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.
<< Big Cypress Okeechobee >>
To hike across the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation, you must fill out and file a “hold harmless” form provided by the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Download and fill out this form in advance of your hike. It must be sent in to the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Keep a copy of it with you when hiking.
Never camp on top of the levees. Trucks drive down them 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.
Wear a bright orange shirt or vest during hunting seasons in Rotenberger WMA. Check the FWC website for hunting season dates.
Be sure to stay at either Billie Swamp Safari or Big Cypress RV Resort & 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.
Along the Trail
Set in a 60-acre cypress dome on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki museum of Seminole culture provides an introduction to the tropical outdoors of natural South Florida’s swamps in which the Seminole Tribe has lived for more than a century.
It’s been over 10 years since I walked into Billie Swamp Safari and backpacked out of the reservation to Lake Okeechobee. With the announcement that the route of the Florida Trail would shift back to the original roadwalk I missed doing back then, and our plans to meet up with thru-hikers beyond the swamps, I …