Big Cypress National Preserve is Everglades National Park’s vast and wild neighbor to the north. The rugged terrain includes nearly 730,000 acres of the freshwater Big Cypress Swamp, part of the larger Everglades ecosystem. Combine a scenic drive with a ranger program (November to April) to get the most out of your visit. If road conditions allow (check with a ranger at the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center or Oasis Visitor Center), follow the 24-mile Loop Road Scenic Drive (County Road 94). The primarily gravel drive leads south and east through three counties, beginning at Monroe Station (a closed Tamiami Trail service station built in the late 1920s) and ending at the 40-Mile Bend Check Station (so named because the building sits at a bend in the Tamiami Trail about 40 miles south of Miami). Inside Tip: Get out of your car and don’t be afraid to get wet. Stop at designated pullouts, boardwalks, and wildlife viewing areas (except on FL-41), and hike the five-mile (round-trip) Fire Prairie Trail to explore on foot.
When to Go: Late November through early April is the best time to visit due to the cooler temperatures, dry weather, and availability of free ranger-led swamp walks (reservations required) and other programs. January through March, wildlife (including alligators, river otters, songbirds, and deer) can typically be seen at dusk near the Sweetwater Strand Bridge on the Loop Road.
Must Dos: Book a custom tour with Captain Steve’s Swamp Buggy and Airboat Adventures. Captain Steve is a fifth-generation Gladesman and an authorized Big Cypress National Preserve outfitter. Options include half- and full-day rumbling romps through the swamps in a six-person, all-terrain vehicle outfitted with tractor tires and an elevated viewing platform. Best Bet: Combine a swamp buggy tour (not available in June or July) with a grasslands airboat ride.
Fun Fact: The mile 16.5 to 18 section of the Loop Road Scenic Drive passes through what once was the town of Pinecrest. The town gained fame for its raucous bar and dance club, the Gator Hook Lodge, which closed in the 1970s. In the bar’s waning years, Pinecrest resident and fiddler Ervin T. Rouse, best known for writing the bluegrass fiddle anthem "Orange Blossom Special,” would occasionally play at the Gator Hook for tips.
Photograph by Prisma Bildagentur, AG/Alamy
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in Copeland protects a 20-mile-long swamp forest, including the only forest canopy in the world shared by bald cypresses and royal palms. Called both the “jewel of the Everglades” and “the Amazon of North America,” the “Fak” is a vast wilderness with no campgrounds or recreational facilities. Venture into the heart of the strand (and see more species of orchids and air plants than are found anywhere else in North America) on the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk. November to April, the not-for-profit Friends of Fakahatchee (FOF) leads guided boardwalk tours using a wireless communication system. Inside Tip: FOF also offers swamp walks and tram rides, plus individual and group tours upon request. Tours (particularly the Moonlight Tram Tour) fill up quickly. Book early.
Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
The 26,400-acre Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge near Immokalee is a relatively new preserve, created in 1989 to protect the endangered Florida panther and its habitat. Although the number of panthers is on the rise in recent years, fewer than 200 are estimated to live in the wild. While it’s unlikely you’ll see the elusive cats, wildlife sightings (including of white-tailed deer, cottontail and marsh rabbits, ospreys, and armadillos) are common in the early morning and late afternoon. Inside Tip: The Leslie M. Duncan Memorial Trail, a third of a mile in length, provides wheelchair access into the refuge’s hardwood hammock. The loop trail includes a small boardwalk and pond overlook. Late winter through early spring is best for wildflower viewing.
Picayune Strand Wildlife Management Area and State Forest
Appreciating the jewel that is the rugged Picayune Strand Wildlife Management Area and State Forest (in Collier County two miles east of Naples) requires understanding what might have been. The protected area’s more than 76,000 acres of pineland, cypress, marsh, and pasture exist due to one of Florida’s largest environmental restoration efforts. Marketed and partially developed (nearly 50 miles of canals and more than 150 miles of roads were built) in an infamous 1960s “swampland in Florida” real estate scam, the abandoned subdivision has been reclaimed slowly by the state and by nature since 1985. Best Bet: Learn about the restoration and the biology of the forest on an Everglades Edge bike tour. Owner-guide Wes Wilkins is passionate about the Picayune Strand and its diverse collection of plants and animals, including alligators, snakes, birds, bobcats, and deer.