feels eons removed from this primordial place.
Stands of cypress, palms and mahogany called "hammocks" rise from a prairie of sharp-edged sawgrass. The fingery roots of mangroves reach into the brackish waters and the branches create an impenetrable thicket. Congregations (that’s the group name) of alligators float in the canals or sun themselves on the rocks and grassy banks as their ancestors have done since the days of the dinosaurs. Large, beautifully feathered wading birds peer through the tannin-stained water at the fish. They seem to ignore the alligators.
I feel like I’ve reached another planet or at least a corner of nature lover’s of paradise. I wish my grandchildren could share it with me. Although it is spring break, few children and young people are visiting the ‘Glades. The national park is about 50 miles from Miami and 315 miles from Orlando – doable on a trip to either place with a few extra days.
Bill and I decided to explore the entire south half of Florida by car. Raised in California, I grew up considering Florida as a rival because we both raised oranges. Ours were sweeter of course. Eventually I learned Florida also had alligators, flamingos, swamps, and gorgeous seashells. Then the man-made wonders of Disney and the Space Center were built. Finally, when a friend moved from New York to Sarasota last fall and invited us to visit, we decided to see what the magic kingdom of Florida was all about – at least the southern half.
We put the Everglades on our list. Swamps have always fascinated me with their strange life forms. The touch of danger in the ‘Glades added more appeal – four kinds of venomous snakes, the most lightning strikes in the U.S., crocodiles, and the ubiquitous alligators with their 80 replaceable teeth.
We wanted to explore the park from both ends, so we chose the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41) over Alligator Alley (I-75) as we drove east from Naples. It was hard to reject a road with a name like that, but the Alley charged a toll and only crossed Big Cypress Preserve. On the other hand, the Tamiami Trail offered access to both the Preserve and the national park and was free.
About 35 miles east of Naples we turned off to Everglades City. I noticed the buildings in this small community were on raised well off the ground to prevent being swamped by hurricanes. From there we took the 10,000 Island tour through Chokoloskee Bay off the Gulf, offered by Everglades National Park Boat Tours, Inc. Airboats are not allowed within the National Park boundaries because of the noise. Our launch seated 20 or so and lasted about 1 1/2 hours. A pod of dolphins followed along and distracted us from the manatee that slipped past us under the boat. It was hard to believe these large sea mammals make their home in water that averages six feet deep. Our guide was knowledgeable about the nature around us and knew just where to look for nesting birds. But she reiterated my Sarasota friend’s advice: the only flamingos you’ll probably see are the plastic ones.
The sights along the highway were fun: Signs that warned "Panther Crossing" (Florida panthers look like small mountain lions) and "Rock Reef Pass Elevation 3 feet," (my Colorado-bred husband laughed at that one); and the palm thatched ramadas that poked above the walls of the Miccosukie Indian villages. I wanted to check out a place called "Snake Bight" (it’s a small bay) but enjoyed " Shark Valley" instead.
We missed the tram tour to the valley’s observation tower (about $16) but when we arrived, the scene at twilight was wonder enough. Petite multicolored herons perched in the branches above the small yellow water lilies in the canal. A school of gars swam below, their snouts making them look like small crocodiles. Alligators dozed in the water. The calm evening air cradled the evening sounds of the song birds as if reluctant to release them to the coming rain storm.
We launched our second exploration of the Everglades from Florida City because the lodge and cottages in the park were destroyed by a hurricane in 2005. Bulldozers picked away at the remaining pieces. From Florida City we drove about 15 miles (Route 9336 ) through an agricultural area with unusual tropical fruit to the east entrance to the park and another 32 miles to the end of the park at Flamingo.
Our favorite spot was Royal Palms, just off the road from the park entrance station. The minute we stepped away from the parking lot, we could see how the Anhinga Trail got its name. These huge black and white birds (3’ wingspan) filled the trees and fanned their wings as they perched on any branch strong enough to hold them. Ibises, egrets, herons – the usual swamp suspects – also stood around majestically. Less nobly, black vultures waddled around the trail as fearless as pigeons. Red bromeliads placed burst of color in the crooks of the silvery cypress trees next to the board walk.
Male alligators bellowed to each other as they warmed up for the mating season.What a place!
As we drove down to Flamingo we stopped off to walk the Westlake Trail, a boardwalk that leads through mangroves tangled by a hurricane, and followed another boardwalk trail through "mahogany hammock," a subtropical tree island with nesting barred owls.
What else would I do if I had more time? Take a ranger-led canoe trip or better still, work out beforehand so I could paddle the 99-mile wilderness waterway that cuts across the park and have the courage to camp overnight along the way. I’d go to sleep (?) in my tent, listening for swamp screamers (panthers) and bellowing alligators. I’d dream a flamingo would wait by my tent the next morning.
WHEN YOU GO
Wear insect repellant. However, in March we encountered more alligators than mosquitos. Hold onto young children when you are around water. Alligators move fast!
For the best pictures of birds (they love to pose), take a tripod for your camera and a telephoto lens.
Stop at "Robert Is Here" fruit stand between Florida City and the east entrance to Everglades National park and taste some of the tropical fruit you see in the orchards. Try a guanabana milkshake or buy a couple of sopadillas.
Everglades National Park: $10.00 per vehicle entrance fee. Camping reservations taken for Flamingo site only. Food available in restaurants and stores at Everglade City and at convenience store at Flamingo. No restaurants in Flamingo.
To speak to a ranger, call (239) 695-2945 .
Boat rides: Everglades National Park Boat Tours 1-866-628-7275 or 239/695-2591
For information on restoration of water to the Everglades (a huge issue), go to
Big Cypress Preserve: http://www.nps.gov/bicy/planyourvisit/things2do.htm
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