Photograph by Jack Dykinga
The “big” in Big Cypress is much more about land and sky than about trees. Most of the preserve’s giant cypress trees were long ago logged out, leaving behind their stunted kin. But few places can match the sense of spacious wilderness (720,000 acres, or 292,000 hectares) and primal pleasure of Big Cypress Swamp when you hike it under its own terms. Which, we submit, is when it’s underwater. That’s right—conventional wisdom may say to stick to the dry season, and that’s fine. But take a cue from a peculiar breed of Florida hiker called the swamp tromper and go for a sawgrass prairie slosh in July through October.
You'll walk through calf-deep to knee-deep water on a 30-mile (48-kilometer) segment of the 1,500-mile (2,414-kilometer) Florida Trail that cuts across the preserve. For one thing, water keeps the marl soil compacted; “dry” usually means “muddy” here. For another, it’s just plain fun—and decidedly magical. The water is crystal clear. You’ll see primeval avians like wood storks, Florida sandhill cranes, and egrets, and, on the higher ground, songbirds like grosbeaks and cardinals. You’re unlikely to have much human company.
The trail is blazed, but GPS is a big help, especially in winter when the pathway isn’t particularly evident underfoot. There are few gators hereabouts, and no, you won’t be camping in knee-deep water. The trail links high-ground islands known as hammocks, where the camping is fine beneath pines and palms, and where gorgeous bromeliads festoon the trees. Bears like the high ground, too, so a clean camp is called for. At night, listen for the wail of a panther. They’re out there.
Need to Know: The blazed trail runs from the park visitor center on U.S. 41 to a rest stop on I-75. For info and free permits, go to www.nps.gov/bicy. Maps and guides are available at www.floridatrail.org.