25.7459° N, 80.5550° W
A COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO ONE OTHE USA'S MOST UNIQUE BIOMES AND ECOSYSTEMS - AND ONE THAT IS IN SERIOUS DANGER. READ ON FOR A FULL ADVENTURE GUIDE TO EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK AND BIG CYPRESS NATIONAL PRESERVE.
Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, its swampier neighbor to the north, encompass one of the most beautiful - and hostile - landscapes in the United States. This area of southern Florida is truly unmatched anywhere else in the US - in fact, it is the only remaining subtropical wilderness in the country, meaning the plants and animals you find within its boundaries can only be found in this corner of the country. Similarly, the two parks are the only remaining homes for a good number of endangered animals, including the American crocodile, manatee and Florida panther.
This corner of Florida - this stunning, swampy spit of land - in a way transports you back to what the state used to look like, long before turnpikes, amusement parks, strip malls and beachfront mansions took over. Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve are unlike anywhere else in the world, and therefore should be protected and honored as such - and of course, explored in a sustainable and adventure-focused way.
\\ Fast Facts
Year Established: 1934
Size: Everglades is 1,542,526 acres and Big Cypress is about 720,566 acres
Number of Visitors: about 1 million people visit the Everglades every year. Big Cypress sees a similar number of people yearly.
Cost to Enter: $30 per vehicle or private boat, $25 per motorcycle, $15 per person on foot or bike (all for 7 days); Big Cypress is free
\\ History of Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve
Everglades National Park was established in 1947 after a group of conservationists, scientists, and other advocates lobbied to have the unique, and incredibly important, ecosystem put aside. While this area had a long history of human occupation, mostly by local Native American tribes, it wasn’t until the turn of the century, that colonists started to arrive. They soon were attempting to tame the swamp and instead turn it into farm and ranch land. But as you might guess, that didn't go super well.
One of the most important people in the saga of Everglades National Park was Ernest F. Coe. Coe was responsible for writing a letter to the head of the National Parks Service, outlining a proposal for a national park to be located within the lower Everglades of south Florida. Soon a meeting took place and from there legislation to create Everglades National Park was introduced by Senator Duncan B. Fletcher of Florida in 1928. That legislation was approved in 1934 and was signed by President Roosevelt soon after - though it would take another thirteen years to acquire all the land and define the boundaries of the new park.
Big Cypress National Preserve has a much more wild history than its neighbor to the south. With the completion of the Tamiami Trail in the 1920s, the region completely opened up to anyone who had a car. This newfound access also meant logging was now a viable option - something that you can still see remnants of today (i.e. the Gator Hook Trail). Interestingly, while Big Cypress had originally been intended to be a part of Everglades National Park, because the land couldn’t be purchased from its private owners the national park service released it. The area was eventually designated a preserve, the first of its kind in the USA, in 1974.
\\ When to Visit
You really have two options when deciding when to visit the parks, because unlike other places where you have four seasons, this area only has dry and wet seasons - both of which have their pros and cons.
This is by far the most popular time to visit the two parks. Due to easier to stand temperatures (highs of 77 degrees Fahrenheit), humidity and bugs, the dry season means more opportunity to explore - but also more people. The dry season also often means you are more likely to see various wildlife, mainly due to there being less water available.
This is the typical hot, humid time of year when temperatures rise to above 90 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity sits around 90%. Thunderstorms, especially in the afternoons, are also common. While the weather can be a bit off-putting, this is the time of year to see the landscape in full “swamp-mode.” Meaning lots of water, everything is green, and the mosquitos are out in full-force. Also, due to the high levels of water, it can be a bit tougher to see wildlife.
We explored the parks in mid-May, and while the temperature was pretty toasty (94 degrees, about 90% humidity) it wasn’t unbearable. We actually enjoyed having the parks somewhat to ourselves, and once we put plenty of bug spray on the mosquitos weren’t too bad. The best part though, was the ease of seeing wildlife - including alligators (full grown and babies) crocodiles, manatees (the best spot is at the Flamingo Marina) and tons of birds.
\\ How to Get There
Both parks are about an hour drive from Miami, where you can fly into either Miami or Fort Lauderdale airports. This will bring you in on the east side where there are various visitor centers, including Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, and trails. You can also enter from the west side where the closest major town is Naples.
\\ What to Not Miss
The name Everglades has always been associated with birds. The warm, shallow, and vast River of Grass (a very fitting nickname) has attracted all types of birds to this region for thousands of years. In fact, around 360 different types of birds have been recorded in the park. In the 1800s, the well-known naturalist and artist, John James Audubon, wrote during a visit to south Florida:
"We observed great flocks of wading birds flying overhead toward their evening roosts.... They appeared in such numbers to actually block out the light from the sun for some time."
