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On a Saturday in early January, I was slogging through the clear waters of Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida on a free guided ranger walk. Gripping a walking stick with my right hand, I poked the water-covered ground in front of me, making sure it was stable before cautiously stepping on that spot. After all, I am someone who broke their ankle not once, but twice, performing the simple acts of walking and running. Third time may be a charm in many instances but not when it comes to broken limbs.
Walking Through Big Cypress Preserve
In addition to the ranger, the group consisted of a National Park Service volunteer, and six other curious explorers. One group was a family of four from the Miami area and the other was a young couple from Tampa.
“Have you seen any pythons out here?” someone asked Ranger Lisa Held. The short answer is, “No.”
Because she hasn’t seen them where we were, does not mean they are not there. We walked through the swamp and wet prairie ecosystems and in some areas, I stood in knee-high water. During the summer rainy season, water could be waist deep. There is some vegetation making it easy for invasive pythons to hide. But, that was not the snake I was thinking of.
Creature Encounters in Big Cypress National Preserve
“Are there cottonmouths here?” I asked, referring to the venomous snakes.
“Yes,” National Park Service volunteer Lavonne Christianson said matter-of-factly. This is one of those times I wished I was not right. But, this was good to know.
As a group of nine slogging through the water and talking, any critters in the area certainly knew our presence. There was no chance of surprising anything, including American alligators who also call this area home, and we were not in any danger.
Off in the distance and in the cypress trees we heard, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” calling out. That is what the barred owl’s hooting call sounds like.
Walking Through Different Habitats
Ranger Lisa talked about the five different habitats found within the 729,000 preserve, the hardwood hammocks, pinelands, prairies, cypress swamps, and estuaries. She pointed out and identified various plants, like the potbelly airplant (Tillandsia paucifolia) and Cardinal airplant (Tillandsia fasciculata var. Densispicabromeliads), growing on bald cypress trees (Taxodium distichum). We also saw bald cypress knees which could emerge several feet from a tree. They form above the roots and above the ground. Using your imagination, they look like the name implies, like knees.
The trees lack needles and looked dead. But it is because of the time of year. Bald cypress trees are deciduous conifers and go dormant and drop their needles during the winter months. They awaken in the spring with new, green needles.
The cold water was refreshing on this 80-some degree morning. It was usually easy seeing the terrain beneath and much was limestone with lopsided holes. Some holes were about the size of a quarter while others make Detroit potholes look like golf ball dimples. Although fascinating to peer down and see what plants and other life is calling them home, they make it tricky to navigate.
Stepping Through a Healthy Ecosystem
For hikers setting off into the cypress swamp, there is no path to follow. Most national park units restrict hikers to a designated trail. Doing so protects surrounding terrain, vegetation, and hiker. Big Cypress visitors can blaze their own trail through the water and are encouraged to do so. The downside is you are not quite sure what the terrain beneath will be and the pace is slower than if walking on dry land.
The clear water is significant. It reflects a healthy, flowing ecosystem. Established in 1974, Big Cypress National Preserve protects the freshwater flow from the Big Cypress Swamp into the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands.
Small, silver mosquitofish swam in the water and disappeared under what looked like tan, soggy cattails or cheese puffs. Ranger Lisa explained the spongy-looking organism is periphyton. It is found in freshwater and consists of algae, detritus, and microbes. It serves as an important part of the wet prairies ecosystem and produces oxygen in the water and serves as a food source for fish, tadpoles, snails, and others.
Bladderwort, with its small, seemingly delicate and innocent-looking, dime-sized yellow or purple flower is sparingly sprinkled throughout swamp. This small yet beautiful pop of color in a monotone landscape of earth tones is carnivorous. They digest protozoans, juvenile fish, crustaceans and just about anything else that lands in the bladder.
We walked through sawgrass to reach some cocoplum trees. My arms pushed the blades away to clear my path,. The tooth-like edges of sawgrass lightly grabbed my clothing. Several empty apple snail shells, some as big as tangerines, were found during the hike.
Respecting Native Culture in Big Cypress National Preserve
As the wet walk wind up after about 90 minutes, one of the participants called out that she found a boot next to a cypress tree.
“Leave it there,” Ranger Lisa directed. She then explained a sacred Seminole and Miccosukee Indian tradition.
