Updated: Apr 9
Big Cypress national preserve is a federally managed preserve in the southwest end of Florida. Camping may not be the first thing that comes to mind about Florida, but for those looking to explore the land "between the beaches," Big Cypress is an incredible opportunity.
Big Cypress became a national reserve in 1974, where it makes up the western edge of the Everglades national park. Unlike the Everglades, Big Cypress isn't a national park, so activities like primitive camping, hunting, fishing, and riding ORVs (Off-Road Vehicles) are permitted throughout the preserve. The preserve encompasses 729,000 acres, making Big Cypress similar in size to the state of Rhode Island.
So beyond its size, what makes Big Cypress a place to visit? In this article, we will discuss the unique landscape of the preserve and some of the more unique animals and plants you can find there. We will also cover the activities and even a recommended gear list to make your camping trip to Big Cypress memorable.
Credit national park service
Within this massive preserve, there are a total of eight designated campgrounds. These campgrounds range in price from ten to thirty dollars a night and range from spartan toilets to restrooms and electricity hookups for RVs. Not only can campers book a spot to camp at the campground, but with a free permit, they can also camp anywhere in the park. By filling out the backcountry camping permit, campers are free to camp wherever they wish provided they maintain the leave no trace mentality.
For numbered campsites, the Bear Island campground is open all year with no drinking water, electricity, or dump stations. The Midway Campground is also open all year with full bathrooms with water and electricity hookups for RVs. The other campgrounds are open from August 15 through April 15, the drier months of the year.
What Terrain Makes Up Big Cypress
Big Cypress is a subtropical patchwork of Florida environments. The most famous of these ecosystems would be the cypress sloughs or swamps. Big Cypress acts as a water filter system and helps regulate the water table for the lower half of the state. In the dry months, the sloughs are dry enough to walk amongst the towering Cypress and their elevated roots known as cypress knees. The exact spot might be six feet or more underwater in the rainy summer months. The preserve isn't just a swamp; hardwood and pine forests surround prairie lands dotted with palmetto trees. This diversity of ecosystems means for campers that there is a near-limitless variety of animals to observe.
The cypress sloughs can be a wet but exciting hike
Animals of Big Cypress
Big Cypress is a bird watcher's paradise. Featured on the Florida birding trail and many others, Big Cypress grants explorers the chance to view snail kites, bald eagles, wood storks, and roseate spoonbills, to name just a few of the larger birds. With the variety of migratory species that roost within the preserve's boundaries, bird watchers will fill more pages of their logbooks in November and December. Still, any time of year is good to see Florida's resident birds.
With the remote and relatively untamed land of Big Cypress, several species have clung to survival. They are now thriving thanks to the continued effort of the park service and other agencies. The two largest and most photogenic examples are the black bear and the panther. While these large mammals are wary of people, campers should still follow all instructions about storing food and keeping bear aware while out exploring.
A small bear track set along coyote, turkey, and bike tracks
Plants of Big Cypress
As we mentioned before, the cypress trees are a pivotal part of the ecosystem in Big Cypress. While they are cool in themselves, they also host several unique plants that couldn't live without the trees. Wild orchids are numerous in the hot climate that is south Florida. The ghost orchid is the most coveted. The ghost orchid’s pale color and translucent stem give the appearance of a floating specter. Finding and photographing one will get you some serious street cred with orchid lovers.
We’ve already touched upon bird and animal watching while in Big Cypress; what other draws does the preserve have? For those of us who enjoy playing in the mud, an ORV sticker is needed to explore the preserve when the pavement ends. Marked trails extend throughout Big Cypress and are both challenging and rewarding. On even some tame trails, it will become apparent why the locals cherish their modified lifted frame vehicles called swamp buggies.
One of the original swamp buggies from an original resident of Big Cypress. Photo Credit Wooten Airboat tours
ORV permits require a completion of the free operator course, available here.
A vehicle inspection at no charge.
