Big Cypress camping offers adventures
EAST OCHOPEE, Fla.—While walking along a path through Big Cypress National Preserve, a friend of mine shouted to me.
“That’s not!” she screamed and paused. We all then gasped because it was!
Rearing up in its obvious attack position, a Cottonmouth snake was staring right at my ankle. My four friends and I took off running until we had put well-needed space between us and the ferocious critter.
|An egret hunts on the bridge of the scenic Loop Road near the Big Cypress National Preserve (Photo courtesy of Jamie Locke).
Despite the absolute jaw-dropping fear, we still look back on the experience with smiles on our faces as we recall just how alarmed we were and how threatened our reptilian friend must have been as well.
From the bugs and beetles to the larger and more ferocious creatures such as alligators, panthers and yes, snakes this protected park is the place for anyone looking to put a little adventure into their vacation.
The preserve is located in the central and southwestern parts of South Florida, just north of the Everglades National Park.
The long stretch of highway that visitors from the Miami and Naples areas can expect to take into the preserve is both eerie and exciting. From the leafless trees and the water canals where the most suspicious of reptiles are surely lurking, drivers and passengers alike cannot help but feel slightly nervous as they approach the preserve.
It is not uncommon to see other tourists pulled over to the side of the two lane U.S. 41 snapping shots of alligators, ibises and herons. If you look closely, you can also see turtles sunning on rocks above the canal. While the drive is long, it is most assuredly not uneventful.
Another interesting sight to see along the way is the many Miccosukee Indian residences. When drawing closer to the Oasis Visitor Center and the campgrounds surrounding it, tourists can see the Miccosukee Reservation restaurant, general store and gas station. This is the best place to stop for a bite or any small items that need to be picked up such as ice or any last minute food items.
|A bridge stop offers this view of the peaceful canal on the scenic Loop Road (Photo courtesy of Jamie Locke).
The first campground one can expect to stumble upon is Midway Campground. For the RV camper and crew this is the best stop as there are electrical hookups available, but there are also tent sites as well.
Of the two convenient campgrounds located around the Oasis Visitor Center this one appears smaller with sites lined up one right next to another, but in fact is the same size as Monument Lake Campground. Patrons can expect to pay a fee or $19 a night at Midway with bathrooms and running water provided in addition to a dump station.
For those groups and individuals continuing on, however, there is plenty more to see.
The campground that is further west of the Oasis Visitor Center is Monument Lake Campground and is free until Dec. 22, as that is when the busy season starts in Big Cypress National Preserve. After the start of season, it is $16 a night.
This campground accommodates both tent and RV campers, is centered around a small lake and surrounded by forests and fields. At Monument Lake, campers can expect to find fire pits at some sites and grills at others. Here too, there are both bathrooms and running water, but no electrical hookups for RVs.
Both campgrounds offer 26 RV sites and 10 tent sites. No reservations are required for either site, but camping is limited to 10 days. The winter through late spring is considered the dry period and is the best time to camp if one is looking to stay dry and see more gators. This is also when the park is at its peak in terms of interesting activities. Early summer through late fall is when things start to get a little more wet and the threat of hurricanes becomes more of an issue.
|A tent campsite at Monument Lake Campground, west of the Oasis Visitor Center in the Big Cypress National Preserve (Photo courtesy of Jamie Locke).
“God, I love this site!” said John Jacoby, a 28-year-old Florida resident who was visiting the park with some friends for the first time. “It’s great to have the bathrooms and everything and the view is just amazing. I’m definitely coming back with my girlfriend!”
The campground can definitely be called romantic as from the perfect site the moon rises right over the small lake and crickets chirp away. Stars are a plentiful sight and evening the croaking of the alligators seems to set up the perfect scene.
The Oasis Visitor Center itself can be found not long after Midway Campground and is the best place to assist visitors in planning their stay in the preserve. In addition to providing maps and answering questions the Visitor Center also gives information about the different animals and wildlife in the area and different tours, activities and hikes that can be taken.
Right in front of the center a boardwalk runs along one of the canals and at the height of the afternoon one can expect to see alligators sunning themselves every few feet.
Preserve interpreters and rangers, such as Ranger Larry Owen, greet visitors to discuss the best options for their price range, level of mobility, and interest in “getting wet.”
When asked the best hikes to go on Owen smiled like a man keeping some kind of great secret and said, “How wet are you looking to get?”
For those looking to get not only their feet wet, but also their ankles, knees, thighs and hips, there are swamp hikes that can end up getting waist deep on even adults. Still, for people looking to remain totally dry there are boardwalks, boat trips and tram rides all within 30 minutes to an hour drive of visitor center.
|The small lake at the center of Monument Lake campground in the Big Cypress National Preserve (Photo courtesy of Jamie Locke).
“We basically have a buffet of activities,” said Owen. “It just depends on how much you’re looking to spend and how far you’re willing to drive.”
