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Big Cypress National Preserve

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Big Cypress National Preserve Overview

Originally conceived as a buffer between the fragile Everglades ecosystem and encroaching development and pollution, Big Cypress National Preserve is a worthy destination in its own right. Here you'll find many of the same natural wonders as in the Everglades but with many fewer tourists elbowing for position.

The vast primordial swamps of Big Cypress are home to the highly endangered Florida panther, and one of the most diverse bird populations in the United States lives amid the orchid-strewn limbs of ancient great bald cypresses and islands of tropical hardwoods.

Surprising for a place that's submerged underwater for most of the year, Big Cypress has an abundance of good hiking. Winter is the dry season here, and the coolest, which means it's also the time that attracts the most visitors. Along with making the preserve more accessible to land-lubbing humans, another advantage of the dry season is that rare animals such as wood stork and alligator are easier to see because they gather around what water remains.

Big Cypress was designated a national preserve by Congress in 1974 under unusual guidelines, less strict than those found in most national parks, that allow for hunting, cattle grazing, oil exploration, and off-road vehicle use in some areas. Even so, most of the region remains remote wilderness with limited amenities.

Backpack the Florida Trail
Big Cypress is home to the southern terminus of the Florida Trail, an 1,100-mile national scenic trail that when completed will stretch to Gulf Island National Seashore on Florida's western panhandle. Don't think for a second that hiking the south Florida swamp is like hiking any other major trail in the United States. The section of the Florida Trail in Big Cypress is virtually flat for its entire length and, depending on the season, is mostly underwater up to three feet deep. There is no potable water along the 31-mile section of trail and there are only two primitive campsites, but it's a great way to see the exciting ecosystem of Big Cypress up close. A word of caution: The preserve is home to many species of poisonous snake. Know how to identify them, and watch where you sit!

Track the Florida Panther
Though fewer than 50 of these sleek cats remain, Florida panthers can still be seen by the skillful visitor to th wilds of Big Cypress. Technically a cougar, the adult Florida panther has reddish-brown (not black) fur and stands about two feet high at the shoulder. The most likely place to spot one is among the dense vegetation on islands of hardwoods called hammocks. Hammocks provide the panther with the ideal combination of cover, dry land, and prey it needs to raise its young.

Take a Swamp Drive
From the window of your car, you can easily view birds and alligators in the roadside canals where these animals congregate during winter's low-water period. The Loop Road is a 26-mile, single-lane passage through a variety of plant habitats that are home to deer and otter. Another option is the U-shape 17-mile circuit formed by Turner River Road and Birdon Road, which mostly runs through open grass prairie dotted with slash pine and bald cypress. This route is a must for wildflower fans. U.S. 41 runs the east-west width of the park on its way to Miami (about 40 miles east of the preserve's border). You'll find the Big Cypress Visitor Center on the way, and canals along its edges attract wading birds.

Marvel at Ancient Cypress
Though Big Cypress gets its name from the vast size of the swamp itself rather than most of the trees within it, there are still a few remaining great cypresses here whose stature will astound you. It would take more than you and three long-armed friends to stretch around the girth of one of these ancient trees, many of which are 600 to 700 years old. Once used for everything from coffins to pickle barrels, the great bald-cypress is now protected, a testament to the beauty of nature left undisturbed.

Sleep with Alligators
Eight primitive campgrounds dot the Big Cypress landscape, seven of which charge no fee. Staying in the preserve overnight allows you to experience the swamp when it really comes alive, as wildlife hiding from the harsh heat of day emerges to feed and frolic. Though most of the campgrounds lie on or near the Loop Road, they border on a diverse swath of swamp ecosystems. The most remote of the campgrounds is Bear Island, which sits among the pinelands north of I-75. None of the preserve's campgrounds have potable water or restrooms.

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