I haven’t heard much about Big Cypress National Preserve. Surprisingly, it’s filled with wildlife and sandwiched between the Northernmost Everglades Visitors Centers at Everglades City and Shark Valley. February 2020 gave us a few days to enjoy the park on our way to the Florida Keys. Selecting which activities to do in the area created some anxiety for me, I wanted to do it all!
We got out of the Silver Springs area in Ocalla late due to ONE bolt. It’s hard to believe that the slide mechanism relies on one tiny bolt to retract the slide-out room. Ya can’t drive without retracting the slides and the bolt sheered into two pieces. A speedy mobile RV tech replaced the bolt and we closed the slide and took off.
In the pitch dark of our late arrival in Big Cypress, we just missed the turnoff to the midway campground. That isn’t how we like to do it. We have only arrived after dark when we were still working years ago. Back then, we couldn’t start driving until after work on Friday so arriving after dark was the norm. Now, we like to arrive by 3pm or so. That gives us plenty of time to set up, explore the area and make plans to visit nearby visitor sites.
In order to back the RV to the entrance road that we missed, the tow car had to be unhooked and moved out of the way. I was trying not to think about the grunting alligators so close in the dark bush. My feet weren’t even visible in the pitch dark as I directed Bruce to back the RV to the camping entrance road. Praying the gators would stay put while I went about the unnerving task. Watching the RV instead of paying attention to where I was walking or what was lurking in the ponds next to the road in the total blackness was scary.
The campsite numbers were impossible to see in the dark but it was so full that it wasn’t too hard to find our site ~ just look for the empty spot! Backing the RV in was easy because our site was plenty wide. In the morning, I could see that all of the sites face a small lake. Birds like to congregate in the bromeliad-laden trees surrounding the sites making it a cheerful place – except for the alligator warning signs all around the pond and the bugs on the site signs.
The First Visitor’s Center
The nearest Big Cypress Visitor’s Center to the campground turned out to have great sightings of alligators, herons, cormorants, anhingas, fish, lizards, and more in the lively roadside pond. Winding next to the Visitor’s Center, the Florida Trail continues past an airstrip and on through cypress wetlands. Imagining the walk though the clear water around the cypress trees full of creatures would not be on my hiking list.
As the ranger was doing his morning rounds along the raised boardwalk early that first morning, he called out a warning to us. Even though we were walking along a fence at the base of the boardwalk that was over 5 foot high, he said gators can climb over it very quickly and we should be careful. There are plenty of alligators in that small pond and I never thought to check if they were near the fence. Since then, I have seen video of an alligator (click to see it) climbing a taller fence and I am now a believer in climbing alligators!
Orchids, Bromeliads and Air Plants
Our Ranger gave us some tips on where to find wild orchids. A trail along a swamp-buggy road had several stands of trees filled with bromeliads and air plants that were starting to bloom. At the base of the trees in a small thicket were many delicate orchids. They seemed so out of place in this wild bush area. This whole park is unlike any I have seen. Animals are plentiful in the various habitats such as dry, but wooded areas next to grasses or cypress trees in clear standing water.
The trees surrounding our campsite were just filled with bright red and yellow bromeliads growing on their branches. See a swamp-buggy click this link.
The Northern Everglades
Everglades National Park borders Big Cypress on both ends, the Western side and the Eastern Side.
The only way to really see the Western portion of the Northern Everglades is by boat. A National Park Service concessionaire runs a Ten-Thousand Islands tour out of Everglades City for about $40. The tours fill up fast and we weren’t in the mood for a crowd of people in our limited time here. We never got around to arranging a smaller charter boat more suitable for photography. Opting instead to spend time on back roads in Big Cypress where we could take our time photographing wildlife.
On the Eastern end, Shark Valley Visitor’s Center is just 30 miles West of Miami which probably accounts for how crowded it was. A tram ride in an open-air tourist train runs along an asphalt path next to a pond. We elected instead to walk along the tram path so we could have more flexibility for photography. An alligator made her nest right next to the path and the sun was just right to catch all of her babies sunning next to her. It’s the first nest I have ever seen and it fascinated me. I was surprised that the Park Service barricades were so close to her – we know how fast they can move! With all of the open space, I can’t figure out why she decided to have her babies where so many tourists gather. Maybe she likes showing them off!
Further up, a heron was hunting along the pond that stretched next to the tram path. The Heron was moving so fast and it was hard to get in front to catch it coming toward me in the beautiful morning light. Herons are typically walking very slowly or standing in one place for long periods with a fierce lunge to catch prey. By comparison, this one was in a marathon.
Several owls were calling back and forth to each other as we returned to the car from our orchid sighting. I’m still determined to get new owl photos but so far they remain hidden.
A dirt road led us through the park to cypress swamp ponds just filled with birds. It was a photographer’s heaven in a low-traffic area with plenty of time to compose our shots. Just what we wanted! Most people drive on through missing the activity in the ponds. Luckily, there were very few cars because the road dust takes a while to settle. Cameras don’t like dust much. One of the best ponds was like a “can-you-find-it” puzzle mixed with the peripheral test at the eye doctor. With the exception of the white egrets, the birds blend in until a slight movement is caught on the edges of the swamp. The only sound at times was the clicking of the cameras and a splash or squawk.
A beautiful remote wonderland like this really needs more than a 4-night stay and arriving in the dark should be avoided. This is a great place for viewing night skies and the darkness is very dense. In hindsight, avoiding the touristy things like the boat tour and tram ride were good moves because it was just before the pandemic lockdowns started, we were safer without realizing it.
Next time, I want to experience it all including a Big Cypress area swamp-buggy tour and a boat tour through the nearby Ten Thousand Islands in The Everglades. I’m not sure I’d do the tram tour at Shark Valley next time (unless it’s too hot) but I would surely walk all the way to the end of the tram path where the tower is.
After waiting a year to stay in the Keys, we are looking forward to our next adventures, but this place will remain on the “do-it-again” list.