2.7459° N, 80.5550° W
Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve are as stunning as they are deadly. While they both encompass “swamps,” in truth, they are relatively different. For starters, the Everglades is mostly made up of grass prairies - hence the nickname "River of Grass" by early environmental pioneer Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. Big Cypress, as the name might suggest, is almost wholly made up of big cypress swamps. Another difference, and one you likely wouldn’t know unless you toured around the visitor centers or did some extra research, is the water that flows through the parks: in Big Cypress the water that makes the swamps is from rain, whereas in the Everglades it is from the yearly runoff of Lake Okeechobee up north.
Either way, while these parks are entirely different entities, both amazingly beautiful and definitely worth visiting. Below you will find what we believe is the best 2-day itinerary for visiting both parks.
Note: we visited both parks in mid-May, right at the end of the dry season, so our experience will be quite different than if we visited, say, in November. But, while the landscape does change depending on the time of year, the adventures to be had are available year-round.
Looking to know more about the two parks? Then make sure to read our full, comprehensive guide here.
| Day One
It is always smart to get to a national park early. This will ensure that you have the park mostly to yourself for at least a couple of hours and also likely have a better opportunity to see more wildlife (dawn and dusk are usually the most common times to see animals). Also, and this is especially the case when it comes to Everglades National Park and Big Cypress, if you arrive around sunrise you will beat the sometimes sweltering heat.
If you are staying in the Homestead/Miami area, then the closest entrance is right outside of Florida City. Here you will pay the entrance fee ($30 per vehicle, good for 7 days) and then head out on the Main Park Road. Note: If you are staying on the western side of the state of Florida (near Naples) then we recommend doing this guide in reverse (start with Big Cypress and then head to the Everglades).
One of the first things you should stop and see along the Main Park Road is the Royal Palm area (located right after the entrance station). This area of the park was once Royal Palm State Park, which was established in 1916, and soon became the main hub of the area. There are two trails that begin at the Royal Palm Visitor Center: the Anhinga Trail, a great, short hike with tons of birds and alligators (and maybe a crocodile or two) and the Gumbo Limbo trail, a short forested walk. The Anhinga Trail specifically is really beautiful: lily pad filled lakes, lots of birds and dense trees.
You can also take a quick detour and check out the Old Ingraham Highway (now abandoned) and the historic Nike Missile Base (tours are available in the winter).
After Royal Palm, head back out on the main road towards Flamingo (another visitor center, this time along the coast). While there are a couple of pull-offs and short hikes along the way we recommend stopping at these two:
\\ Pa-hay-okee Overlook
This short boardwalk trail is more of an observation point (hence the name). But what we really liked about it was the stunning vista of the “River of Grass” that stretched out for miles around you. It was the first time we truly understood the name and the makeup of Everglades National Park.
\\ Mahogany Hammock
Another boardwalk hike, though this one is quite a bit longer. What makes this one special is the chance to spot some local owls - if you are lucky. But even if you don’t get to see the cute birds you still get to explore one of the most beautiful biomes in the park. Mahogany Hammocks are big groves of trees, just dotted around the open grassy plains. The dense forest was not only beautiful, but it also made us realize how unique the park really is.
There are also a good number of smaller ponds you can stop in at (Nine Mile Pond, Ficus Pond, etc.) and while those are definitely worth seeking out for alligator viewing possibilities, if you want to get the most bang for your buck, make sure to stop off at the two places above.
Eventually, you will reach the Flamingo Visitor Center. This bright pink building - which was unfortunately under construction when we visited (May 2021), is a great spot to base yourself for some exploring. Including, walking over to the boat marina and looking for manatees (we saw about a dozen there). And if you are lucky, you might also be able to see some osprey and crocodiles.
One thing you should definitely do on day one is go canoeing or kayaking. You can rent both from the marina near the visitor center. Note: for a two-hour rental it is $22.50 for a single canoe or kayak and $28.50 for a double canoe or kayak.
