Alligators are among the many species of wildlife you're likely to see at Big Cypress National Preserve — Photo courtesy of Catherine
The biological community known as the Florida Everglades encompasses vast acreage and a number of different government lands that protect and interpret it. At its western access east of Naples, Big Cypress National Preserve provides arguably the best introduction to the environment so alien to most Florida visitors. Its visitors centers, boardwalks and other trails, furthermore, allow the closest observation of wildlife you will find without boarding a boat.
Adjacent to the more recognized Everglades National Park, Big Cypress covers more than 729,000 acres. As you head southeast out of Naples along Highway 41 (aka Tamiami Trail), make your first stop at the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center.
Walk the boardwalk behind the facility to hear and see manatees surfacing and birds lighting. Indoors, listen to the sounds of pig frogs, limpkins, thunder and rain and other ‘Glades music. Here they teach about alligators, Florida panthers, watershed and other relevant issues with games and hands-on devices.
Nearby Birdon Road (CR 841) takes a 17-mile trip through sawgrass prairie habitat. It connects to CR 837 and then CR 839, which leads to two 2.5-mile hiking trails, one to the north and the other to the south of the intersection.
Next, stop back on Highway 41: at H. P. Williams Roadside Park, the boardwalk affords clear, epic views of swimming gators – especially before summer rains muck up the water. A half-mile to the west is the main canoe launch for the Turner River Canoe Trail, part of the Paradise Coast Blueway.
The 26-mile scenic Loop Road is open to vehicles when road conditions allow and gets you close to turtles, raccoons, alligators and birds. Note that roads off of the main Highway 41 are usually unpaved and can be flooded in summer and potholed any time of year.
Alligators congregate at the Oasis Visitor Center — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
To the east of these accesses, the Oasis Visitor Center is a bit dated compared to the newer Welcome Center, but its boardwalk out front is a practically guaranteed spot for eyeballing lots of alligators. From the center, you can depart on wilderness hikes to sample its Everglades environment; its small museum contains Indian artifacts and wildlife exhibits. In summer, the trails – which connect to the Florida National Scenic Trail – can be very wet and extremely buggy.
You’ll see the grasslands and bald cypress stands for which Big Cypress is known, as well as profuse birds and an alligator nursery. The preserve boasts the state’s major population of the reclusive, endangered Florida panther, along with bobcats, deer, manatees, wood storks, brown pelicans, black skimmers, roseate spoonbills and ibises.
Optimum wildlife viewing goes December through March, when birds migrate and dry weather concentrates them in diminished ponds and other waterways, and insects are not quite so ferocious. Rangers lead swamp walks, bike and canoe trips and campfire programs from both centers in season.
Four primitive campgrounds and two others with limited facilities (cold showers) lie along the Tamiami Trail and Loop Road. Two campgrounds close seasonally; some require an off-road vehicle permit.