Some of the more common birds seen are the white ibis, wood stork, the green backed heron, great egret, and the beautiful pink roseate spoonbill. You can see these birds all over the park, but from our experience the best spots were along the Loop Road and at the Anhinga trail.
In terms of mammals, various smaller animals inhabit the drier areas of the park. These include raccoons, opossums, white tailed deer and gray fox. Another mammal that resides in the park, and one of the few species that are endangered, are manatees - which we were lucky enough to see at the Flamingo Visitor Center.
But more likely than not, when you visit the Everglades and Big Cypress you are looking out for one animal in particular: alligators. But did you know that the park is also one of the few places in the world that has both alligators and crocodiles living side by side? We didn't know that until we visited the Flamingo Visitor Center, where we were lucky enough to find a mother nesting by the water. Other reptiles you might see in the park include the Florida cottonmouth, otherwise known as a water moccasin, eastern diamondback rattlesnake, various lizards and a plethora of invasive species - including the infamous Burmese python.
GOOD TO KNOW: while the park has both alligators and crocodiles, unfortunately both are considered endangered.
Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve both have trouble with invasive species, many (if not all) of them are due to human interference. Invasive species, both of the plant and animal variety, can cause serious damage to the landscape. They often have very few predators so they tend to proliferate quickly, they often prey on native species (which is a big problem in the parks), and they can be quite dangerous. Read more about Florida’s invasive species problem here.
Due to its location on the border between dry North America and the tropical Caribbean, Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve both have a wide variety of unique plants. The most common, and picturesque are bromeliads, otherwise known as air plants, various colorful orchids, the synonymous cypress trees (and their knees), and an array of grasses (the place is nicknamed the River of Grass for a reason).
Points of Interest
This large swath of land is full of interesting areas. In fact, there are nine distinct habitats within the park, all holding different animals and plants. While we will discuss the best adventures to be had in those habitats more below, there are a couple of interesting places to see that might not be necessarily “natural.”
This includes the HM69 Nike Missile Base, one of the best preserved relics of the Cold War. Otherwise known as “Alpha Battery” this missile site was built in 1965 and was meant to protect this area of the country from possible Soviet missile attacks. You can tour the facility between December and March.
If you couldn't guess, the landscape of the Everglades and Big Cypress is incredibly dense. So it definitely takes a certain type of person to head out into the swamps and try to tame them. One of those such people was James E. Ingraham, president of the Model Land Company and vice president of the Florida East Coast Railroad. Ingraham had plans to build a road between the town of Florida City and Cape Sable, which sat along the coast. While the road was never finished (mainly due to WWI), it still made its way partly through the Everglades. In fact, it was the first ever road to head through the park. Today you can still venture out onto the old highway (on your own two feet instead of a car) and explore the landscape. To reach it, head to the Royal Palm area of the park, located near the east side entrance (this is also where you will find the HM69 Missile Base).
\\ Top Adventures in Everglades National Park
Many of the hikes available are rather short, and often take place on boardwalks or paved trails. Some of the best areas to explore are Kirby Storter Roadside Park, where there is a long boardwalk through thick cypress groves and an opportunity to explore a gator-hole. A couple of other spots that should definitely be on your list are Mahogany Hammock, the Anhinga Trail in the Royal Palm area (great alligator and bird viewing opportunities), and the Gator Hook Trail off the Loop Road (see more below).
One great adventure is called slough slogging. This involves heading out into the various sloughs (pronounced “slew”) and exploring cypress domes (kind of like a cypress grove). This is a great way to get off the established trails (boardwalks) and get into the thick of the Everglades and Big Cypress landscapes.
GOOD TO KNOW: you can only slough slog during the winter months. We recommend checking the website for more information.
While we mentioned the park wasn’t full of crazy long trails (like other parks such as Rocky Mountain or Yosemite have), if you are looking for a longer hiking adventure (a very looooong adventure) then consider taking on the Florida National Scenic Trail, a non-motorized trail that crosses some of the best landscapes the state has to offer. It starts (or ends) at the Oasis Visitor Center in Big Cypress, before heading north for 1,500 miles (it eventually ends just outside of Pensacola).
Driving and Biking
Both Everglades National Park and Big Cypress are considered more of “driving” parks. Meaning, there aren’t a lot of long hiking trails to adventure on, but plenty of roads to head down. This is likely due to the harsh environment and the intense heat (especially in the wet season), oh and mosquitos - those buggers really suck (no pun intended).
Because of that, many of the best things to do involve a car or a bicycle. We highly recommend taking on the Loop Road, a stunning scenic drive stretching 24 miles through dense swamp. Known as County Road 94, this dirt road was started in 1921 by a local Miami businessman. While the road never amounted to much in terms of economic profit, it still had quite an interesting history (read more here). Today, you can drive along the dirt road and spot a wide array of wildlife, including alligators, egrets, herons and ibis’, and maybe if you are lucky, an otter or two.
