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While Everglades National Park gets most of the attention, its cousin to the north, Big Cypress National Preserve, is just as much a part of the greater Everglades ecosystem in southern Florida. As its name suggests, Big Cypress preserves the cypress swamps of the Everglades ecosystem, but several other ecosystems can be found within the preserve, such as hardwood hammocks, pinelands, prairies, and the estuaries along the coast. As a national preserve, much of the park is wild, with no access by road, which makes exploring difficult, but that much more rewarding. There is one main road traversing the park, but the road allows only minimal viewing of the preserve’s ecosystem. There is a short boardwalk off the main road at the Kirby Storter area that is worth stopping at to get a taste of what the park offers. As you stroll along the boardwalk, you’ll get to stare down at cypress trees standing tall amidst the water with their knobby knees (actually their roots) peeking out above the water. You won’t have to look too closely to see the abundant and colorful birds, but you will have to keep a sharp eye out for alligators. The boardwalk at Kirby Storter offers a glimpse of the preserve, but to really experience the park, you have to go off the beaten path.

About halfway through the park, there is a one way dirt and gravel road that explores more of the park. Foliage lines the road, making it difficult to see anything for quite a bit of the drive, but there are stop offs along the way that open up into areas of the swamp or into strands, elongated stretches of the swamp that are lower so that water flows into them. There are few cars along the drive, so you can just pull off in front of one of these stop offs. It’s rather difficult to describe the stop offs-because of the way the trees hug the road, the view into the swamp opens up like a post card right in front of your eyes. Some of the views allow you to look down a water way with cypress trees lining the water; others are nothing but cypress trees as far as the eye can see, standing in water. Wildlife abounds in the park, with plenty of wading birds and alligators in the water. The birds are particularly delightful to see as they stand in sharp contrast to the surrounding landscape.

Because the park is a swamp, there are very few trails, and even fewer that are dry. There are two trails that depart along the gravel road, but both are usually covered in water. The trails are marked, so you’re not venturing into the wilderness without a guide but, depending on the season, the trail is covered in more than just a little mud and a few puddles. We hiked a portion of the Gator Hook Trail, which began as most trails usually do, followed by thick mud. Then, the trail became covered in water until we were consistently hiking through water that came up to our knees. We eventually made it to a hammock, an elevated area in the swamp filled with vegetation, where we emerged from the water. By hiking out into the swamp, we were able to see much further into the prairie that is part of the ecosystem. Trees dotted the landscape as far as we could see. While hiking through the swamp was messy, it remains one of our favorite experiences in a national park because it was such a unique experience and gave us such an interesting perspective. If you want to hike through the swamp, come prepared, but we highly recommend the hike for anyone who visits Big Cypress.

Big Cypress is one of our favorite national park destinations. We think it is certainly a hidden gem in the national park system, and we highly recommend visiting. As we hope is obvious in this post, a visit must include going off the beaten path. Such a visit reveals the many different aspects of the park and allows visitors to see the ruggedness and beauty in Big Cypress.