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The Best 2 Day Itinerary for Exploring Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve

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EXPLORE OUR PERFECT 2-DAY TRAVEL ITINERARY FOR VISITING BOTH EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK AND BIG CYPRESS NATIONAL PRESERVE - TWO OF THE BEST PLACES TO SEE WILDLIFE IN FLORIDA.

 


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 National Park is mostly made up of grass prairies - hence the nickname "River of Grass" by early environmental pioneer Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. Big Cypress National Preserve on the other hand is almost wholly made up of big cypress swamps. Another major difference, though one that you likely wouldn’t know unless you toured around the various park visitor centers or did some extra research, is the actual water that flows through the parks: in Big Cypress the water that creates the famous swamps is from rain, whereas in the Everglades the water is from the yearly runoff of Lake Okeechobee north of the national park.


Either way, while these parks are entirely different entities, they are both amazingly beautiful, unique and definitely worth visiting. Below you will find what we believe is the best 2-day travel itinerary for visiting both Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.


💬 INSIDER TIP: we visited both parks in mid-May, right at the end of the dry season. If you are planning to visit during the wet season (late May to November) then your experience will be quite different. But, while the landscapes definitely do change depending on the time of year, the adventures we discuss below are available year-round.





 

2 DAYS IN THE SWAMP: YOUR TRAVEL GUIDE TO VISITING EVERGLADES NP AND BIG CYPRESS

 




\\ Fast Facts About Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve



COST


It costs $30 per vehicle to enter Everglades National Park (good for 7 days). Big Cypress National Preserve is free to enter.



LOCATION


Both Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve are located in the far southern tip of the state of Florida, USA.



OPENING HOURS


The two parks are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The four visitor centers in Everglades National Park are open from either 8 AM to 5 PM depending on the visitor center (Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center opens at 9 AM during the wet season). The only exception is the Shark Valley Visitor Center which closes the parking lot gate between 6 PM and 5:30 AM (the Shark Valley Tram is open between 8:30 AM and 6 PM).


The visitor centers in Big Cypress National Preserve are open at 9 AM and close at 4:30 PM.



CLOSEST CITIES


The closest major cities to both parks are Miami, which is roughly 43 miles away from the main entrance of Everglades NP and 55 miles from Big Cypress; Homestead, which is roughly 11 miles from the main entrance of Everglades NP and 56 miles from Big Cypress; and Naples, which is 121 miles from Everglades NP and 54 miles from Big Cypress.


Smaller cities located near the two parks are Everglades City and Florida City, both of which do offer lodging and food.


The closest major airport to the two parks is going to be in Miami.



THE BEST TIME TO VISIT


This area of Florida experiences two clear seasons: the wet season and the dry season. The wet season runs from late May to November, while the dry season runs from December to late May (sometimes even into April). Visiting during either season has its pros and cons. For the wet season, you will get to experience the Everglades and Big Cypress in full bloom. But this is also the time of year where bugs, and mosquitos in particular, can be absolutely horrendous. Plus, all of the rain leads to very high humidity levels (90% or more), while the temperatures can also be uncomfortably high (32° C / 90° F or higher).


The dry season is likely the better time of year to visit overall since the insects are less of a problem and the humidity levels are lower. And, because the water levels are lower too, it is a lot easier to spot wildlife (like alligators). But, as a trade off, during the dry season you don't get to see the swamps in all of their gorgeous, wet glory.





\\ Day One: Everglades National Park


It is always smart to get to a national park early - especially one as popular as Everglades National Park. Arriving in the early morning will ensure that you have the park mostly to yourself for at least a couple of hours, while also giving you a higher chance of seeing wildlife (dawn and dusk are usually the most common times to see animals). Also, and this is especially the case when it comes to exploring Everglades National Park and Big Cypress, if you arrive around sunrise you will be able to beat the sometimes sweltering heat.


