Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Florida Keys & Everglades
By Rick Ferren
[Fig. 15, Fig. 16] It's easy to tell when the Tamiami Trail passes into the confines of the Big Cypress Swamp. Cypress trees simply take over the landscape. For 35 miles the road passes through one cypress head after another, exposing cutaway views of these wildlife sanctuaries to the passing motorist.
Anhingas and herons perch on branches over open water sloughs. Alligators and turtles can even be seen from passing automobiles. In some cypress heads, thick growths of Spanish moss hang from every branch. A true airplant, like the other epiphytes adorning the trees, Spanish moss takes nothing from its host plant; it is only a place to hang. Early settlers found Spanish moss made a decent mattress stuffing.
As tempting as it is to pull over at every scenic spot, the Tamiami Trail is a dangerous highway, and roadside sightseeing should be reserved to many of the off-road drives available in the Big Cypress Swamp.
Covering more than 2,400 square miles of South Florida, the name Big Cypress refers to the vastness of the area, not the size of trees found there. Much like in the river of grass, almost 60 inches of wet-season rains fall from May to October, filling the sloughs and flooding the surface of Big Cypress. Following the minute slope of 2 inches per mile, the 1-foot-deep water flows slowly towards the coastal estuaries of Everglades National Park. The slow drainage extends the period of time water stays on the land.
The main drainage ways in Big Cypress are the big sloughs that hold the deepest water. With names like Fakahatchee and Gator Hook, these densely forested strands once held giant cypress trees that were cut during the 1930s and 1940s to build stadium seats and pickle barrels.
The dark, humid environment of the bigger and deeper sloughs is perfect for the growth of rare orchids, like the ghost orchid (Polyradicion lindleyii). The frog-shaped flower of the ghost orchid is pollinated by the giant sphinx moth (Cocytius antaeus medor). The larvae of the giant sphinx moth in turn feed exclusively on the leaves of pond apple trees. And so it goes.
About one-third of Big Cypress is covered with cypress. In places where the limestone has eroded and deeper soils have collected, the cypress heads become high, dome-shaped clusters. Were the soil is thinner, the cypress don't grow as thick or as tall.
There are two species of cypress in the swamp, baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) and pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens). The baldcypress has a straight trunk with brown bark. The needles are a feathery light green and lie flat on the plane of the branches. Under optimum growing conditions the trees may reach heights of 125 feet.
Pond cypresses have needles that point upward and are more closely angled to the twigs. The trees are shorter and grow better in soils with fewer nutrients and less water. Dwarf cypresses, which are a majority of the cypresses in the swamp, are a stunted form of the pond cypress. Although as old as regular pond cypresses, they are severely stunted because they grow in shallow, low-nutrient soils. Dwarf cypresses can be seen scattered around on the wet grass prairies.
Although related to pines, cypress trees are deciduous. In Big Cypress they lose their needles in November, regaining them in February and March.
The swamp also includes wide expanses of slash pine forest, mixed hardwood hammocks, wet prairies, dry prairies, marshes, and estuarine mangrove forests. It only takes an elevation change of a few inches to change the dominant species and habitat type. Baldcypress trees grow largest in low areas that stay wet all year, while slightly higher terrain that dries out in the winter supports open expanses of prairie grasses and dwarf pond cypress. On even slightly higher land, cabbage palm forests and pinelands dominate the landscape.
Only in a few places can you see old, mature cypresses, many more than 500 years old. The Big Cypress Bend boardwalk in the Fakahatchee Strand and a section of the Turner River Loop Road pass through some of the biggest cypress trees left in the area.
The Big Cypress Swamp has also seen plenty of attempts at real estate development over the years. Lots that are underwater half the year were sold sight unseen. Oil exploration proved successful and some drilling and pumping still takes place in Big Cypress under careful management, as does some cattle grazing.
In the dry season, after most of the water has drained off the land, the wildlife gathers at the remaining pools. White-tailed deer, wild turkey (Meleagris gallopano), bears, wild hogs, Everglades mink (Mustela vison), and otters have to move closer together. Gars, largemouth bass, bream, bluegill, and snapping turtles gather beneath herons and ibis perched in the trees above.