The Seminole and Miccosukee have inhabited South Florida and Big Cypress Swamp, which is 2,400 square miles, since the 19th century. The Seminole Tribe of Florida, a political organization, was founded in 1957. The Miccosukee Tribe traveled to Cuba in 1959 where Fidel Castro recognized the group as a sovereign country within the United States. This paved the way for having the U.S. government recognize the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians in Florida with their sovereign, domestic dependent nation status in 1962. The difference between the Miccosukee and Seminoles is not cultural but political and tradition is still important. With the establishment of Big Cypress National Preserve, the occupancy and customary use by the Seminole and Miccosukee are protected.
When someone passes away in either tribe, their belongings are not passed along to other generations. It is believed hanging onto their belongings will hold the deceased soul’s journey. Instead, their belongings are tossed into the swamp. Hikers may come across a laundry basket with a tree trying to grow through it and it could contain weathered clothing. Or, they could come across a rubber boot at the base of a cypress tree.
Habit for many hikers is picking up trash found on the trail. While in Big Cypress National Preserve, respect nature and the native culture. It is best to follow the hiker’s creed, “take only pictures, leave only footprints, kill nothing but time.”
Nuts & Bolts About Ranger-Led Programs at Big Cypress National Preserve
The National Park Service leads various free programs about the culture and nature of Big Cypress National Preserve including guided hikes. Space is limited and advance reservations to secure a spot are a must. Being a solo traveler, I secured a spot the day before because it was only one left.
Once you secure your spot, the ranger will advise how to prepare and where to meet. For this hike, wear long pants, lace-up and closed-toed shoes, hat, sunscreen, insect repellent, and bring water and snacks. A walking stick is available to use by the National Park Service. I recommend a long-sleeved shirt because we walked through some sawgrass. Mosquitoes and other insects were not an issue during my trip, however, do not wear perfume, cologne or apply hairspray as these attract insects. There are no restrooms at the hiking meeting location so stop at the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center or Oasis Visitor Center.
If you are planning on hiking the backcountry on your own, you will need a free backcountry permit. This is a way to keep track of visitors and ensure you made it out!
An International Dark Sky Park
Big Cypress Preserve is an International Dark Sky Park. Participate in ranger-led astronomy programs during the winter and spring. These programs are in conjunction with the South Florida Amateur Astronomers Association, the International Dark Sky Association-South Florida Chapter, the Everglades Astronomical Society, the Southern Cross Astronomical Society, and the Southwest Florida Astronomical Society.
Programs are at the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center. Bring lawn chairs or blankets to sit. Be prepared for weather conditions and insect levels. Direct questions to: (239) 695-1149 or (239) 695-1164.
Where to Learn More About Big Cypress National Preserve
Big Cypress Swamp Visitor Center
33000 Tamiami Trl. East
Ochopee, Florida 34141
Tel: (239) 695-4758
Oasis Visitor Center – This visitor center arranges the hikes.
52105 Tamiami Trl. E.
Ochopee, Fla. 34141
There is no fee to enter Big Cypress National Preserve.
Big Cypress Institute
The Florida National Parks Association offers the Big Cypress Institute with a variety of interpretive programing either with a National Park Service ranger, Institute guide, or volunteer. Programs include guided hikes, bicycling, bird watching, and a swamp mud in a vintage five-person swamp buggy. Fees vary per activity. https://floridanationalparksassociation.com/big-cypress-institute
Clyde Butcher Eco Swamp Walk Tour
Acclaimed photographer Clyde Butcher has a gallery in Big Cypress and he has created guided eco swamp walks. Members of his team lead the walks behind the gallery in the preserve. Stand in some of the locations where Butcher has captured some of his iconic photographs. Reservations are a must.
Big Cypress Gallery
52388 Tamiami Trail
Ochopee, FL 34141
Where to Eat Near Big Cypress National Preserve
Dining options are limited and this is a great opportunity to pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it in the preserve or one of the local public lands.
Glades Eats, A Miccosukee Restaurant
Mile Marker 36, US Hwy. 41
Tel: (305) 894-2374
Open daily, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Joanie’s Blue Crab Café
39395 U.S. Highway 41
Tel: (239) 695-2682
Open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and closed Wednesday and Sunday. Hours 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. but call as they may close due to business levels.