30.3 miles. Traversing the wildest landscapes of the Big Cypress National Preserve, this is the most remote piece of the Florida Trail, and the toughest backpacking trip in the state of Florida. Crossing vast savannas of diminutive cypress, splashing through rainforest-like cypress domes, and picking its way across gaping holes in the limestone bedrock, it’s a hike like no other in the world.
The 30 miles between the southern terminus of the Florida Trail at Oasis Visitor Center and the rest area at MM63 on Interstate 75 is the most challenging part of the Florida Trail, which makes it a bit ironic that most thru-hikers walk south to north. Once you’re a day into the swamp, you’re committed to the hike.
The trail crosses broad, open sawgrass prairies with a base of slippery marl mud and periphyton (the primary biomass of the Everglades forest floor), a goopy glop that is a complex mix of algae, bacteria, and fungi. There are linear cypress strands – rivers within a river – with deeper water flowing northeast to southwest through corridors flanked by cypress trees, some tiny and wizened, others tall and stately, most decked out in bromeliads. And then there are the rare dry spots, the islands of slash pine and tropical forest that rise just a little above the flow of the waters, just enough to offer a tiny speck of relief from the swamp.
Winter is the dry season for this rain-fed wilderness, but water can still be deep in places, especially north of Oak Hill Camp. Late spring is when alligators are very active. Summer is beautiful in Big Cypress, but the mosquitoes and blackflies make for miserable hiking companions, and they often persist into the fall months. Early spring is the dry season for Big Cypress, when surface water recedes into small puddles in the cypress domes and into the track of the trail. When the water vanishes, animals that need it will be hanging around what little water is left, particularly the alligators. When there is no obvious surface water in Big Cypress, you will have a very difficult time finding any water to filter for drinking.
Alligators thrive here. Florida panthers and Florida black bears roam this wilderness. Several species of venomous snakes call Big Cypress home, as do several non-native pythons and constrictors. Think of this as Florida’s own jungle, and be prepared to respect the challenges you may face.
This is not a trip to be taken lightly. The best timing for tackling it is mid-December through early March. You must plan your stops ahead, as dry land is very limited. It’s essential to be an experienced backpacker with a good sense of your own stamina, as this is Florida’s toughest backpacking trip. Decide in advance how many nights you need to tackle this, keeping in mind that you will be crossing a vast, mostly wet wilderness.
If it’s only a little wet, slogging through thick mud will be a struggle. If it’s ankle deep or more, mud plus water makes for slow going, especially between miles 21 and 30. Most hikers go south to north (Oasis Visitor Center to I-75) to save the most strenuous and wet part of the hike for last. Expect to make no better than 1 MPH through the toughest part of the trail, the seven miles of open cypress savannas.
There are no take-out points. Once you’re in, you keep going or you turn around. It’s critical to know water levels and probable air temperatures, as a combination of high water and cool weather can lead to hypothermia. As in a remote mountain range, rescue options are limited and costly, especially north of mile 20. If you plan to step off the trail, be sure you can find your way back to it. It’s easy to get lost in here. Wayfinding is especially difficult in the savannas. Carry a map, compass, or GPS / Florida Trail app to stay on track.
The mud is like axle grease. There are many obstructions – deep holes, slippery logs – under the water-covered portions of the trail. A pair of hiking sticks will greatly help your balance. There is nowhere to hang your pack or to sit down for much of the hike. For a section hike, a small lightweight camping stool is helpful to have along.
Mud and sand gets into your socks and shoes no matter what you do. Bring multiple pairs of socks and do your best to wash them out so you can switch off as needed to avoid blisters.
Because of the many miles of wading involved and the likelihood of encountering alligators and venomous snakes, we strongly advise against taking your dog through the swamp for your dog’s sake.
All backpackers must check in with Big Cypress National Preserve and obtain a free backcountry permit for your group. This is so park staff are aware you are out there. Oasis Visitor Center is open 9-4:30 daily except Christmas. Southbound hikers may be able to find a permit at the kiosk at I-75. Questions? Call 239-695-2000
The Southern Terminus of the Florida Trail is in front of the Oasis Visitor Center in Big Cypress National Preserve, located along US 41 (Tamiami Trail) 37 miles west of Dade Corners and 21 miles east of SR 29 at Everglades City / Ochopee. The end point for a northbound hike through the swamp is the Interstate 75 rest area at MM 63, 13 miles west of exit 49 and 18 miles east of exit 80, SR 29.
While the habitats you hike through are collectively known as the Big Cypress Swamp, they vary in dryness or wetness according to the amount of rainfall across Southwest Florida. Water seeps southward from the Okaloacoochee Slough, forming a broad, shallow river that sweeps across these landscapes. There are times the land will be dry, in which case finding drinking water can be extremely challenging: only flag ponds and the Black Lagoon will have any, and alligators will be guarding any smaller water holes. There are times the landscape is thoroughly soaked. The designated campsites along the trail – 7 Mile, 10 Mile, 13 Mile, Oak Hill, and Ivy – are the only guaranteed dry ground, elevated just slightly above the swamps.
For a detailed description of the hike, read Sandra’s article about hiking it, or view her video of the journey at the top of this page. Three days of torrential rain meant wading much of the 30.3 miles when she crossed the swamp. When John tackled the hike, there was far more mud and less water. Although everyone follows the same route, every hiker will experience the swamp differently.
Learn more about Big Cypress National Preserve