56.3 miles (Fort Lauderdale). Encompassing both the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation and a network of levees through vast agricultural lands south of Lake Okeechobee, this region is a study in contrasts to the natural habitats of the Big Cypress Swamp. Within the reservation – which can only be hiked by obtaining a permit in advance – you will walk past working cattle ranches and the renowned rodeo grounds. Established in the 1940s, the reservation formalized the residences which the Seminole had here for more than a century.
North of the reservation, you are in lands that look nothing like they did before 1909. These were the Everglades, a vast sweep of sawgrass prairies, tree islands, and pond apple thickets. Dynamited, dredged, and diked, it is now a landscape that isn’t real, just like the expanses of Midwestern prairie turned to cornfields. Only Rotenberger WMA at the Deerfence Canal provides a peek into how rich with birds and wildlife the region once was. Some hikers complain that this section is one long roadwalk, and indeed, you’ll be walking beside roads in the reservation and atop levees for the entirety of this section of trail. It’s a cultural immersion rather than a natural one, where the levees provide panoramic perspectives on cattle ranches and sugar cane fields.
FT symbols indicate trailheads and access points. Click on symbols for details and directions.
Leaving Big Cypress National Preserve, you enter the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation at a gate. You must have your permit in hand before entering these sovereign lands. It is a “hold harmless” form that you can download (Florida residents must get it notarized) and mail to the Tribal office. The orange blazes lead you up two dirt roads before you reach pavement a little south of the big attraction on the reservation, Billie Swamp Safari. You’ll find a restaurant with traditional Seminole foods and accommodations in rustic chickees, similar to camping cabins but made from palm thatch.
The trail follows ATV tracks alongside the road before reaching Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki, the Museum of Seminole Culture, and an intersection beyond that is of note thanks to nearby services. The Big Cypress RV Park, which allows tent camping for a modest fee, is up a side road to the north. The trail turns south to continue through the community, passing small eateries with flexible hours – an ice cream shop, a pizza place – before coming up to Big Cypress Landing, the best resupply on the reservation. It’s not an extensive selection nor is it cheap, but it’s what you need to make the next 30 miles. At the Rodeo Grounds, the trail crosses over to a paralleling dirt track on the north side of the road and canal, and stays with it as it curves around to meet Huff Bridge Road. Once you cross Huff Bridge, you’ve left the reservation and random camping is once again permitted.
Where habitats seen now in Big Cypress and the Everglades once mingled – vast sawgrass prairies, stands of cypress, and impenetrable thickets of pond apple – the canals drained this region south of Lake Okeechobee, revealing the rich “black gold” beneath the swamps, a nutrient-rich muck ideal for agriculture. Sliced and diced by canals, what were once the Everglades is now a patchwork of cattle ranches, muck farms, and the nation’s largest sugar cane holdings. Following levees managed by the South Florida Water Management District, the trail paralleling these canals. Shade is at a premium, usually found as a brief respite under a rare tree or in the shadow of a water control structure. Blazing is rare. But the open nature of the hike allows you panoramic views of agriculture in action, especially the fascinating process of a sugar cane harvest. Expect to make good time on these easily traversed dikes.
Florida Trail, Seminole Reservation South
9.6 miles. With arrangements made in advance to ensure passage (REQUIRED), this hike is primarily a roadwalk along reservation roads through agricultural lands and past points of interest like Billie Swamp Safari and the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum of Seminole culture to the village center, where Big Cypress Campground provides an excellent overnight stay.
Florida Trail, Seminole Reservation North
9.8 miles. A roadwalk that follows Josie Billie Highway southeast through the heart of the reservation to a series of levee roads connecting to the L-3 canal at Huff Bridge, passing Big Cypress Landing along the way. Be cautious of high speed traffic, particularly agricultural trucks, on both paved roads. You must have a permit to hike this section as well.
Florida Trail, L-3 Canal to John Stretch Park
36.9 miles. Joining the L-3 Canal, the Florida Trail heads north atop its paralleling levee. This section of the trail is entirely atop a system of levees adjoining drainage canals through vast agricultural lands – some cattle ranches, but mostly sugar cane – en route to Lake Okeechobee. Blazes are few and far between. You may random camp anywhere along the route.
- Never camp on top of the levees. Trucks drive down it at all hours.
- While walking past sugar cane fields, you may see plumes of smoke, fire, and ash. Sugar cane is burned right before harvesting to minimize the amount of plant matter collected. Avoid camping next to sugar cane that is in flower, as burns occur 24/7.
- Alligators are common in the canals. If you do need to filter water, don’t do so at dawn or dusk, when you might be mistaken for a deer. Avoid filtering water near culverts as well, since alligators often den inside them.
- Be sure to stay at either Billie Swamp Safari or Big Cypress RV Campground while on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation. Not only is random camping forbidden, but the continued relationship between the Florida Trail and the Seminole Tribe of Florida is enhanced by your economic impact while hiking the trail across the reservation. At Billie Swamp Safari, lodging is in chickees, the Seminole version of a cabin. Tent campers should continue to Big Cypress Campground and ask about the camping area for Florida Trail hikers. They also have cabins for rent.