A Weekend in the Swamp: Everglades ecosystem is just hours away but feels like a different world
Dec 28, 2017 11:48PM
Paddling the Turner River through the Big Cypress National Preserve offers a chance to explore multiple habitats in one day. Photo courtesy of Judith Biery.
Gallery: A Weekend in the Swamp - January/February 2018 [5 Images] Click any image to expand.
Return to Route 41 and you will find plenty of places to explore as you venture farther into the wilderness. Pull over at the smallest operating post office in the United States for a photo op, then head for the parks. First you will pass Collier-Seminole State Park, where the short Royal Palm Hammock Trail meanders through a tropical hardwood hammock, the preferred habitat of the endangered Liguus tree snail, then winds into low wetlands dense with ferns and white mangroves. The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk, located in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, leads visitors through a stand of primary cypress forest and is an outstanding location for birdwatching.
Big Cypress National Preserve, which protects more than 729,000 acres of the Everglades ecosystem, offers visitors an abundance of opportunities for learning and recreation. Beginning in the late fall and running through Easter, ranger-led talks and programs take place in various locations throughout the park. During guided wet walks, rangers lead participants through the swamp while discussing the fascinating ecology of sawgrass prairies and cypress stands. You will get wet, so don’t forget to bring an old pair of closed-toe shoes and a change of clothes.
There are also observation platforms and educational displays at each of Big Cypress National Preserve’s two visitor centers, where alligators and manatees often make an appearance and rangers are happy to make recommendations for your group. A few boardwalks and marked hiking trails are scattered throughout the park, including the Florida National Scenic Trail, Gator Hook Trail and Fire Prairie Trail. Most programs here are free when you register in advance, and all upcoming programs are listed on the park’s website. Thanks to its status as a designated International Dark Sky Park, Big Cypress is also able to host four Dark Sky programs each year, during which guests are treated to astronomy talks and stargazing through high-power telescopes, while surrounded by the darkness of the swamp.
For wildlife watching from the comfort of your vehicle, Birdon Road Loop (County Road 841) is a 17-mile gravel road through Big Cypress National Preserve. Common sightings include alligators, bears (especially in the spring when the Brazilian pepper berries are ripe), otters, birds, deer, fox squirrels and the occasional panther. Loop Road is a longer, 23-mile option with similar scenery. Both of these roads begin and end on Route 41 and provide a safe setting to slow down or pull over while you observe and photograph the local flora and fauna.
Also on Route 41, renowned photographer Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery is filled with his large-format, black-and-white, silver gelatin photographs of the Everglades. Butcher has spent more than 25 years exploring and documenting this fragile ecosystem in his distinctive style, and seeing his work up close is a moving experience. Heirloom-quality prints, posters, postcards, books and souvenirs are available for purchase in the gallery shop, all perfect mementos of your visit. Big Cypress Gallery also offers private swamp walks and photo safaris through a rare, on-property dwarf cypress prairie. These tours can be tailored to your group’s individual interests and abilities. There are also two lodging options available on the property.
“Both our Bungalow and our Cottage have huge windows with sweeping views of the surrounding scenery,” says Jackie Obendorf, Butcher’s daughter. “How often do you have a chance to fall asleep—and wake up—to the sounds of the swamp?”
Just before the outskirts of Miami begin to rise up from the surrounding landscape, you will arrive at Everglades National Park’s Shark Valley Visitor Center. Here, Bobcat Boardwalk and Otter Cave Hammock Trail are great places to spot alligators, deer and even the occasional crocodile. Guided tram tours are scheduled regularly along the center’s 15-mile loop road, which last approximately two hours and provide an abundance of interesting information about the surrounding habitats. You might spot alligator hatchlings in the numerous canals along the road, and birds like American bitterns and limpkins, which are uncommon on Sanibel and Captiva. It is also possible to bike the Shark Valley loop road, and bike rentals are available on-site. Check the park’s website for a schedule of upcoming sunset rides.
When the weekend is over, and it’s time to return to the west coast, you are sure to have a new sense of wonder and gratitude for the wilderness that lies between here and Miami, and a desire to return for many more adventures in this land of swaying grass and calling frogs. Perhaps you should see who can count the most alligators along the road as you make your way home to our own sanctuary island.
WHERE TO EAT
Camellia Street Grill
Everglades Rod & Gun Club
WHERE TO STAY
The Ivey House
Everglades Swamp Cottage and Bungalow Rentals
PLACES TO SEE
The Smallwood Store
Gulf Coast Visitor Center
Collier-Seminole State Park
Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk
Big Cypress National Preserve Welcome Center
Birdon Road Loop Drive
Loop Road Scenic Drive
Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery
Shark Valley Visitor Center, Everglades National Park
Support Our Parks
Written by Leah Biery, director of communications for the Sanibel Sea School.