Big Cypress & More

Small detour from the trail.
Cypress Trees in the swamp in Big Cypress National Preserve.

March 20 – 23, 2021.

I believe I’ve mentioned before that we like to travel from one big green blob on the map to the next. These green areas tend to be protected lands – National Parks, Wilderness Areas, National Refuges, State Parks, etc. When we left the Everglades National Park in March we headed to another green blob north of the park. There are actually quite a few green map areas adjacent to the Everglades. The biggest is Big Cypress National Preserve.

Once upon a time, Big Cypress National Preserve was supposed to be included in the Everglades National Park – but due to circumstances of those times, it wasn’t. The Big Cypress Swamp stayed in private hands – quite possibly up to 50,000 of them as people from all over the world bought a piece of Florida Swampland.

I thought the park was called “big” because of the size of its cypress trees. But the swamp is actually “big” due to its vastness. At around 720,000 acres, it is about the size of Delaware. And most of the trees are actually Dwarf Pond Cypress. The swamp was populated by many of the bigger variety of Cypress trees at one time but they were logged out in the early 20th century. By 1960 four hundred million board feet of pine timber and three hundred sixty million board feet of cypress had been removed from the swamp.

Oil was found in the swamp in the 1940s and the construction of oil drilling sites crisscross Big Cypress with roads, interrupting the natural flow of the water. Locals complained that “there is no peace left in the country anymore … just noise of all the machinery running.”

For some, the big cypress was an entity to be conquered in the name of progress. A subdivision was built on the western edge of Big Cypress touting that the “wilderness has been pushed aside.”

By 1968 things already weren’t going well for Big Cypress when plans for the construction of a gigantic jetport in the swamp were unveiled. It would have been the biggest jetport in the world at 24,960 acres or 39 square miles – about the size of Disney World. Look at Disney World on a map – it is seriously huge! It was said that this massive airport would create a “community of 150,000 people and would generate 5 million gallons of sewage and industrial wastes and more than 25 tons of jet fuel pollutants every day.” The environmental impact would have been devastating.

After a lot of effort, controversy, and scientific study, legislation was passed that help save the swamp. It was supported by an odd mix of people who had different interests in keeping the swamp swampy – conservationists, Native American tribes, sportsmen and hunters, and even those running afoul of the law – poachers. No doubt a gigantic jetport wouldn’t have been the best place to illegally hunt alligators.

This coming together involved compromise, though, and in 1974 one of the nation’s first National Preserves was created. Unlike National Parks, the use of preserves is much less limited. In Big Cypress, hunters still got to hunt, keep their hunt camps, and drive their swamp buggies through the wetland. Homeowners kept their homes. Native Americans kept their ceremonial sites. Oil companies were allowed to keep drilling. And poachers now practiced their illegal activities on federal land.

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*** This is the last of our Everglades posts. To see all our posts about everything we saw and did in the Everglades click here.

The Tamiami Trail (Highway 41)

Highway 41, also known as the Tamiami Trail runs from Miami to Tampa right through Big Cypress.  Every morning hundreds of shorebirds gather in the canal that runs along the north side of the road. If the Tamiami had actually been more “trail-like” and less “highway-like,” we might have stopped and taken some pictures. But with the number of cars zooming by we didn’t want to risk becoming vulture food. Even still there are a number of great (safe) stops off the road along the Tamiami Trail to see wildlife. We stopped at both Big Cypress Visitor Centers and the H. P. Williams Roadside Park which each had nice boardwalks that looked over various waterways and their occupants.

Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park

At one of the visitor centers, we mentioned to the ranger on duty that we were interested in birds. He told us where we could find Roseate Spoonbills and a Barred Owl. The Barred Owl was just down the Tamiami Trail a bit at the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. At the park, as we walked down the boardwalk we heard the cries of nesting raptors high up in the trees. We passed by a small pond where various birds were fishing for their afternoon meal. At the end of the wooden trail, we came to a deck overlooking a larger pond. Searching high up in the trees Greg finally spotted the coveted Barred Owl. We shared our find with another birder couple who pointed out a Yellow-crowned Night Heron hidden behind a snarl of branches and leaves.

The wood stork thrives in tropical habitats where water levels change. It breeds when water levels drop and the fish population is denser. The extra fish it catches are fed to hatchlings. It hunts by touch, shuffling its feet in the water to disturb fish, then catching them with its beak. There is no concern about the Wood Stork populations of Central and South America, but the species is listed as “threatened” in the US.

Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge

Back at the Big Cypress Welcome Center, we asked the ranger about Roseate Spoonbills. We had been disappointed that we hadn’t seen any on our first visit to the Everglades (although we would see lots of them a month later on our second visit). He told us that they could be seen at the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge at sunrise. Because we were so anxious to see spoonbills before we left the Everglades decided we would make the pre-dawn trek but first, we wanted to check out the refuge at a more reasonable hour. Ten Thousand Islands was just a bit father down Tamiami from Fakahatchee Stand. At the refuge, we walked the Marsh Trail until we found the observation tower. From the tower we looked out over a marsh and mangrove estuary. Peering through his binoculars Greg thought he saw something pink off in the distance under a mangrove bush. It was hard to see the bird but we could see its reflection in the water. A few pink birds flew overhead but I wasn’t quick enough to get a good shot.

Eventually, we left the tower and continued our hike down the trail. The couple who had pointed out the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at Fakahatchee was ahead of us and waved us over. Through the trees and brush lining the marsh tucked into a tangle of limbs were three Roseate Spoonbills. We were ecstatic.

Turner River Canoe Trail

Of course, we wanted to do some kayaking while we were at Big Cypress. We decided to check out the Turner River Canoe Trail. It started out well. As usual, we were up at the crack of dawn and were the first ones on the trail. The river was wide and the water glassy. We saw some birds. Then we came to the mangrove tunnels.

Here, the mangroves have grown up and over so the passages were completely covered overhead. A short mangrove tunnel led to an open area, a pond, but before long we were in another tunnel. The tunnels were narrow, so narrow we had our paddles, which can be broken down into four pieces, split in two so we could row Pirogue Bleue like one would a canoe. The water was shallow and we kept scraping the bottom. Occasionally the only way we could move forward was by grabbing mangrove roots and pull ourselves along. And then we discovered that we weren’t alone.

In a particularly narrow spot, ss Greg dipped his paddle in the water on the right side of the kayak, an alligator shimmy ever so cooly right by us on the left. If Greg had been paddling on the other side he would have hit it.

The trail eventually got too shallow for us. We got stuck in one of the tunnels and decided to go back – which involved pulling ourselves backward until we found a spot wide enough to turn around in.

Kirby Storter Roadside Park

Kirby Storter Roadside Park is another spot to stop at right off the Tamiami Trail. A short boardwalk takes you through a cypress forest and ends at a deck overlooking a beautiful little pond with turtles and birds.

Loop Road & Tree Snail Hammock Trail

Loop Road is a 24-mile road that starts at the Tamiami Trail and loops back around to another point on the highway. The road is paved for about 8 miles and then turns into a surface of slow-going gravel/dirt.

We drove Loop Road to the Tree Snail Hammock Trail hoping to see some Tree Snails. The short trail was disappointing – we didn’t spot any snails. But we really enjoyed the small bridge that passed over a stream at the entrance of the trail. There we saw two Black-crowned Night Herons, an alligator, and way up in a tree a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

But you don’t really have to get out of your vehicle at all to experience the beauty of Big Cypress on Loop Road. Alligators are everywhere basking in the afternoon sun right by the side of the road! We drove through pine forests and cypress strands. We stopped a lot and I just pointed my camera out the window.

If you are interested in this drive click here for a PDF detailing the history and what you will see along way.

Gator Hook Trail

When we asked the ranger at one of our visitor center stops about where we could hike she suggested that we do a “wet hike.” I was a bit skeptical at first about traipsing through the swamp but she reassured us that the water was cool and clear. She suggested we wear long pants so our legs didn’t get torn up by the sawgrass, closed-toed shoes, and bring hiking sticks since it would be harder to see uneven surfaces.

The 5-mile round-trip trail was once a logging trail with raised wooden tramways. Remnants of the tram remain along with a few bigger cypress trees. The trail starts out pretty dry (muddy in spots). It passes several open water areas where you can leave the trail and wade into. I’m not sure if it is traveled much because at times the vegetation can get dense. I hit my head on a lot of low-hanging branches. The trail passes through several small “pond” areas but eventually, tree blazes led us through a trail of water and skinny cypress trees.

I loved doing this trail – which inspired us to do another wet hike on our second visit to the Everglades.

