NPS Adventures: Big Cypress National Preserve

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The Roarbots’ series of NPS Adventures takes a big-picture view of one location within the National Park Service and highlights some of the best activities that site has to offer. This is usually done through a kid-friendly lens and almost always includes activities and suggestions we can recommend from personal experience. And pictures. There are lots and lots of pictures. Glad to have you aboard!

Welcome to Big Cypress National Preserve!

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Stats

Take a look at a map of southern Florida, and the first thing you’ll notice is that it’s mostly green, which indicates national park land. A huge chunk of that belongs to Everglades National Park, but an astonishing 729,000 acres comprise Big Cypress National Preserve, which was the nation’s first national preserve – intended to protect the fresh water flow from Big Cypress Swamp into the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands.

Today, the park has five primary – and very distinct – habitats: hardwood hammocks, pinelands, prairies, cypress swamps, and estuaries. Contrast this with the mostly wide-open seas of sawgrass in the Everglades, and Big Cypress has a surprisingly unique personality all its own!

(Click on all pictures to embiggen.)

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The most popular way to access the park is by Route 41 (the Tamiami Trail). There are two visitor’s centers – Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center in the east, near Everglades City, and Oasis Visitor Center roughly in the middle of the park.

The Oasis Visitor Center – once a private airport – is the most convenient for those exploring the interior of the park or combining a visit with the Everglades. It’s also an excellent place to see alligators, which hang out in a trough of standing water in front of the building.

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Driving

Perhaps the most popular thing to do in the park – especially for those with limited time – is drive the Loop Road, which is a 24-mile, mostly dirt road south of the current Tamiami Trail (Route 41). The road carves a path through the southern swathe of the park and is a fantastic introduction to the local ecosystem.

Even though Big Cypress is connected to the Everglades, and the eastern end of Loop Road is just a few miles from the Everglades’ Shark Valley Visitor Center, it feels completely different.

The road travels through areas of incredibly dense swamp and towering cypress trees, which make it feel almost like the polar opposite of what you see up the road at Shark Valley. On first glance, much of the drive feels “closed off” and monotonous. Don’t be fooled.

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If you drive as fast as you can on the dirt road and keep your eyes trained directly ahead of you, you’ll miss everything. And that would be a terrible shame, because there’s so much to see. Slow down, look into the trees, investigate the pools of water beside the many bridges, and get out of your car. You will see alligators. You will see wildlife. I guarantee it.

Click here for a detailed look at the scenic drive, including what to watch out for at specific mile markers. If you only have a few hours to spend in the park, want to combine a visit to Big Cypress with a stop at Shark Valley, or are simply making a quick stop on a trip from Miami to Naples or Tampa, the Loop Road cannot be beat.

Unfortunately, this was pretty much the extent of what we were able to do in the park. Looking at a map, it’s heartbreaking to see how much of the park remains unexplored. We’ll definitely have to return.

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Hiking & Other Activities

Though a vast majority of the park remains undeveloped backcountry, there are many trails and campgrounds available for those who want to head out and get their feet wet. In fact, the southern terminus of the roughly 1,300-mile-long Florida National Scenic Trail is the park’s Oasis Visitor Center.

There are also countless opportunities for canoeing, kayaking, bird watching, camping, bicycling, and ATV riding. Reasons enough for several return visits!

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Junior Rangers

In southern Florida, the Junior Ranger program is combined among the Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, and Big Cypress National Preserve. Kids are given an 18-page book of activities, and they have to complete any three pages to qualify for one park’s badge.

If kids complete the tasks for all three parks (i.e., complete nine pages and get sworn in at each park), then they earn a special patch for their achievement. This was a challenge my kids couldn’t refuse, so of course they had to do it.

I’d highly recommend the Junior Ranger program at any park, but if you’re spending less than a day in Big Cypress with little ones, I’d almost say that it’s essential. It’ll help kids get a much better understanding of the park that will remain mostly unexplored (for now).

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