Even the water is alive with a world of miniature aquatic creatures. Copepods, waterfleas, grass shrimp, and mosquito larvae are part of a busy food web that will eventually feed larger fish and birds. Here mosquito larvae is eaten by the gambusia minnow, which is eaten by various sunfish, which are eaten by great blue herons, Anhingas, and snapping turtles.
Other parts of the web are more restrictive, such as the endangered snail kite, which feeds its chicks only the meat of the freshwater apple snail. The formula is simple: no water, no snails; no snails, no snail kites.
The Big Cypress Swamp also houses the southernmost colony of red-cockaded woodpeckers. These cavity-nesters require mature pine trees in which to drill their homes.
Rare Florida panthers are also known to roam Big Cypress, but are seldom seen. Bobcats are much more common and are more commonly seen. Even black bears are far more common than panthers, but seeing one in the daytime is unusual.
The evening bat (Nycticeius hymeralis) has also been spotted in Big Cypress. Look for it in flight around sunset. Several species of venomous snakes, including the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, dusky pigmy rattlesnake, cottonmouth moccasin and coral snake, reside in the preserve, along with numerous other less dangerous species. Watch where you walk, where you sit, and where you put your hands.
[Fig. 15, Fig. 16] The Big Cypress National Preserve protects a large part of the Big Cypress Swamp, the heart of the Western Everglades system. Roughly half the size of Everglades National Park, the Big Cypress National Preserve was created in 1974 when the U.S. Congress purchased 570,000 acres. It was the first national preserve ever created. Expanded in 1988, today 729,000 acres are protected.
A national preserve is different from a national park in that traditional recreational vehicles, such as swamp buggies, and traditional uses, such as hunting, grazing, and oil drilling, have been allowed to continue, although under strict management from the National Park Service. Collection of plants and animals is prohibited under federal law.
Fishing is allowed throughout the Big Cypress Preserve under the auspices of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. You must have a fishing license for any freshwater fishing. See Appendix E for more information on fishing licenses in Florida.
There are some limited hiking opportunities available in the preserve, but the main attractions for visitors are the loop roads that provide easy access to some of the more remote, and more beautiful, parts of the swamp. Privately owned, off-road vehicles can also be used by permit only to access certain areas of the preserve. Bicycles and horses are allowed in designated areas.
Bicycling is allowed on a series of limerock trails within the preserve. The same trails are also used by off-road vehicles and hikers.
The subtropical climate means mild winters and hot, wet summers. Wear lightweight clothing in hot weather. Long-sleeved shirts, pants, sturdy shoes, and bug repellent are recommended for hiking. The busiest visitor season is from Christmas through Easter. Two highways cross the preserve, Interstate 75 and US 41, while SR 29 runs parallel to the western border. Almost all entrances to the preserve, including the visitor center, are along US 41. The Big Cypress Visitor Center offers an excellent 15minute movie about the preserve, a wildlife exhibit, and book sales. During the winter season the preserve schedules rangerled wet walks, canoe trips, bicycle tours, and campfire programs at the campgrounds.
There are six primitive campgrounds scattered around the preserve; all allow tent camping and most accommodate motor homes. A dump station is available for a small fee. Several small motels and private campgrounds can be found around the Everglades City area.
[Fig. 15, Fig. 16] A 31-mile section of the Florida National Scenic Trail crosses the refuge from the Loop Road on the south to a limited access site on Interstate 75. It crosses US 41 at the visitor center.
The Florida Trail passes through a cross section of the preserve's habitat types. Hikers should be prepared for wet areas any time of the year, and for ankle-deep to waist-deep water in the rainy season. There are two primitive campsites along the trail in the preserve, but no potable water. The first campsite is 6.9 miles from the visitor center. The second campsite is 16.7 miles from the visitor center.
Many backpackers take a two-, three-, or four-day, out-and-back hike from the visitor center. Two side loops in the trail make it possible to travel mostly different ground on the way out and the way back.
