About Big Cypress National Preserve
The Everglades encompass 4,000 square miles of Central and South Florida. When a jetport was proposed to be built in the heart of them during the late 1960’s, conservationists, sportsmen, environmentalists, as well as the Seminole and Miccosukee Indian tribes fought to save the area. As a result, the Big Cypress National Preserve was established in 1974.
Big Cypress was the first ever national preserve. It was established in a compromise as advocates wanted to save the swamp but didn’t want it to be managed in as a restrictive manner as the National Parks. Consequently, the preserve was formed to allow less restrictive activities such as hunting and to let Indian tribes keep their private land.
The Preserve is 729,000 acres, larger than Rhode Island. It protects a freshwater swamp ecosystem which provides the largest intact acreage of habitat for the panthers of South Florida. It hosts more than one million visitors a year, though I feel like most visitors to the Everglades spend their time on the 38-mile scenic drive in Everglades National Park.
In fact, like most visitors, I spent a day in Everglades National Park ten years ago. Since my last visit, I have always wanted to return. I finally made it. Only this time I planned a three day trip to the Western side of the Everglades and visited the Big Cypress National Preserve.
The Preserve may be easily reached by flying into any one of the following airports, Fort Myers, Miami or Fort Lauderdale. For the Western side, Fort Myers Airport is the closest though all three airports are within 1.5 hours of Everglades City. I actually flew into Fort Lauderdale as the flight was cheap, and a friend from Wellington drove down to join me and picked me up on the way.
Where to Stay
When visiting the Western side of the Everglades and the Big Cypress National Preserve, it is best to stay on the Western side of Florida. We stayed in Everglades City at the Ivey House Everglades Adventures Hotels. It is nothing to write home about, but it provides the typical amenities and is close to everything in the Preserve.
For those who wish for nicer accommodations or prefer a resort and are only visiting the Everglades for a day, Marco Island and Naples are nice nearby options. Of course, Miami, Florida City or Homestead are all good alternatives for visiting Shark Valley on the Eastern side or the main section of Everglades National Park in the South.
While it is possible to explore the entire area from either Florida coast, the Everglades cannot be driven as the crow flies, so the driving times will add up. Consequently, on a three-day trip, I recommend visiting one side or the other. Additionally, please note possible closures due to high water from weather and the ongoing everglades restoration project by checking the Preserve’s website.
Things to Do in the Big Cypress National Preserve
There are many things to do while visiting the Big Cypress National Preserve. Below are a few options for a three night stay in Everglades City.
Take a Swamp Tour
Probably the most popular thing to do in the Everglades is to take a swamp tour. There are many ways to do this. Outfitters offer swamp walks, swamp buggy tours, airboat tours, kayak tours, and pole boat tours. Prices vary based on public and private options. Of all these tours, I liked the airboat tour the best but for more details about each one and to find outfitters in the area, see my post Ways to See the Swamp in the Everglades. If tours aren’t your thing, it is easy to rent a kayak, take a bike ride, or go for a swamp walk on your own as well.
Bike Around Everglades City
Taking a bike ride in the Everglades isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, but there are a few places to do it. If staying at the Ivey House, the bikes are free to use. Just biking around Everglades City Island by the harbor and through the neighborhood is nice.
But also, biking one of the dirt roads in Big Cypress National Preserve is another good option. I’d probably stick to the Loop Road on the south side of Tamiami Trail as it is only lightly trafficked. Though Turner River Road and Birdon Road are other alternatives. In fact, the Big Cypress Institute on Turner River Road offers a bicycle tour.
Take a Scenic Drive
Don’t want to breath the dust from passing cars on Turner River Road and Birdon Road while bike riding? Then take a scenic drive. Though the landscape isn’t too exciting, it provides a good opportunity for birding. Looks for herons, egrets and other birds that hunt fish in the canals.
Look for Wildlife
Speaking of birding, there are many opportunities to go birding in the Everglades. The above mentioned pole boat tours are quiet and allow for birders to use their binoculars while the guide pushes the boat through the calm waters. It is also easy to see turtles and gators on this tour.
The boardwalks off the Tamiami Trail also afford a chance to see wildlife. They may be found at HP Williams Roadside Park, Oasis Visitor Center, and Kirby Storter Roadside Park. At the first two, you will likely spot big alligators. At the latter look for soft shell turtles!