A 13 month permit is issued at the Preserve Headquarters: 33100 Tamiami Trail East. Ochopee, FL 34141
If exploring on foot is more your style, following marked trails through big Cypress, such as the gator hook trail or the Kirby Sorter boardwalk, will grant you opportunities to take in the sights and sounds of Florida that you can't find at a theme park. Listening to pileated woodpeckers or bull alligators roar at each other are sounds that will stay with you long after you have left.
Fishing is always a good activity while in Florida. The ponds and canals that crisscross and dot Big Cypress are home to native fish like largemouth bass and sunfish and non-native cichlids and peacock bass. While non-native Mayan cichlids are aggressive fighters that will eat anything from a fly to a crankbait, they are also good eating. Make sure you have your fishing license before throwing a line.
Mayan Chichlid, known as “atomic sunfish” make a great opponent on light tackle
Anyone between the ages of 16 and 65 is required to posses a fishing license when fishing without a licensed guide.
Freshwater licenses are available online at GoOutdoorsFlorida.com, or any tackle shop.
Florida residents are $17 for an annual permit.
Out of state anglers may purchase a three day license for $17, a 7 day for $30, or an annual for $47.
If you happen to be a hunter, Big Cypress offers a plethora of species and seasons available as non-quota opportunities. This means any hunter with the correct license can go and attempt to take game during the season. No waiting years to draw a spot. Deer, wild hogs, ducks, small game, and turkey are all legal to hunt within their respective seasons. The Osceola turkey is only found in the lower half of Florida and is one of the four species required for the turkey grand slam, making Big Cypress a well-known spot for turkey hunters looking to complete the slam.
A turkey hunter tries his luck for an Osceola turkey
From hiking to four-wheeling, fishing, to photography, there is a piece of Big Cypress for every adventurer. We encourage you to take a trip to the southern end of Florida and experience one of the quietest, darkest, and most exciting places the state has to offer.
Even with the diverse styles of camping available within Big Cypress there are a few pieces of gear that everyone should pack. We’ve included a brief description and a link to add to your next trips packing list.
Copies of the preserve map can be found at the headquarters but can also be printed or downloaded here on the National Parks Website.
GPS units like the Garmin eTrex 22x are great for getting to obscure locations or figuring out how to back track. With the history of farming and forgotten camps in Big Cypress it’s common to find old cars and foundations of homes from decades past. Being able to drop a pin and come back is a fun way to explore and share with others.
There’s a joke that the mosquito is the state bird of Florida, no-see-ums and mosquitos can ruin a day in the woods, especially during the rainy months.
OFF! Deep Woods Sportsmen is our preferred choice since it resists sweat better than the competition.
Thermacell Portable Mosquito Repeller is another option perfect to use in tandem with sprays or to have on your table when eating. Thermacell creates a bug free cloud of repellent around you so it’s best used when you are stationary.
Bear proof containers
Black bears don’t represent a huge danger to humans but they will gladly help themselves to your campsites food. Properly storing food away from your camp in an elevated position is required.
The liberty mountain bear bag will keep all your nonperishable foods dry and out of reach from any critter when used with the provided paracord.
For the times when you need to keep food cold a solid rotomolded cooler like the RTIC hard cooler is perfect. The cooler itself is designed to be bear proof but the park service requests you keep coolers inside you vehicle whenever possible to avoid them being carrier off by a curious bear. able to hold ice for more than a week you will have cold drinks for the trip home too.
Between the heat of the day and the chances of a popup shower having a covered area to relax under is always a good idea, the Coleman Light & Fast is a great option for those who want an easy to assemble campsite.
For those of us that need to have a cup (or four) to get the day going, the Coleman percolator makes a great cup of coffee with the cowboy aesthetic. These are available in larger and smaller sizes too.
Big Cypress is the southernmost “dark place” in the US. Meaning a night you won't see much light pollution and unless you have a full moon, you won't be seeing much of anything. While rechargeable headlamps or different battery options are great, I opt for the standard AAA options so I can always replace batteries when on extended trips.