You can also join a boat tour from the marina - it costs $40 per person (for adults), lasts 90 minutes and runs between 9am and 3pm. This is a great option for people wanting to head out on the water and learn about the rich history of the area, for a naturalist is always on board.
Spend a couple of hours out on the water, taking a close-up view of the plants, animals and overall scenery. A couple of things to remember is to make sure to bring plenty of water, lather up the sunscreen, and protect yourself with bug spray, hats and sunglasses. Oh and don’t forget your camera.
After heading out on the water, make your way back to the Flamingo Visitor Center and nearby Eco Pond, a popular viewing spot for alligators and birds. Then start the drive back up the main park road. Note: there is the option to camp inside the park at the Flamingo Campground, located just past the visitor center. This is a good option if you are looking to do more water-based activities in the area.
Right past the visitor center on the left is a dirt road (with a clear sign saying Bear Lake Road). While it looks like it heads nowhere, or at least not very far, in truth it will take you up through the forest and to the start of the Bear Lake Trail. If you are looking to get away from crowds, stretch your legs and look for some more wildlife, then this is a great option.
The drive from Flamingo Visitor Center back to the park entrance is just over 48 miles. While you can do this in about an hour, we highly suggest taking your time if only to make sure you don’t run over any unsuspecting lizards sunning themselves on the blacktop. And right before you leave the park, make sure to stop in at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. Here you can talk to a ranger about the park, watch a short video on the park's history and natural features and wander around the interesting exhibits.
| Day Two
The second day of the trip is all about exploring Big Cypress National Preserve… and a bit more of the Everglades :)
To start, make your way up to Highway 41, aka Tamiami Trail. This is the main road that crosses, east to west, the preserve, and luckily, most of the sites are off this one road. The first couple of places you will see are various airboat tour operators. Now we were told by numerous people to take an airboat out. And while it sounded fun at first, in truth, it sounds more like a headache. For starters, it is loud - very loud. Meaning, while you are heading around the swamp you likely won’t spot any wildlife. That alone was a huge turnoff. In the end, we are sure they are fun for some people, we just felt our time could be spent doing other things.
Eventually, you will reach the Shark Valley Visitor Center. From here you have the option to either take the park tram out on the trail (which is included in your park entrance fee) or rent bikes and ride the trail (you can also ride your own if you have one). The tram ride takes two hours, but comes with a guide - meaning you will have someone pointing out all the flora and fauna. But if you rent a bike you can go at your own pace, stop and see what you want, and get a bit of exercise in. The whole loop is approximately 15 miles, with the halfway point consisting of the Observation Tower - the tallest structure in the park. Note: you can rent bikes at the visitor center. Cost is $20 per bike.
Once you finish up at Shark Valley keep heading west where you will soon enter Big Cypress National Preserve. This park starts right after the Miccosukee Indian Reservation (another great option to explore and learn more about the local history).
Keep driving through the forested area, taking in the change in scenery (hint: more trees) and looking out along the canal next to you for alligators, turtles and birds. Soon enough, you will reach the Oasis Visitor Center, the main visitor center in the park. Stop in to watch the 20-minute film (very interesting), explore the natural exhibits and take in the stunning photos taken by the swamps own Ansel Adams, Clyde Butcher. Honestly, his black and white photos of the swamp are incredible (you can also visit his gallery, located right before the visitor center).
It was at the Oasis Visitor Center that we saw the most alligators - at least 25 of them - either swimming through the slightly murky water or sunning themselves on the banks. Because it was the end of the dry season (mid-May), the canals and riverbeds were relatively dry. This means you are more likely to see gators congregate together, soaking up what is left of the water.
This visitor center is also the start or end of the Florida National Scenic Trail, a 1,500-mile trail that runs through the center of Florida all the way up to Pensacola in the far northwest. If you are curious about the trail, there is a small information board on the hike inside the visitor center - including a map.
