38.3 miles (Naples & Miami). Welcome to the swamp. The Big Cypress section of the Florida Trail is unlike anywhere else you’ll backpack, a watery wilderness taking several days to traverse.
Winding deep into the wilds of Big Cypress National Preserve, this is the most remote section of trail in the state of Florida. The landscape is likened to the savannas of Africa, but also has pockets of rainforest-like botanical beauty enveloped in thick humidity. Hiking here means ankle-to-knee deep wading for several days. Day hiking options are limited to out-and-back wades from the trailheads. Overnight trips can be launched on loops that lie north of the two trailheads providing access to this section.
Covering more than a million acres, the Big Cypress Swamp is a rain-fed system. It flows southwesterly, a seasonal river a few inches to a feet feet deep and nearly 40 miles wide, nourishing the mangrove fringe along Florida Bay. Man-made obstructions, including highways and canals, impede the natural wash of water across this tropical landscape. The swamp is home to the highest concentration of orchid and fern species in the United States.
On Feb 8, Big Cypress National Preserve closed the Florida Trail from Oasis to I-75 for a prescribed burn at the south end of the segment near the Blue Loop.
FT symbols indicate trailheads and access points. Tent symbols indicate designated campsites. Click on symbols for details and directions.
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. 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.
Florida Trail, Oasis to I-75 Rest Area
30.6 miles. The wildest and most remote section of the Florida Trail wind through ghostly stands of ancient, bonsai-like cypress, traverses vast sawgrass prairies, and has camping on small pine islands. It is a mucky, difficult hike which will take two or three days, depending on trail conditions and your stamina.
Florida Trail, I-75 Rest Area to Seminole Reservation
7.7 miles. An easy ramble from the rest area north along Nobles Road to the gate at the Seminole Reservation, a limestone road raised up above the surrounding swamp, this section parallels a canal much of the way on one side through cypress strands and pine flatwoods. Blue-blazed trails lead to the east, creating a backpacking loop.
8.2 miles. Not counted in the overall mileage for this section, the former Loop Road portion of the Florida Trail is now a blue-blazed side trail called the Roberts Lake Trail. Showcasing Robert’s Strand, a wet and wild cypress strand with giant ferns, lush bromeliads, and many orchids, this trail makes an excellent day hike. It includes stretches of marl prairie and islands of pine rockland, one of Florida’s rarest habitats.
- You will get your feet wet hiking this portion of the Florida Trail. Waterproof boots are of no use here since water will occasionally be over the tops of your boots and will get trapped inside.
- The mud is like axle grease. There are many obstructions – deep holes, slippery logs – under the water-covered portions of the trail. Hiking sticks will greatly help your balance.
- 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.
- Where the trail is under water, a 1 MPH hiking speed should be expected.
- 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.
- 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.
- Hammock hangers will appreciate their significant advantage over tents in this section. No matter which you bring, tent or hammock, don’t expect to pack it dry for the duration of your hike through Big Cypress.
- 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. Temporarily tying a colorful piece of ribbon to a tree might help. It’s smart to carry a map and compass or GPS and be prepared to use it, as the humid environment often peels blazes right off the trees and most trail maintenance occurs in March. If you lose your way, take a direct north bearing to reach I-75 or a direct south bearing to reach US 41, taking care to skirt deep water.
- Rubber-band a coffee filter around the intake of your water filter. It will eliminate most of the fine silt present in the water. You may find yourself field-stripping and cleaning your filter more than once on this section otherwise.
- Don’t rush. It’s a beautiful and unusual place for a backpacking trip, worth savoring along the way.