Another 8.3 mile trail section extends south from the visitor center to the south side of the Loop Road. No potable water or campsites are along this trail section, but both ends can be reached by car which allows for a one-way hike.
[Fig. 15, Fig. 16] One of the most enjoyable and popular activities in the Big Cypress National Preserve is a slow drive down one of the many back roads open for auto touring. Most are graded dirt roads originally built for timber harvesting and later used by plant harvesters, hunters, and early residents.
Although all of the roads are passable year-round, it's a good idea to stop by the visitor center for information on current conditions. There are no services on any of the roads.
The most popular, Loop Road (CR 94), is a 26-mile single-lane road with an unimproved surface. It can take two to three hours to travel the entire length of the road, which can be driven from either direction. Watch out for potholes, of which there are many. During the wet season, sections of the Loop Road can suffer from shallow flooding.
The road connects to the Tamiami Trail at two points 19 miles apart: at the Tamiami Trail Ranger Station at the eastern edge of the preserve and at Monroe Station, 4 miles to the west of the visitor center. The first 9 miles of the road from the east is paved and leads to the Loop Road Education Center. The Tree Snail Hammock Nature Trail is a short, selfguided trail located across from the education center. The trail winds through a hardwood hammock and explains local plants and animals.
The Loop Road passes straight through the heart of a series of splendid cypress heads, and past wide expanses of dry prairies, wet prairies, and dwarf cypress forests. Watch for white-tailed deer and turkey on the prairies in early morning and late evening. Along some sections cocoplums and sabal palms (Sabal palmetto) line the road.
In the cypress heads, stop at some of the hundreds of small open pools along the road. In the clear water you'll see gar and largemouth bass, maybe an otter or an alligator, and always a few birds perched or standing nearby. Cypress stand tall and solemn around the pool, their fairy land branches resplendent with epiphytes and tree orchids while their bases are decorated with dark green ferns. The small yellowish-green, white, and pink blossoms of the Florida butterfly orchid are common in many of these cypress heads.
During the dry season you may encounter alligators that have migrated to the remaining ponds near the road lying on the road. Resist the urge to get out of the car for a closer look. Alligators can travel very fast on land. They'll move out of the way as your vehicle draws closer.
[Fig. 15, Fig. 16] The Turner River Road (CR 839) and Birdon Road (CR 841) form a popular, 17-mile loop-drive through open grass prairie dotted with slash pine and baldcypress. This maintained dirt and gravel road is ideal for viewing wildflowers in the prairies and along canals. The roads are wide, fairly smooth, and mostly free of potholes, but they can be very dusty during dry times.
The canal along the first part of the Turner River Road is great for bird-watching. Coots, Florida gallinules, glossy ibis, pied-billed grebes, Anhingas, and great blue herons are commonly seen. The large black bird with the shiny coat and the long tail sitting in the bull rushes is a boat-tailed grackle (Quiscalus major).
Notice the mature baldcypresses along the east side of the CR 839. Some of the few remaining cypress trees that escaped the timber boom of the 1930s and 40s can be seen along the Turner River Road.
Two hiking trails can be found along CR 839 that follow roads which originally led to oil drilling pads. Closed to regular traffic, they are now multiple-use recreation trails. The Concho Billy Trail (2.5 miles one-way) is used by hikers, mountain bikers, and off-road vehicle riders. The Fire Prairie Trail (also 2.5 miles one-way) is a biking and hiking trail.
You might see a swamp buggy along this road. If you're in a car, the top of the buggy's wheels will be at eye level, with the engine and seating compartment many feet higher. These elevated vehicles, designed to run in relatively deep water, were developed to provide access to remote areas of Big Cypress.
Seven miles down Turner River Road the route turns left onto Wagon Wheel Road (CR 837), which crosses a wide wetland prairie. Watch along this section for glossy ibis, belted kingfisher, and northern rough-winged swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) diving for insects over the grasses in the evening. The swallows are common in South Florida from fall through spring. In the summer this is a good place to watch the great flat-bottomed thunder storms forming every afternoon over Big Cypress.
At the next intersection Wagon Wheel Road continues to SR 29, and Birdon Road (CR 841) continues back to the Tamiami Trail.
