Location: Naples, Florida
Webpage: National Park
General Description: The Big Cypress National Preserve is located north of US 41 (the Tamiami Trail) between Naples and Miami, Florida and north of Everglades National Park. Along with the Everglades National Park and other partners including the Miccosukee Indian Reservation to the east, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Picayune Strand State Forest, Ten Thousand Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Collier-Seminole State Park to the west, and the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation to the north, they form a large block of land dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the greater Everglades area. By itself, the Big Cypress National Preserve is 729,000 acres of freshwater swamp ecosystem dominated by bald cypress trees in the wetter areas and pine flatwoods in the drier areas that are maintained by fire. Originally intended to be part of the Everglades National park when it was established in 1947, this area was ultimately dropped because the government was not able to purchase the land from private land owners. After the completion of the Tamiami Trail in 1928, Florida saw its first real estate boom an between the establishment of the Everglades National Park and the late 1960s, the Big Cypress Swamp faced many threats. In 1968, construction of a massive jetport to replace the International Airport in Miami was begun with the world’s largest runway. This project and the development that would follow would have devastated the natural freshwater flow from the swamp. A diverse coalition including conservationists, hunters, private land owners, and Seminole and Miccosukee tribes came together to stop the jetport development and to protect this unique landscape and freshwater flow. To honor those that came together, Congress created a new type of National Park, a National Preserve. Unlike other National Parks that restrict use to the preservation of habitat, a National Preserve recognizes and allows the traditional use of the land to continue. Therefore, Big Cypress National Preserve allows multiple activities including oil and gas exploration and extraction, hunting, off-road vehicles (swamp buggies), airboats, and private land ownership. Along with the protection of the freshwater flow, the Big Cypress National Preserve also protects essential habitat for a number of endangered and threatened species including the Florida panther, West Indian Manatee, the eastern Indigo snake, and the Florida sandhill crane.
1) There are two Visitor Centers and numerous primitive campgrounds in the Preserve. The western most Visitor Center is the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center at the west entrance on US 41. This Visitor Center has a few exhibits about the flora and fauna that can be seen on the Preserve, in particular the endangered Florida panther. This is also the location you would sign up for the free Ranger led canoe trips, although during the winter they are generally booked up two weeks in advance. Unfortunately we would not be in the area long enough and could not take advantage of it. Therefore, we were restricted to what we could see from the car or by foot.
2) The H.P. Williams Roadside Park is a 100 foot boardwalk along the canal that provides great opportunity to see some wading birds and alligators. The water is so clear that you could watch the Anhinga birds swimming under water.
3) The Kirby Storter Roadside Park has a half mile boardwalk that goes through the dwarf cypress trees into a cypress dome where the cypress trees become progressively larger. In under the large cypress trees there was a small pool that was a great opportunity to see a tri-colored heron and red-shoulder hawk up close. Well worth the walk.
4) The Oasis Visitor Center just past the center point of the Preserve on US 41 is a very nice Visitor Center with a very well done movie about the history and features of the Preserve. It was also a nice place for lunch under the palm trees. It is the southern terminus of the Florida National Scenic Trail that extends through the wilderness all the way to Pensacola. At this point the trail goes along a small runway and out into the big cypress swamp. We walked about 1.5 miles up the trail and got some great views of the swamp, before the trail got so rough and muddy that we turned around. At least at this point the trail is well marked, but not maintained.