GOOD TO KNOW: while the road is only 24 miles long, it is worth setting aside a couple of hours to complete it. This includes exploring the two trails along it (including Gator Hook Trail) and taking time to study the birds and alligators.
As for biking, one of the best trails starts at Shark Valley Visitor Center. From there you can head out on a wide dirt road, through dense foliage until you reach an observation tower - the tallest point in the park. This tower is a great way to overlook the massive plains of grass that stretch out in front of you. Once you have your fill of the view, keep heading down the other side of the loop. In total, the loop measures 15 miles (24 kilometers). While we suggest doing the loop on a bike, there is an option to take the tram from the visitor center as well. It is included with your entrance fee and takes around 2 hours to complete.
Canoeing and Kayaking
The Everglades is a true water park. While there are some great dry land hiking options, the national park really begins to shine once you head out onto the various waterways. We recommend either bringing your own vessel or renting one.
Some great spots worth exploring include the West Lake Canoe Trail, the Bear Lake Canoe Trail and Hells Bay Canoe Trail. These three trails are all located along the Main Park Road (which runs from Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center to Flamingo Visitor Center) and can be accessed quite easily at the various launch points.
Another option is to head out into the 10,000 Islands area (Gulf Coast region), which can easily be accessed from Everglades City, on the west side of the parks. While there are tons of areas and options in this region to explore, a couple popular ones include the Sandfly Island Loop (5 miles roundtrip, difficult), and the Turner River Canoe Trail, a scenic route through mangrove tunnels that takes a full day of paddling (this trail is one of the few that runs through Big Cypress).
But, if you are looking for a true Everglades experience, then consider taking on the entire Wilderness Waterway. A 99-mile canoe or kayak trail that starts at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City and ends at the Flamingo Visitor Center. It should take between 7-10 days to complete depending on your paddling speed. Along the way you can camp at various sites (there are 40 sites available), including dry campsites or raised platforms called “chickees.” Learn more about that trail/adventure here.
\\ Where to Stay
Besides the obvious option for staying in Miami and doing the park as a day trip (which we don’t recommend), the area around Everglades National Park and Big Cypress is somewhat lacking in lodging options.
There are two “front-country” campgrounds in Everglades National Park, both of which are located along the Main Park Road: Long Pine Key Campground and Flamingo Campground (both accommodate tents and RV's). To make a reservation, go online to guest services. Other options include backcountry camping, like what we mentioned for the Wilderness Waterway, or staying in hotels closer to the park (Homestead and Everglades City are the closest).
We spent one night in Everglades City at Everglades Adventures Hotel and really enjoyed it. The town of Everglades City is surprisingly nice and worth checking out (we recommend stopping in at Nely’s Corner for breakfast - the shrimp and grits are amazing). Other hotels in the city looked quite nice as well (and weren’t crazy expensive).
Big Cypress has a lot more options for camping, including campgrounds along the main park road (Tamiami Trail) as well as on the Loop Road. Like the campgrounds in the Everglades, you can make reservations online - though four sites are first-come, so make sure to plan accordingly.
GOOD TO KNOW: both parks close their campgrounds based on the season, with many closures occurring in the wet season (May-November) so definitely check the website or call to make sure you can actually camp in the park.
\\ Must-See Spots Nearby Everglades National Park
Florida is home to three national parks, and luckily, all of them are a relatively short drive from the Everglades. Similarly, there are a number of smaller parks and refuges nearby, including one home to the elusive Florida panther - the state animal.
This park is 95% water, meaning bring your swimsuit, your snorkel gear and a boat (motorized or not). You can access the park from eastern Miami.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Located on the far, far southern tip of the Florida Keys, this park is home to a historic fort, Fort Jefferson, and lots of amazing snorkeling opportunities. Head out there for a day or two (you need a boat or seaplane to reach the park) and explore the human history and natural wonders - and some crazy good dark skies too!
The Florida Panther is one of the most endangered big cats in the USA. Whereas it once roamed the entire southeastern United States, today the range is only 5% of what it once was. While biologists believe there are around 230 panthers in the wild today, this is actually a huge uptick in their numbers (in the 1970s there were only 20 left). This Wildlife Refuge is a great spot to explore their habitat and maybe, if you are really lucky, spot one of the elusive cats.
This area of Florida is also home to some interesting, and sometimes wacky, spots. This includes the smallest post office in the USA (located in Ochopee) and the headquarters for the Skunk Ape (a Florida version of Bigfoot). There is also the Florida Keys, and famous Highway 1, which starts in Homestead and heads south and of course, lots of fun and interesting things in Miami.
Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve are both incredibly wild and wonderful parks - full of adventure, wildlife, plants and history. This guide will help you get an idea of the best things to see and do, what to look for (hello alligators) and overall, how to truly enjoy the beauty of this amazing landscape.