[Fig. 16(1)] Appropriately situated in the middle of a cypress strand, Clyde Butcher's Big Cypress Gallery is located just 0.5 mile east of the Big Cypress Preserve visitor center on the Tamiami Trail.
The preeminent Everglades photographer, Clyde Butcher uses black and white photography and wide format cameras to capture the elaborate detail and textures that distinguish the intricacies of the untouched Everglades landscape. Featured in numerous documentaries and articles, Butcher is known for his incredible patience. He sometimes spends hours or days standing in waist-deep water waiting for just the right light or cloud formation before taking even one photo.
A large selection of his breathtaking photographs can be seen and purchased at the gallery. There's also a very enjoyable nature walk behind the gallery on one of the prettiest little trails you'll find in Big Cypress. It offers an up-close view of a variety of ferns and orchids growing on the cypress trees. Butcher often holds photographic workshops on the lands surrounding the gallery.
[Fig. 15, Fig. 16] Bordering the western side of the Big Cypress National Preserve, the 74,000-acre Fakahatchee Strand contains some of the most unusual natural features in Florida. The word "strand" refers to linear swamp forests that develop along large sloughs in the Big Cypress Swamp. The sloughs are created by water flowing over and beneath the landscape, slowly dissolving the limestone base. The sloughs then accumulate deep layers of organic soil, which support the healthy cypress forest.
The Fakahatchee Strand, which is about 20 miles long and 3 to 5 miles wide, is the major drainage slough of southwestern Big Cypress Swamp. It contains the largest stand of native royal palms and largest concentration and variety of orchids in North America, as well as other plants that are extremely rare. Its unique forest of cypress trees and royal palms may be the only one in the world.
According to a 1997 paper, "Adaptations in Fakahatchee," by D.F. Austin, Ph.D., director of environmental sciences at Florida Atlantic University, rare orchids found in the strand include the tiny orchid (Lepanthopsis melanantha), hidden orchid (Maxillaria crassifolia), and ghost orchid. Rare bromeliads found in the strand include the fuzzy-wuzzy air plant (Tillandsia pruinosa,) which grows on pond apple trees, the nodding catopsis (Catopsis nutans), and the powdery catopsis (Catopsis berteroniana).
Although the strand has seen its share of logging activity and some attempts to drain the wetlands, many of the natural features are still present. One reference cites a documented 484 plant species within the preserve. Nearly 70 percent of the tree species are of tropical origin, as are 86 percent of the ferns and 88 percent of the orchids. The preserve also contains many of the same wildlife species encountered in the Big Cypress National Preserve. The Florida panther, wood stork, Florida black bear, mangrove fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), and the Everglades mink have all been documented within the strand preserve area.
Except for the W. J. Janes Scenic Drive, access to the strand is limited by its dense, junglelike vegetation. Facilities and activities in the preserve are also slim. Rangers lead swamp walks through the cypress forest and the pond apple sloughs to view rare plants. Walks take place November through February. Reservations are required and long pants, secure footwear, food, water, and insect repellent are recommended. For reservations call (941) 695-4593.
[Fig. 16(2)] A 2,000foot-long boardwalk at Big Cypress Bend meanders through one of the more magnificent stands of remaining of old growth cypress, enabling the visitor to experience the beauty of this unusual swamp before man intruded (but without getting your feet wet).
The boardwalk is a good place to spot pileated woodpeckers, blue-gray gnatcatchers (Polioptila caerulea), and a pair of nesting bald eagles from mid-December through early May.
[Fig. 16] The 12.5-mile-long W. J. Janes Scenic Road is certainly appropriately named. Left over from an attempt to develop the region, it's a smooth, dirt and gravel track that runs from one end of Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve to the other. The spectacular scenic drive passes right through the remarkable strand.
In some places, walls of cypress trees and sabal palms grow so high, and so close, the road becomes a tunnel beneath a vast canopy blocking out the sun. In other places thick carpets of ferns and cocoplum trees line the road. At one point the road actually passes through a royal palm-cypress forest. Groves of the stately palms, rising over 100 feet, appear on each side of the road.