 

Sandfly Island

Our visit to Sandfly Island took us back into the Everglades National Park. This part of the park is accessible by traveling through Big Cypress Preserve down the Tamiami Trail. The Everglades has a small visitor center here in Everglades City, a small town sitting on the Chokoloskee Bay across from Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands. Sandfly Island is one of the Ten Thousand Islands and the only way to get there is by boat.

We got a map of the trail from the visitor center, looked at the upcoming weather and the wind report, and decided to make the trek across the bay in Pirogue Bleue on our last morning in the preserver. Like we did when venturing out in Florida Bay in the Everglades I downloaded an NOAA map to my Avenza app on my phone to keep track of where we were and the water depth.

The morning was beautiful but the bay was big and open. It was a bit of a strenuous paddle to get to the other side. There is a dock at the island but it looked to be falling apart and was strung with yellow caution tape. There was a tiny bit of shore to beach the boat. A trail leads around the island through a mangrove swamp, past prickly pear cactus, pine trees, and gumbo limbo trees. We saw ruins from early pioneers on the island.

Ruddy Turnstone. The opportunistic Ruddy Turnstone is named for one of its feeding habits, turning stones over to eat what’s beneath. Turnstones have other feeding methods, like landscaping piles of seaweed to get to tiny organisms; digging, probing, and pecking the surface; and hammering shells with their bills to open them.

Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

Before we concluded our Big Cypress adventure I spied another potentially interesting green blob on the map, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Maybe we would see panthers! We didn’t. But we had a nice little walk around the refuge.


It is quite possible that I will be sharing this post on any one of these sites this week:  My Corner of the World, Travel Tuesday, Wild Bird Wednesday, Through My LensSkywatch FridayOur World Tuesday, and Sharon’s Souvenirs. Check out these links to see what other people are doing all over the world!

20 thoughts on “Big Cypress & More

  1. Quite the paradise of things to see. Just looking at the swamp buggy makes me think about getting stuck in the middle of some swamp, without any option but hoofing it back. Yipes!

    1. Hopefully they design the swamp buggy just so you don’t get stuck. I wouldn’t take a regular 4WD back into the swamp. If I did, i make sure I had lots of bug spray for that long walk back.

  2. So many fun and swampy adventures! I find it strange that kayak routes are called trails as well, since I always think about hiking when I think about a trail. Those mangrove tunnels are so cool to kayak through, although I can imagine that the shallow ones become old after a while of pushing and pulling and hitting the bottom with the kayak as well as the paddles. Cool about the alligator. Kind of. Equally scary, probably.

    When I first visited Florida a couple of decades ago, I liked Big Cypress Preserve better than Everglades National Park. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore much on our last trip to Southern Florida. I’m glad you eventually saw the spoonbills!

    1. There seemed to be more trails (water and land) in the Everglades. But I love the Cypress trees of Big Cypress. And that wet walk was the best!

      I was very excited about the mangrove tunnels until they turned shallow. But the alligator was really exciting. It happened so fast we didn’t have time to be scared.

    1. You think there are any old moonshine stills in the swamps if Florida? Alligators and moonshine seem like a terrifying idea.

  3. Your story about kayaking in shallow water with alligator friends had me shaking my head and saying “Nope! Nope! Nope!!”

    Interesting history of how the preserve came to be protected. Reminds me of some of the strange bedfellows who’ve allied themselves with one another out west recently in order to protect certain public lands – conservationists, hunter, and native Americans, etc. Unexpected, but effective in getting things done.

    Anyway, while I’m not anxious to go hang out with any alligators any time soon, I am certainly happy to know this place was protected and continues to thrive. Beautiful photos!

    1. I have no interest in hunters or hunting but i am glad that they are on the side of public lands. I think sometimes that the hunters may be the main reason we still have so much public land. I mean, who really cares about the birders?

      I’m sure that alligator was as surprised about us as we were about him. He was so cool swimming by like we wouldn’t even notice.

  4. Friends of mine just bought an RV and asked for tips on where to go. I told them not to miss The Everglades and The Keys whatever they do. They are avid birders so a feast awaits them.

  5. Gorgeous photos! My husband and I tend to visit a lot of “green blobs on the map” too. We have been to the Everglades several times, but never to Big Cypress. The Ten Thousand Islands area looks especially interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Laurie! I wish we had had more time. There was more kayaking we could have done and more trails to walk down. It is an amazing area.

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