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.