The swamps are calling and I must go. Okay, that isn’t exactly what John Muir said, but it applies in summer in South Florida. This is the season to see the swamps in their luxurious splendor, with fluffy cypress needles outlined against blue skies, with orchid blooms draping from pond apple and pop ash, with the air humming with life. Yes, you’ll swat at mosquitoes and deerflies. Yes, thundershowers will threaten. But no season is more vibrant than summer in the swamp.
The Big Cypress Swamp is one of my favorite places on earth. I used to lead Labor Day Weekend swamp walks at Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery back a decade ago, so I am no stranger to Big Cypress in summer. But this was my first time walking on the Florida Trail, in summer, with temperatures in the 90s.
The National Park Service is promoting an activity they call the “Tamiami Trail Triathlon.” It goes like this: bike the loop at Shark Valley, paddle to Sandfly Island from Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City through the Ten Thousand Islands, and hike a loop around the Oasis Visitor Center. The only problem: there is no hiking trail loop around the Oasis Visitor Center.
There is on paper, of course. At least inside the “Triathlon” brochure, but it’s just a rough sketch. I asked at both Big Cypress and Everglades visitor centers for a detailed map of the hiking loop, but no one had one. “It’s the OHV road and the Florida Trail,” we were told. “There are signs.”
So despite the heat, we decided to tackle the 3-mile route to determine if it made a good day hike loop, and GPS it as we did so. Since we had our bikes, I suggested John ride the OHV road and I’d hike in on the Florida Trail to meet him where they crossed.
Getting past the edge of the airport fence – the half first mile of the Florida Trail, sadly, is only scenic if you stare off to the west – I entered an expanse of prairie and hammock, amazed at the beauty before me. In winter, the Florida Trail looks nothing like this. The landscape is stark, with sharp edges. This was so different, so compelling. Softened by the summer rains and verdant growth, it draws you in deeper and deeper.
Little rain has fallen in the past two months, so Big Cypress has been a hotbed of wildfires. It also meant that the Florida Trail had very little water on it at all. A few low spots collected the outflow from cypress domes, and I reveled in walking through the ankle-deep stretches to cool down a little. Normally, there is plenty of water to go around in summer and keep you cool. But not on this route, not today. I did find the logo signs for the “Triathlon” next to the FNST signs, so at least I was confident I was on the right route.
As a little elevation gain brought me to a pine island, I thought a moment. There was no road crossing up ahead. We didn’t have one listed in our Big Cypress data that John had collected a couple of years ago, and I knew the OHV road wasn’t new, I’d seen the gate for it since first coming to Big Cypress. I got out my FT app and looked up where I was. On satellite view, I could see the road paralleling the trail I was on, almost adjacent to me, but I could not see the road from where I stood.
I’d certainly expect signage to direct me to the road on a loop with all these “Triathlon” signs. But I passed two more signs and saw no blazed connector. And no road. At this point, in the pine forest, I decided it was time I turned around and headed back. Perhaps there was a connector up ahead, but I was getting overheated.
I sent John a text to tell him my plans, hoping he’d found the connection between the two trails. His response? “Road too rough. Just returned to parking lot.”
I tried to make good time back on the return trip, splashing through every puddle to cool down a little. It was just too hot out here.
When I got back to the parking lot, I looked through the photos on John’s camera as he described going down the OHV trail. “It was bone-jarring,” he said, and I shuddered, knowing he’s had back issues. “I finally gave up riding it and had to walk the bike back.”
I’d thought the OHV trail would be pea gravel or limerock. But it’s not. It’s made up of rocks “as big as your fist and bigger,” John said. Not a good surface for biking or hiking. And he’s riding a fully suspended mountain bike. Ouch. Swamp buggies and ATVs wouldn’t notice the jarring.
It was also, ironically, under water more often than the Florida Trail was. It runs through a wet prairie with an extensive drainage system. “I had fish swimming under my bike,” John said.
We hung out in the Visitor Center long enough to cool down before we rambled on to Everglades City.
Our takeaways on this little adventure:
1) The OHV road at Oasis is fit for neither feet nor bike. It’s out in the open and rocky. Which means anyone trying to do this loop – and starting with the Florida Trail, of course – gets a nasty surprise when they start down the rocky road for the return trip.
2) Which means the “Triathlon” loop at Oasis is not a good day hiking loop, in our opinion. Far better to walk out on the Florida Trail to the pine island and back to Oasis for a 3-mile round trip. Even better, you can walk as far as you want on an out-and-back hike.
3) No matter how much you drink, it’s still hot hiking in Big Cypress in summer unless you’re wading knee deep or more. Use a bandanna soaked in water to cool your head. Monitor yourself for how hot you are getting. Turn back before you’re too exhausted from overheating to think.
4) Even though we were only day hiking (and biking), John was chased down to fill out a backcountry permit. So stop in and do that before you walk off.
The Florida Trail in Big Cypress is outrageously beautiful in summer, worth braving the insects and heat. Backpacking would be crazy right now, with a heat index pushing 100*F and wildfires breaking out at random. But go for a day hike at Oasis, and take a friend.