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Times of the Islands Magazine

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.

Bicycling is an up-close way to see the Everglades. Photo courtesy Judith Biery.

Glance at a map of Florida and you will notice an extensive green patch that stretches from Naples to Fort Lauderdale, and south to the farthest reaches of the state. With few roads passing through, these 1.5 million-plus untamed, protected acres make up the Everglades ecosystem, and to live in Southwest Florida without visiting would be a mistake. From Sanibel and Captiva, take U.S. Route 41 toward Miami until you reach rolling fields of sawgrass and towering cypress trees, and you will be rewarded with breathtaking views, exceptional wildlife watching and an authentic peek into Old Florida. “This part of the state is incredibly diverse and biologically unique, and absolutely worth a closer look,” says Lisa Andrews, outreach and education coordinator for Big Cypress National Preserve.

A weekend jaunt is the perfect way to introduce yourself to what this region has to offer beyond touristy airboat rides and alligator farms. The best wildlife-watching months are January through March, but it is possible to observe animals year-round. First, make your way down to Chokoloskee Island, where the population is 359 and you might find yourself wondering what year it is. A stop at the historic Ted Smallwood Store, an early 1900s trading post turned museum, will provide a glimpse into the lives of South Florida’s early inhabitants, from the Calusa Indians to the fur traders, farmers and archaeologists who arrived at the end of the 19th century. Reopened by Ted’s granddaughter, the store has nearly 90 percent of its original contents still in place, making it a fascinating time capsule to explore. 

Heading north from there, pull over at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center to peruse the educational displays and enjoy views of the surrounding Ten Thousand Islands. If you’re feeling adventurous, rent a canoe or join a guided boat tour of this extensive network of mangrove islands accessible only by boat. No visit to Everglades City would be complete without seeing the Everglades Rod & Gun Club—stop for a cocktail and gawk at the extensive collection of taxidermy specimens and historical photos. There are also a few charming dining options in town, including Sweet Mayberry’s Cafe and Camellia Street Grill.

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. 

“Self- or ranger-guided canoe trips along the Turner River are one of my favorite programs that we offer,” says Andrews. “Paddlers pass through the cypress forest, pinelands, prairie, pond apple trees and mangrove tunnels. You will see wildlife, and you’ll leave with a new understanding and appreciation for the diversity of this area.” Common sightings include alligators, turtles, birds and endemic orchid species. 

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. 

Renowned Florida photographer Clyde Butcher exhibits his work at his Big Cypress Gallery. Photo courtesy of Big Cypress Gallery.

WHERE TO EAT

Note that there are few dining and grocery shopping options east of Everglades City. If you are planning to venture into the parks, it is wise to bring your own food and drinks.  

Camellia Street Grill

202 Camellia Street West, Everglades City, FL 34139
A charming space with waterfront outdoor seating, fresh seafood and salads with a southern twist, and live music on weekends.

Sweet Mayberry’s

207 Broadway West, Everglades City, FL 34139
A café and gift shop featuring coffee, wraps and desserts. A great option for lunch. 

Havana Café

191 Smallwood Drive, Chokoloskee, FL 34138
Open seasonally October – April
A family-owned restaurant specializing in Cuban and seafood dishes served outdoors in a tropical garden setting. 

Everglades Rod & Gun Club

200 Riverside Drive, Everglades City, FL 34139
Locally sourced seafood, sandwiches and a full bar with décor you’ll find only in the Florida swamp. 

WHERE TO STAY

The Ivey House

107 Camellia Street East, Everglades City, FL
iveyhouse.com; 239-695-3299
Located on a picturesque historic property, The Ivey House offers a variety of comfortable accommodations including rooms and cottages. 

Everglades Swamp Cottage and Bungalow Rentals

52388 Tamiami Trail, Ochopee, FL 34141
clydebutcher.com; 239-695-2428
Private, tastefully decorated lodging with outstanding views of the surrounding swamp. 

Camping

There are campgrounds located in Collier-Seminole State Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. Check park websites for seasonal site availability before visiting.

PLACES TO SEE

The Smallwood Store

360 Mamie Street, Chokoloskee, FL 34138
smallwoodstore.com; 239-695-2989

Gulf Coast Visitor Center

815 Oyster Bar Lane, Everglades City, FL 34139

Collier-Seminole State Park

20200 Tamiami Trail East, Naples, FL 34114

Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk

27020 Tamiami Trail East, Naples, FL 34114

Big Cypress National Preserve Welcome Center

33000 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee, FL 34141

Birdon Road Loop Drive

Big Cypress National Preserve, Ochopee, FL 34141

Loop Road Scenic Drive

Big Cypress National Preserve, Ochopee, FL 34141

Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery

52388 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee, FL 34141

Shark Valley Visitor Center, Everglades National Park

36000 SW 8th Street, Miami, FL 33194

Support Our Parks

If your visit to the Everglades ecosystem inspires you to protect the future of these wild places, visit southfloridaparks.org to learn more about how you can support the South Florida National Parks Trust. Fundraising events are held locally throughout the year. 

Written by Leah Biery, director of communications for the Sanibel Sea School.