About 6 miles from Copeland, the road widens into a small parking area. On the east side of the road an old logging road has been turned into a hiking trail that runs 2.5 miles into the strand. The trails is slightly elevated above the surrounding wetland. Janes Road is a good place to look for raptors like red-tailed hawks that watch the road for any prey that tries to sneak across. In the late evening it becomes a hunting ground for barred owls (Strix varia). It's also not that unusual to catch a glimpse of a bobcat dashing across the road. Although there are also Florida panthers in the strand, the chances of seeing one are probably about the same as winning the Florida lottery.
The scenic drive ends at a canal on the border of the Picayune Strand State Forest. Beyond here lie the remnants of a failed attempt to create a giant development in this part of the swamp. Hundreds of crisscrossing, unused, and deteriorating roads that once represented the dreams of many people are now scheduled to be removed and the land will one day be restored to its original beauty.
Although the road continues into the abandoned subdivision, the Park Service recommends you obtain a local map before continuing. Many roads may be unfavorable for travel. The best option is to enjoy the drive back down to Tamiami Trail.
[Fig. 15] The Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge north of the Fakahatchee Strand protects another piece of the Big Cypress Swamp. The 29,410-acre refuge is closed to all public access and use. The entrance is located on SR 29.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pursues management activities on the land including extensive prescribed burning and exotic plant control. Limited hydrologic restoration is also being undertaken. Wildlife population monitoring is a primary management task as is conducting research on habitat enhancement for Florida panthers.
Endangered or threatened species in the refuge include the Florida panther, Florida black bear, Big Cypress fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), river otter, American kestrel, wood stork, snail kite, bald eagle, Florida grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), American alligator, Eastern indigo snake, and striped mud turtle (Kinosternon baurii).
Other wildlife species residing in the refuge are bobcat, whitetailed deer, hogs, raccoons (Procyon lotor), Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus), nine-banded armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus), largemouth bass, bluegills, Florida gar, and 115 species of migratory and nonmigratory birds including little blue heron, limpkin (Aramus guarauna), northern harrier, Arctic peregrine falcon, reddish egret, roseate spoonbill, sandhill crane (Grus canadensis), swallowtailed kite, snowy egret, tricolored heron, and white ibis.
The refuge office, located in the Naples Comfort Inn, includes an entry area that houses several displays. These include a swamp scene with a mounted cougar, characteristic plants and animals, and a short taped message on the biology of the panther. Also included within the room are photographs explaining refuge management techniques and maps of nearby environmental areas.
[Fig. 10, Fig. 15] The 73,335-acre Picayune Strand State Forest, located west of the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, is a key component in the effort to protect and restore the Western Everglades. Portions of the area, however, are still in the process of coming under public ownership.
Once the proposed site of the largest subdivision in the world totalling 173 square miles, the land is being purchased in preparation for habitat and hydrological restoration. Eventually more than 290 miles of roads will be removed and 50 miles of canals will be filled in.
There are currently no visitor facilities or general public access to the newly purchased land.
[Fig. 15] Visiting the Seminole Indian Reservation, which encompasses 69,900 acres of the Big Cypress Swamp, is both a delightful and educational experience. The Seminole tribe has created two quite different facilities, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and the Billie Swamp Safari. Both sites can be visited on the same day and together will provide a more than complete understanding of the Seminole tribe and its place in Florida history.
Snake Road (CR 833), which runs north from Exit 14 on Alligator Alley (I-75) across a corner of the Miccosukee Reservation and into the Seminole Reservation, is a 17-mile scenic experience by itself, passing through golden waves of sawgrass habitat and then into the swamps and cypress heads of the Big Cypress Swamp. There's a rest area at Exit 14 with fuel and food. It's one of the few facilities you'll see along Alligator Alley.
In the canal along the Interstate and the smaller canal along Snake Road, watch for alligators, Anhingas, great egrets, great blue herons, American coots, boat-tailed grackles, turkey vultures, snowy egrets, wood storks, tricolored herons, black-crowned night herons, belted kingfishers, limpkins (Aramus guarauna), and moorhens. The lily pads in the canals belong to spatterdock plants, which anchor on the bottom. The dark green floating plants with the purple flowers are water hyacinths (Eichhornia crassipes).
