Two separate loops make up the trails of Florida Panther NWR, an exploration into the cypress sloughs and wet prairies of the Big Cypress Swamp. This accessible loop allows those in wheelchairs and strollers (with assistance) to experience a small sample of the habitats preferred by the Florida panther.
Length: 0.4 mile
Lat-Long: 26.161522, -81.349219
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: moderate
Once you’re inside the parking lot, there is a gate that looks closed but should be pushed open to access the trails; the gate is to keep wildlife OUT of the parking lot and off the highway. Please be sure to shut the gates behind you (when starting your hike AND exiting to the parking area) to keep wildlife where it belongs.
The Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge is off SR 29 just north of I-75, one exit east of Naples. Drive north from the off-ramp and you’ll find the entrance immediately on the left.
From the parking area, walk up towards the radio tower. Turn left at the first trailhead to follow the accessible route. Pass through a tall gate, spring-loaded to shut behind you to keep the panthers in. All along FL 29 and I-75, tall fences topped with barbed wire discourage the big cats from becoming roadkill. Special conduits under the roadways provide safe passage for the panthers. Still, some succumb to the temptation to climb. In 2000, a mother panther and her kittens were hit by a truck; the kittens died.
Wet flatwoods surround you, with towering slash pines shading the understory. Limestone outcroppings tell the story beneath your feet: the Everglades sit on vast slabs of porous limestone, etched by acid-laden tannic water to form a flat karst landscape punctured by solution holes.
The trail winds through stands of cabbage palms and young water and laurel oaks. Off to the right is a flat prairie where ponds silted in with organic matter. Turning left away from the pond and into the hammock, you see tiny bromeliads clinging to slender twigs, and chunky giant bromeliads filling the crooks of oaks at 0.2 mile, where the longer trail takes off to the left. Continue straight.
Goldfoot ferns cascade from the trunk of a cabbage palm, while long thin ribbons of shoelace fern sit a dark green against the trunk. You pass a pond surrounded by limestone boulders, a deep spot within the rock: a solution hole. Passing back through the preserve gate, complete the short loop after 0.4 mile.