Thirty minutes west of Monument Lake Campground is Big Cypress Bend. Here tourists can experience the great outdoors, without necessarily ending up in three feet of swamp water. A convenient boardwalk allows visitors to experience the thrill of the swamp and its many different forms of wildlife, without having to actually become part of the scenery. This is also where most of the largest Cypress Trees are located.
“You’re not going to see any trees like that over here,” Owen said. “They get to be about this big.” Owen fully extended his arms to show just how enormous the trees can manage to get a little further west.
Hiking out at Big Cypress Bend is also an excellent free activity for those looking to spend a little less.
For the visitor planning to spend a little more money, a trip down to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center of nearby Everglades National Park might be interesting. There, for $25 a head, tourists can take a boat trip into the Ten Thousand Islands area that is included in the Everglades National Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve. These islands are made up of Mangrove Trees, the only trees that can grow in salt water. The boat trip takes about two hours and actually takes tourists all the way out to the Gulf of Mexico itself.
“It’s a worthwhile experience,” said Owen. “It’s quite a site.”
A little closer to Monument Lake Campground is Kirby Storter Roadside Park. There visitors can pack a picnic lunch and take advantage of the provided picnic tables before taking off on a hike. Here, like at Big Cypress Bend, there is a boardwalk for those looking to stay dry, but there are also trails where people can plan to have a “wet and wild” good time.
|A Florida alligator swims in a canal in front of the Oasis Visitor Center on U.S. 41 at Big Cypress National Preserve (Photo courtesy of Jamie Locke).
“The general rule of thumb is that the further west you go, the deeper the water’s going to get. That’s where it can get right up to your hip, but if you stay a little further east, you’re going to be about ankle to knee deep in swamp,” Owen said.
As Kirby Storter Roadside Park is further east there are foot trails that can take tourists back into the swamp where they will only end up about knee deep.
There is even an option for people looking to experience the beauty of nature without ever leaving their cars. The Loop Road is considered a scenic drive, and while it was recently damaged by heavy rain, it was reopened the weekend of Nov. 16, 2008, and will be back up and running at its full potential in 2009.
Despite potholes, however, it is still a worth while drive even in less than perfect condition. Groups can expect to set aside two hours for this experience. While foliage has grown up hindering some viewing opportunities, there are also locations where alligator and bird sightings are inevitable.
Bringing snacks and drinks for the ride is a great idea. Also, located on the Loop Road are two more rural campgrounds called Mitchell Landing and Pinecrest. While these sites are not quite as nice as the two closer to the Visitor Center and the main road, for the incredibly adventurous these two sites are a great option for more rural camping.
“I wouldn’t want to camp back here,” said tourist Grace Paul, 21. “But the drive is pretty. Longer than we expected, but definitely really pretty.”
When the season begins in December, even more options are available to visitors. Ranger Led activities are available Dec. 22 through April 14. These include things such as the “What’s Out Here” walk which is available twice daily all week long at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.
|The Florida panther display box at the Oasis Visitor Center (Photo courtesy of Jamie Locke).
Taking this adventure will not take up a lot of time as it only runs about 15 minutes. Other adventures include “Wet and Wild Swamp Walks,” “Heart of the Swamp Canoe Trips” and “Deep Lake and Gator Hook Trips.” A full schedule of events is available on the Big Cypress National Preserve’s website at http://www.nps.gov/bicy/
Whether visitors are looking to stay wet or dry, spend lots or nearly nothing at all, Big Cypress National Preserve is worth a look. It is almost impossible to tell that the park is located only an hour outside of the city of Miami. Visitors are easily able to lose themselves in the amazing sites, sounds and experiences found in the preserve.
Go ahead, take an adventure.
If You Go Camping:
What to Pack
- Bug Spray
- Trash bags
- Rain gear
- Shoes that can get “wet and wild”
- Long pants that can get “wet and wild”
- Non perishable food and snacks
- Cash (ATMs are hard to come by)
- Bring your own food, there is one general store in the area and they do not accept credit cards – come prepared.
- Very nice restrooms with running water, soap and toilet paper are provided. Both sites have outdoor showers, but bring your swim suit.
- Plenty of parking at the Visitor Center, great kickoff point for a lot of different hikes.
Contact Information for Oasis Visitor Center
- Open every day 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. (except for Christmas)
- Address: 33100 Tamiami Trail East Ochopee, Fla. 34141
- Phone: 239-695-1201
- Website: http://www.nps.gov/bicy/
- To Email: go to http://www.nps.gov/bicy/contacts.htm and fill out the “Email Us” form
Rainy Season – May through October
Dry Season – November through April
Be sure to call ahead for any closures
Ranger Led Activities: Phone: 239-695-1201
Reservations: Make them 14 days in advance
List of activities: http://www.nps.gov/bicy/planyourvisit/upload/RLAS%200809%20lowres.pdf
- From Miami: Follow Tamiami Trail going west for 50 miles.
- From Naples: Follow Tamiami Trail going east for 50 miles.
Informaton graphic designed and prepared by Shayna Blumenthal.