Along Alligator Alley you'll also pass some of the large water control structures and pumping stations that control the water flowing through the Everglades.
Both the Seminoles and Miccosukees were once members of the Creek Nation that spoke different languages. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the tribes migrated into northern and central Florida ahead of European settlement. After the U.S. took control of Florida in 1821, competition for land increased. Three separate wars were consequently fought (in 1816_1818, 1835_1842, and 1856_1858) to remove the Indians from Florida. The U.S. used its best troops and spent more than $40 million to remove 3,000 Indians and kill 1,500 more.
Somewhere between 200 and 300 Indians hid themselves in the swamp and hammocks of the Everglades and Big Cypress, refusing to surrender or be conquered. Today 3,000 descendants of those courageous people live in the Florida Everglades. A trip to the Seminole Reservation is a chance to hear their story. It's a good one.
[Fig. 15(1)] This splendid facility, which opened in 1997, provides a remarkably uplifting educational experience. A creative and very entertaining 18-minute film shown on five screens introduces you to the Seminole people, their history, their present, and their future. More than 5,000 square feet of exhibits feature lifelike displays of how the Seminoles lived in the 1800show they hunted, cooked, played, and survived both the harsh land and the harsher U.S. government. Many artifacts on display are on loan from the Smithsonian Institute.
The museum is located next to a beautiful cypress forest with a 1-mile long boardwalk through it. Along the walk more than 40 plants are identified, with their common names, Indian names, and uses as carving materials, foods, and natural medicines by various tribes. For instance, Spanish moss was used as a sponge and to make tea for treating swelling from rheumatism and high blood pressure. Resurrection fern was boiled and then used for drinking and as a steam bath to treat depression. Pop ash (Fraxinus caroliniana), a small tree, was used for fuel and the making of bows, arrows, and spoons. The bark was boiled and used as an ingredient in medicine for treatment of the eyes and liver and stomach ailments.
The boardwalk ends at a mock-up of a Seminole village where you can witness traditional craftspeople making dolls, cooking, and wood carving. There's also a gift shop with Native American arts and crafts, clothing, and books for sale.
[Fig. 15(2)] The Billie Swamp Safari is an entirely different experience from the museum, but is no less entertaining with swamp buggy and airboat rides and a number of animal attractions.
The most impressive and informative activity is a swamp buggy eco-tour through 2,000 acres of the Big Cypress Swamp. From an elevated vehicle you'll penetrate the thick cypress heads and slog past such native and non-native wildlife as white-tailed deer, wild hogs, Axis deer (Axis axis), ostrich (Struthio camelus), American bison (Bison bison), and water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis).
The driver also takes the time to point out various plants and describe their uses. There's even an opportunity to taste one and rub another on your arm for mosquito protection. And there's a stop to visit with the "largest alligator in captivity," a 13-foot 8-inch monster known as Superman.
The airboat tour is more or less a weaving ride along a narrow canal that includes a stop to use dog food to tease large alligators to come close to the boat. If you only have time for one activity, choose the swamp buggy ride.
You can also see exhibits of crocodiles, alligators, and other reptiles including a number of native snakes. There are also regular reptile and amphibian shows in the herpetarium.
The Swamp Water Café features a variety of traditional Seminole foods including catfish, frog legs, gator-tail nuggets, venison burgers, and traditional Seminole fry bread. The food is very good and the decorations are interestingoil paintings depicting Indian scenes, animal head mounts, skulls, and spears. Food is inexpensive.
You can stay overnight in the Seminole Camping Village in native-style screened chickees, which are fairly spartan. The small, clean, elevated cabins have beds for sleeping, mosquito netting, and little else. Similar to a campground, there are public bathrooms and showers. Reservations are recommended.
There's also a large and interesting gift shop that carries authentic crafts such as wood carvings and clothing, and not so authentic items such as rubber alligators and T-shirts.