No longer officially part of the Florida National Scenic Trail, the Loop Road to Oasis section of the Florida Trail has been blazed blue as an optional connector to the FNST. Think of it as our “approach trail.”
This is where sawgrass and cypress meet, where the Everglades and Big Cypress blend. It is beautiful and remote, a rough and wet walk. Blazes lead you through haunting forests of dwarf cypress trees and rare patches of pine rocklands with jagged limestone karst.
The trail works its way around Robert’s Strand, a chain of deep cypress-lined ponds with fern forests and pond-apple swamps in deep shade, where bromeliads and orchids grow in profusion overhead.
Daunting as a solo hike, this can be a lot of fun with a group. But it’s not an easy day hike, and even tougher with a backpack on. Expect a 1 MPH pace as you traverse rugged rocky terrain and wade cypress strands. It’s easy to lose the trail, so watch for every blaze.
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Location: Big Cypress National Preserve
Length: 8.2 miles linear
Trailhead: 25.857105, -81.032913
Address: 52105 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee
Fees: Free permit required
Restroom: at Oasis Visitor Center
Land manager: Big Cypress National Preserve
This is a very difficult hike even as a day hike. Hikers will want to have some wayfinding and swamp walking experience before tackling this. There is one designated campsite along the route.
Do not bring a dog on this hike, for your dogs sake. Alligators and water moccasins are commonly encountered and most, if not all, of the hike will involve wading.
A free permit is required for all backcountry use so rangers can track you down if you don’t reappear. Check in at Oasis Visitor Center before hiking and take the permit with you.
A shuttle to the south end is recommended. From US 41 (Tamiami Trail) at Forty Mile Bend, follow Loop Road south through the Miccosukee Reservation; it turns to graded limestone once it enters Big Cypress National Preserve. After 13 miles, you pass the Tree Snail Hammock Nature Trail sign. Keep alert, as you soon reach the Florida Trail kiosk on the right side of the road. Do not leave a car parked here overnight.
Starting north from Loop Road, follow Sawmill Road, an old cypress logging road. The trail leads you down a garden path of giant paving stones of limestone bedrock pockmarked with solution holes. Expect puddles.
At 0.4 mile, a slight elevation gain leads you into a pine rockland, a highly endangered habitat with scraggly wizened Dade County slash pines rising up from the jagged limestone.
After you pass the first mile marker, the trail gets wetter as it crosses open sawgrass prairies and stands of dwarf cypress over the next two miles. Your hiking stick will come in handy to help you from slipping on the marl mud. When it’s damp, it’s like walking on butter.
Frog Hammock Camp is at 3.3 miles. For backpackers, this is the only reliable campsite in this segment of trail, and it may be underwater in the wet season. Logs and concrete blocks surround the fire ring, providing rough seating, and there is a pitcher pump near a large solution hole. Treat the water.
Leaving Frog Hammock, you enter your first deep cypress strand, where colorful bromeliads dangle from bald cypress trunks as you wade through the swamp. Expect the water to be at least knee-deep.
You’ve entered the first of many miles of the jungle-like wet cypress forests that characterize the Big Cypress Swamp. Walking is difficult and very aerobic because you’re constantly pushing water in front of you. Use your hiking stick to probe each step to avoid stepping into an ankle-catching solution hole.
After 4.5 miles, you reach Robert’s Strand. Sword ferns rise over your head. The traverse of Robert’s Strand runs east-west along an old logging tramway broken up by stretches of swamp. Expect deep water in each slough crossing.
At 5.1 miles, you’ll pass a small high knoll to the east. After the tramway ends, the footpath will be wet in most places and you’ll be wading through more stretches of dense cypress swamp. You’ll see footpath damage through this section, where day-trippers out of Oasis make parallel hiking paths to the main trail to stay out of the water.
As you wade, do not step on the slippery underwater logs for footing. By 7.5 miles, you can see the open sky above the tiny cypress. When you reach US 41, cross carefully, as there is always high-speed traffic rushing past.