Big Cypress National Preserve

Big Cypress National PreserveBig Cypress National Preserve is a vast wetland that is heavily used for hiking, hunting, and other forms of outdoor recreation. Managing this sensitive ecosystem is a challenge that has led officials at various times to close trails and ban airboats and off-road vehicles in an effort to protect wildlife, such as a small population of rare Florida panthers that live in the preserve.

Don’t let the name deceive you. You won’t see giant cypresses here—most of them are mere upstarts, descendants of trees felled for timber in the 1950s. Still, it deserves to be called Big Cypress Forest because the tract itself is so big. Taken together with the contiguous Everglades National Park, they cover 2.7 million acres (1.1 million hectares)—that’s a lot of south Florida to protect.

The Everglades gets all the press, but without the Big Cypress swamp, there would be no Everglades. Its cypress sloughs and marshes pour freshwater south into the Everglades, feeding the marine estuaries along Florida’s south-west coast. Cypress trees just love water, and they anchor this swamp with tough roots and stout buttressed trunks that can withstand strong winds, a good thing in hurricane-prone Florida.

Big Cypress allows more recreational opportunities than the Everglades, though the popularity of off-road vehicles has caused concern lately, as it damages this sensitive drainage ecosystem, already impaired by misguided canal building and highway construction in the years past. Backcountry camping and hiking can lead you deep into the wilderness, through dwarf cypress forest, slash pine forests, and saw-grass prairie. (Examine a blade of saw grass and you’ll see the jagged edges that earn it its name). Perhaps you’ll even go deep enough to surprise a Florida panther chasing down a deer—there are 30 to 35 of these elusive, endangered cats living here. More likely you’ll see a bobcat, though, or a black bear; this is one of the last places in Florida with significant numbers of black bears.

If the trails look too wet (things get very squishy underfoot in summer), you can still see a lot of Big Cypress’s wildlife by driving the 27-mile (43km) Loop Road or the 17-mile (27km) Turner River/Wagonwheel/Birdon Roads Loop, both accessible off of Highway 41. The latter follows two canals that attract wading birds, especially during the dry season, November to April. Graceful coastal plain willows trail their leaves into the canals, where you’ll see herons stalking along the banks, an anhinga fishing with its long spearlike beak, or the double-crested cormorant (aka “snake bird”) gliding surreptitiously with just its head above water. The dazzling white of egrets—cattle, snowy, and great egrets—makes them easy to spot from above, but for gullible fish looking upward, they appear like clouds in the sky. Past the saw-grass prairie to the north, tall cabbage palms—the Florida state tree—sway in the breeze. To the south, the prairie is edged by stands of slash pine, where the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker lives.

One species you’re bound to see is dark alligators basking on the canal rims. Unlike crocodiles, alligators only live in freshwater—but that’s what Big Cypress has. And if it wasn’t here to keep the water fresh, who knows what would happen to the rest of south Florida?