For longer boardwalks, consider driving an hour north to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary or visiting the main section of Everglades National Park if you have extra time. The boardwalk at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is 2.5 miles long. It passes through the only remaining virgin Bald Cypress Forest and is home to the largest nesting colony of Wood Storks in the USA.
You may also spot other interesting wildlife from the rare panther or Big Cypress fox squirrel to deer, bear and raccoons. We spotted the rare squirrel on our scenic drive of the Loop Road, deer on our swamp buggy tour, and a family of four raccoons digging in the swamp for snails on our walk at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
Watch the Sunset
While it is always fun to see wildlife and a bird take flight in the sky, watching the sunset over the bay is also special. The picnic area and dock at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center on the western side of Big Cypress National Preserve is a perfect place for unobstructed views.
Cast a Line
The Gulf Coast Visitor Center is also a good launching point for boat tours and kayaking out to the 10,000 Islands. Additionally, boating or fishing on the Chokolaskee Bay is a great way to see the 10,000 Islands. Fishing Charters can be arranged at Everglades Fishing Company in Everglades City.
After a day on the water, consider a night in the park. The Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades National Park are designated as dark sky parks. Without much light around, the starry sky is magnificent. The preserve offers night sky outings during winter months. Be sure to check the schedule.
Visit a Museum or Gallery
Want a break from the outdoors because it is too hot, too cold, too rainy, too buggy? Believe it or not, there are a few inside alternatives. Stop by the Clyde Butcher Gallery on the Tamiami trail to admire some magnificent black and white photography.
Or learn some local lore at the Museum of the Everglades and the Smallwood Store. The Museum of the Everglades is free to visit, while the Smallwood Store is $5. The tales of deserters and murderers on Florida’s last frontier in the early 1900’s are worth the price of admission. Peter Matthiessen has even written a fictional National Bestseller based on the area called Killing Mister Watson. For more history about the area, see my post The History of Everglades City.
Post a Letter
After all of your adventures, write your own story and post it at the smallest post office in the United States. Located on the Tamiami Trail, the building was once an irrigation pipe shed on a tomato farm. After a fire destroyed the Ochopee Post Office and general store in 1953, the postmaster hurriedly pushed this location into service. It serves as the post office and ticket office for Trailways bus line in a three-county area!
Eat the Stone Crab
It wouldn’t be right to leave the Everglades without tasting the stone crab. A pound costs more than some of the tours in Big Cypress, but it will be the freshest you find. Everglades City is the stone crab capital of the world. Boats unload their catch right on the docks during the winter season.
Where to Eat
We tried the stone crabs at Camellia Street Grill. In fact, we visited this restaurant twice as it is one of the few open in the evening, and it has a fun atmosphere. Some other favorite restaurants in Everglades City that we tried are Nely’s Corner and Triad Seafood.
We ate breakfast at Nely’s Corner every morning. Their eggs, bacon and toast are great, and I’m told we missed out on their popular shrimp flo’ boy for lunch. The small restaurant, located in the corner of the Marathon gas station, also makes boxed lunches to go which is nice for full day outings.
I recommend Triad Seafood for a sit down meal. I only wish we tried the restaurant sooner, as we might have returned. Don’t judge a book by its cover, as the lunch place looks boring from the parking lot. But inside, the restaurant opens to the water and it is a perfect place enjoy during nice weather. Additionally, the food was good and the service was fast despite being relatively busy for a late afternoon meal.
We met some friends at Havana Café and found it’s patio and food enjoyable. It is located on the way to the Smallwood Store Museum on Chokoloskee Island, so I recommend planning a stop there while visiting the museum and the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Big Cypress National Preserve.
Though the dinner restaurants in Everglades City are limited, there are a few more options including the Rod &Gun Club, City Seafood, Island Café, and Hole in the Wall Pizza. We didn’t get around to trying them, though we were armed with the map of locations and hours from the Ivey House.
Just for a change of pace, we took a side trip to Goodland. A nice double wide on this peninsula will cost you more than $100K. There are a handful of eateries open for dinner.
With the short days of winter, a three day visit to Big Cypress National Preserve is perfect. We had plenty of time to try most everything while enjoying cool temperatures and few bugs. ETB
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