If you are staying in the Homestead/Miami area, then the closest entrance to the national park is right outside of Florida City. At this national park entrance you can (and should) also stop in at Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center (the closest visitor center to the Miami and Florida Keys area). At the visitor center you will pay the entrance fee for the park: $30 per vehicle (it is good for 7 days). From the Ernest F. Coe Visitor you will enter Everglades National Park on the Main Park Road, which is really the only road in the park.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: if you are staying on the western side of the state of Florida (near Naples or Fort Meyers) then we recommend doing this 2-Day Itinerary in reverse (so start with Big Cypress and then head to the Everglades National Park).


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/visitor center). This area of the park was once known as 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 a ton 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: along the mostly paved trail you will see lily pad filled lakes, lots of birds and dense tropical trees.




EXPLORE MORE | THE ULTIMATE EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK ADVENTURE GUIDE




You can also take a quick detour and check out the Old Ingraham Highway (now abandoned) and the historic HM96 Nike Missile Base (tours are available during the winter).


After exploring Royal Palm, head back out onto the main road (Main Park Road) towards the Flamingo Visitor Center, which is located 38 miles from the entrance to the park. While there are a couple of pull-offs and short hikes along the way we recommend stopping at these two specifically:



Pa-hay-okee Overlook


This short boardwalk trail is more of an observation point (hence the name) than an actual hiking trail. But what we really like about this stop in particular, are the stunning vistas of the wide open watery plains that stretch out for miles around. If you are curious as to why the national park got the nickname "River of Grass" then definitely stop here to take the view in yourself, and learn more about the biome.



Mahogany Hammock


Another great boardwalk hike off the main road is the Mahogany Hammock trail. While it is set up the same as Pa-hay-okee Overlook, this trail is quite a bit longer.


What makes this stop so special is the chance to spot some local owls - if you are really 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. This small taste of the dense forest landscape is not only beautiful, but it also makes you realize just how unique the national park really is.


There are also a good number of smaller ponds you can stop at - Nine Mile Pond and Ficus Pond for example - along the road. While these places are definitely worth seeking out for alligator viewing possibilities in particular, in our opinion, if you want to get the most bang for your buck, then make sure to stop off at the two places listed above.



 


Eventually, you will reach the Flamingo Visitor Center. This bright pink building - which was unfortunately under construction when we visited in May 2021 - is a great spot to base yourself for some exploring. This includes putting aside a bit of time to walk over to the boat marina and look for manatees (we saw about a dozen when we visited). Similarly, the boat marina is also a prime spot to see see some osprey and maybe even a few crocodiles.


If you are a traveler looking to head out onto the waterways that crisscross Everglades National Park, then this is the best spot to do it. At the Flamingo Visitor Center, and the nearby marina, you can rent either a canoe or a kayak - both of which are great vessels to take for a short, but beautiful, adventure through the nearby coastal forests.


💸 It costs $22.50 USD to rent a single canoe or kayak for two hours and $28.50 USD to rent a double canoe or kayak for two hours. You can rent both vessels from the marina near the Flamingo Visitor Center.


If paddling yourself isn't really your thing, then you also have the option to join a boat tour from the marina. This tour costs $40 USD per person (for adults) and lasts 90 minutes. The tours run between 9 AM and 3 PM. While we are all about heading out and exploring on your own, if you are someone looking to learn more about the landscape and the wildlife in Everglades National Park, then this boat tour might be perfect for there is always a naturalist on board.


Now matter which option you go with - renting a canoe or kayak to paddle yourself or jumping on an organized boat tour - just make sure to put aside enough time to spend out on the water.


💬 INSIDER TIP: a couple of important things to remember before heading out on the water is to bring plenty of water (it gets super hot), lather up the sunscreen (very important), 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 where you can purchase a couple snacks, postcards and stickers. Then make your way over to the nearby Eco Pond, a popular viewing spot for alligators and birds.


Once you get your fill of looking for wildlife, start the somewhat long drive back up the main park road towards the main park entrance. From the Flamingo Visitor Center (which sits right along the coast) it is about 38 miles back to the entrance or roughly a 45 minute drive.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: there is also the option to camp inside the park at the Flamingo Campground, which is located just past the visitor center. This is a good option if you are looking to do more water-based activities in the area. Similarly, this campground, which is split into three areas, also offers eco-cabins. It costs $30 - $35 USD per night to camp at the Flamingo Campground. Reserve your spot here.