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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
It costs $30 per vehicle to enter Everglades National Park (good for 7 days). Big Cypress National Preserve is free to enter.
Both Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve are located in the far southern tip of the state of Florida, USA.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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: Big Cypress National Preserve
The second day of this South Florida Everglades National Park and Big Cypress Itinerary is all about exploring Big Cypress National Preserve… and a bit more of the Everglades ;)
To start, you need to make your way up to Highway 41, aka Tamiami Trail, from wherever you are basing yourself. If you spent the night in Miami then it is relatively easy to reach the entrance to the park by just heading straight out on Highway 41. If you spent the night farther south in Homestead or Florida City, then you will first need to head north on Hwy 997 for about 20 or so miles. If you instead spent the night on the western side of Florida (in Naples or Everglades City for example) then you will also need to head to Hwy 41, which you can pick up right from Naples or more specifically in the town of Carnestown.
Highway 41, which is more commonly known as Tamiami Trail, is the main road that crosses, east to west, Big Cypress National Preserve. For the most part, most of the top things to do in Big Cypress are off Tamiami Trail, including numerous trails and wildlife spotting boardwalks. Similarly, all visitor centers for the preserve are off this road.
The first couple of places you will see along Tamiami Trail are airboat tour operators. Now we were told by numerous people (including a national park ranger) to take an airboat out into the swamps. And, while it this did sound fun at first, in truth, in the end it sounded more like a headache. Plus, if you are someone looking to explore the landscape and see wildlife - including alligators and birds - then an airboat is a bad idea for the loud noise of the engine scares off almost all animals.
If you are doing the drive through Big Cypress from east to west (or from the Miami area to the Naples area) then one of the first stops along the road is the Shark Valley Visitor Center (one of the four visitor centers of Everglades National Park).
Shark Valley Visitor Center
We highly suggest stopping in at this visitor center to learn more about this part of the national park, which is very much in the heart of the River of Grass. Plus, this is one of the best places to see regions wildlife; including, alligators, turtles, snakes and birds.
Similarly, another popular activity is to head out to the Shark Valley Observation Tower, which is the highest accessible elevation point in the whole national park. You can reach the observation tower by either riding the national park tram (this is included in your park entrance fee) or by renting bicycles and riding the trail to the tower instead.
The tram ride takes two hours total and comes with a park guide - meaning you will have someone pointing out all the flora and fauna along the way. The bike ride can last however long you like as you are totally going at your own pace. The whole trail, which is a loop, is approximately 15 miles in length (the observation tower is the halfway point).
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: you can rent bikes at the Shark Valley Visitor Center. It cost $20 USD per bike. You also have the option to ride your own bike if you have it with you.
Once you finish up at the Shark Valley Visitor Center, keep heading west on the Tamiami Trail until you reach the entrance to the Big Cypress National Preserve (it isn't clearly marked for their is no entrance fee). But for the most part the preserve starts right after the Miccosukee Indian Reservation, which is another great place to stop at if you are looking to learn more more about the local Indigenous history.
Keep driving west through forested areas, 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 Big Cypress National Preserve.
Stop in at the visitor center and watch a 20-minute film about the area and its unique landscapes, explore the natural exhibits (which explain in rich detail the various plants and animals that call the area home) and take in the stunning photos taken by the swamps own Ansel Adams, Clyde Butcher.
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are as intrigued as we were about Clyde Butcher's stunning photographs of the swamplands then we highly suggest stopping in at his gallery, which is located just a bit farther down the road from the Oasis Visitor Center. Find the exact location here.
The Oasis Visitor Center is also a fantastic spot to see alligators, especially during the dry season. While we were exploring Big Cypress, we stopped in here and were able to spot upwards of 25 alligators either swimming through the slightly murky water or sunning themselves on the canals banks. If you are also planning to visit the two parks during the dry season (between December and late May) we highly suggest stopping in at the visitor center for some alligator spotting.
Similarly, the Oasis 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 the entire state of Florida. 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 must-do in Big Cypress. But before you head out on the Loop Road we suggest driving just a bit further west 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. The hike starts out in a somewhat open prairie before entering a thick cypress grove. Right away you feel like you have been transported out into the wilds of the swamp thanks to the stunning and dense scenery. Along the hike make sure to look out for various forms of wildlife; including, alligators, snakes, turtles and even otters. Similarly, spend some time searching for resident bromeliads and orchids - many of which are endemic to the area.
We would suggest putting aside around 40 minutes to do the whole hike, less if you aren't stopping and taking pictures of everything.
Once done hiking at Kirby Storter, backtrack a bit on the road until you reach Monroe Station, which is the beginning of the Loop Road.
💬 INSIDER TIP: or if you are into weird and wacky things, keep driving down the Tamiami Trail until you reach the small (small) town of Ochopee. Here you can find the country’s smallest post office, which is still in use! From Ochopee, it is 13 miles back to the beginning of the Loop Road.
The Loop Road Scenic Drive
This somewhat unassuming dirt road is a fantastic way to explore Big Cypress National Preserve. While it only measures 24 miles in length, it somehow took us a good 3 hours to complete. Why? Because a) it is incredibly beautiful b) there is so much wildlife along the way and c) there are two fun trails off of it that are 100% worth hiking.
💬 INSIDER TIP: we suggest grabbing a pamphlet from the Oasis Visitor Center that has a full run-down on all the things to see along the Loop Road.
The first stop on the Loop Road is Gator Hook Trail, a 5-mile long trail that follows a historic tram road. This route 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. While somewhat unsurprising, logging was big business in this region up to the 1950s. In fact, the logging industry was so widespread that today all large cypress trees in the area are second growth.
Not far down the road you will reach Sweetwater Strand, the deepest strand in the area (strands are flow-ways in the swamp). This is a great spot to stop along the road to look for birds; including, herons, egrets and ibis, and a variety of plants; including, bromeliads, Spanish moss and ferns. This is also a common spot to encounter alligators, including if you are lucky (and visiting during the right season) a couple of groups of baby alligators.
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 includes 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 an optimal chance of seeing more 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 various tree snails, which look like striped little pods hanging from the branches of trees.
💬 INSIDER TIP: right past this hiking trail we lucked out and saw a couple of roseate spoonbills - the slightly more awkward cousin to flamingos. If you are doing the drive, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for many different types of birds.
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 have resided in the area long before any Europeans started to arrive.
Once you get to the houses you know you are done with the Loop Road. From here you have the option to 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 preserve.
💬 INSIDER TIP: or you can go an entirely different route and instead head north up towards the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge (if we had had more time in the area this is definitely what we would have done). To start, turn left onto Hwy 41/Tamiami Trail until you reach Route 29. Turn right onto Route 29 and keep going north until you get to the National Wildlife Refuge. This is a great spot to see the elusive Florida Panther, which is incredibly threatened. From there you can just keep heading north (and a bit east) up to Lake Okeechobee and beyond.