Just past the visitor center is the start of the Loop Road, a 24-mile scenic road that gives you a great chance to see more wildlife. But before you head out on the road we suggest driving just a bit further up to Kirby Storter Roadside Park.
\\ Kirby Storter Roadside Park
This unassuming park actually has one of the best trails in Big Cypress - and even possibly the whole combined area. It starts out in a somewhat open prairie before entering a thick cypress grove. You feel like you have been transported out into the wilds of the swamp - that is until you hear big trucks drive by on the highway. Either way, do the hike. We promise you will enjoy the scenery, the chance to see some wildlife (including gators and even some otters), and a great up close view of resident bromeliads and orchids. Altogether, the hike is pretty short - maybe give yourself 30-40 minutes to complete it - and that includes taking lots of photos.
Once done hiking at Kirby Storter, backtrack a bit to reach Monroe Station - the beginning of the Loop Road. Note: or if you are into weird and wacky things keep driving down the road until you reach the small (small) town of Ochopee, where you will find the country’s smallest post office (it is still in operation!).
\\ Loop Road Scenic Drive
This dirt road is a fantastic way to spend an afternoon. While it only measures 24 miles, it took us a good 3 hours to complete. Why? Because a) it is incredibly beautiful b) there was so much wildlife we wanted to get photos of and c) there are two fun trails off of it that are worth hiking. Tip: we suggest grabbing a pamphlet from the Oasis Visitor Center that has a full run-down on all the things to see on the Loop Road.
The first stop is Gator Hook Trail, a 5-mile long trail that follows a historic tram road, which was originally built by loggers for small trains whose purpose was to transport cypress trees out of the swamp. Today, so many years later, you can still see a couple of the wooden rails along the trail. Logging was big business in this region up to the 1950s, when the availability of marketable wood was incredibly small. In fact, the logging industry was so widespread that today all large cypress trees are second growth.
Not far down the road you will reach Sweetwater Strand, the deepest strand in the area. This is a great spot to stop along the road, and a popular bird watching area (we saw dozens of various long-legged birds here, including herons, egrets and ibis). You are also likely to see a variety of plants in the trees; including, bromeliads, Spanish moss and ferns. This was also where we encountered many alligators, including a couple of groups of babies.
Soon you will make the only turn along the road - whereas before you were heading due south, now you are heading almost directly east. Once past the turn, you will start to see historic evidence of man’s attempt to “tame” the swamp. This included attempts at farming, levees to control flooding and canals (like the one next to the road) to help drain the swamp.
A little ways further on you will also start to see culverts. These often lead to permanently flooded pools in the otherwise dry area. Stop here for optimal chances of seeing alligators, birds, fish and maybe if you are lucky, the elusive river otter.
As you start to reach the end of the road, you will see a sign for the second trail on the road: Tree Snail Hammock Trail. This is a short little jaunt into the forest, and a great way to stretch your legs and test your eyesight. Here you can - if you look hard enough - spot some tree snails, which look like striped little pods hanging from the branches of trees. Tip: right past this trail we lucked out and saw some roseate spoonbills, the slightly more awkward cousin to flamingos.
Soon enough you will return to civilization, this time in the form of houses and manicured yards. These are the homes of the local Miccosukee Tribe, a Native American tribe who resided in the area long before Europeans arrived. Once you get to the houses you know you are done with the Loop Road, from here you either continue heading east towards Miami or back west towards Naples and Everglades City.
Either way you go, the scenery stays quite pretty until you leave the actual park or preserve. Or you can go an entirely different way and head north. If we had had more time in the area this is definitely what we would have done: head west towards Route 29 then up past the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, before heading just slightly east to Lake Okeechobee. Just some food for thought…
These two parks, while neighbors, are surprisingly different. If you want to experience both sides of the swamp - the river of grass and coastal regions as well as the dense cypress forests that seem entirely impenetrable, then definitely set aside a couple of days and explore Everglades National Park and Big Cypress. Both are beautiful, full of wildlife and plants, and of course, full of adventure.