Big Cypress National Preserve
Concho Billy Trailhead
to Monument Lake Campground
Coming to Big Cypress? Bring Your Jungle Boots.
General description: A 10-mile cross-country and off-trail trek through the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Starting point: WGS84 - approx.
N 25 deg 59 min 00 sec, W 81 deg 15 min 45 sec
Concho Billy trailhead. From Naples, US 41 E; L onto Turner River Road (CR-839); go 7.2 miles to trailhead. Look for the sign.
Finishing point: WGS84 - approximately
N 25 deg 51 min 54 sec, W 81 deg 06 min 48 sec
Monument Lake Campground, in Big Cypress National Preserve, N side of US 41, about 1 mile W of Monroe Station, and 5 miles W of the Oasis Ranger Station. (Toilets and sinks available. No showers. Fees charged during cooler months)
Maps: USGS Topo 7.5 series--Ochopee, Burns Lake, Monroe Station NE, Monroe Station.
Big Cypress National Preserve
239-695-2000 Big Cypress National Preserve Headquarters;
239-695-1201 Big Cypress National Preserve Visitor Information
107 Camelia Street
Everglades City, FL 34139
Collier-Seminole State Park
20200 E. Tamiami Trail, Naples,FL 34114, 239-394-3397. If you wish to camp, this is a good place to stay the night BEFORE or the night AFTER your trip into the Big Cypress.
If you are looking for the wildest of Florida adventures, this is it. But I will tell you right off the bat, going cross-country through the Big Cypress National Preserve is not a trip for the inexperienced, or those squeamish about being in the wilds. Imagine navigating your own route across a vast, pancake-flat wilderness with few, if any, landmarks to help you pinpoint your location. Most of the time, you'll be hoofing it through ankle-to-calf deep tannin-stained swamp water. At times, you may even have to wade up to your waist, but you can usually avoid such depths by maneuvering yourself around them.
About Big Cypress
The Big Cypress National Preserve is a 729,000-acre vast wilderness located in the center of otherwise heavily populated south Florida.
The name Big Cypress refers not to the size of the trees, but to the magnitude of the swamp itself. Most of this land was set aside by federal legislation in 1974 after a public outcry went up against a huge jetport that was to be built in the area. Thanks to that legislation, the Big Cypress escaped development and remains wild today. In addition to other recreational activities, hunting is allowed, and off-road vehicles are permitted in parts of the preserve. Those visiting Big Cypress National Preserve during hunting season—especially the general gun season from around mid-November to the first few days in January—should wear an orange vest and an orange hat for safety.
A walk through the Big Cypress almost always involves getting your feet wet. In fact, sometimes you may have to wade a short way through thigh deep, maybe even waist-deep water. Those used to typical mountain trails will find new experiences in this wet, subtropical world. Normally, especially in the winter dry season, you'll slog through damp prairies or through ankle-to-knee deep cypress swamps.
The sunsets in Big Cypress sometimes light up the western horizon in a great, red glow and clear nights are starry and magnificent.
In the dark of the long nights, there's a good chance you'll be entertained by choruses of barred owls, each one seemingly bent on outdoing the other in making weird noises.
The owl picture above shows a curious barred owl which, one moonlit night in the swamp, serenaded us with hoots and hollers at our campsite for about 10 minutes.
You may be lulled to sleep by the deep-throated sounds of pig frogs and alligators in the nearby in the cypress swamps. The jets that thunder by in the night sky will be dissonant reminders of the heavily populated regions lie on the coasts to either side of you.
The Navigation Challenge
United States Geological Survey maps and a good compass, plus the ability to use them well, are absolutely necessary for this trek.
The compass I've used for years is a Silva Ranger. It's a base-plate compass that works well with maps. You can adjust it for declination. It has a 360-degree dial, and it has a mirror that can be used for sighting. But since I do very little precision sighting, I just consider it an emergency signal mirror.
I've used other compasses here and there, including a wristwatch compass, but when I really get serious about compass work, I turn to my Silva Ranger.
Plus, I'd recommend a GPS. You can buy one these days for a hundred bucks or so, and as long as it's working and you know how to use it, you just about can't get lost.
But in a worst case scenario, your last-ditch navigation plan in this part of the Big Cypress would be to walk south until you come to the U.S. Highway 41, better known in this area as the Tamiami Trail, or just "the Trail."Maps.
Maps of the BURNS LAKE and MONROE STATION, NE quadrangle are not just regular topographic maps, but orthophoto maps, color-enhanced photographic images of the terrain. Those accustomed to regular topo maps with lots of contour lines may be unnerved the first time they see an orthophoto map of Big Cypress.
But once you learn how to read an orthophoto map, it can be mighty useful. It can help you distinguish areas of cypress trees (depicted in light blue), prairies (depicted in light brown), and pinelands (depicted in green). This distinction is important because cypress trees mean water and flooded ground, prairies are soggy, grassy open areas usually easy to traverse, and pinelands are places of relatively high ground, but often cluttered with thick clumps of saw palmettos, which are hard to walk through. (Rattlesnakes like to take refuge in palmettos, so it's not a good idea to tromp through them with reckless abandon.)
Big Cypress National Preserve, like a lot of Florida, is flat with no prominent terrain contours such as hills or valleys. But plant life can help you locate your position on the terrain. Use the great, grassy prairies, the cypress domes and strands, and the pinelands (all depicted on the orthophoto maps) to figure out where you are.
Traversing the Swamp
To make my way through the swamp, I like to skirt the edges of cypress domes (dome-shaped clumps of cypress trees) or strands (lengthy clumps of cypress trees) because the water in those areas is shallower (that's why the trees are shorter), and it's too wet to grow path-blocking saw palmettos, common in the pinelands.
You'll soon learn to "read" distant trees to find a path:
Pines mean higher ground and easy walking if the accompanying palmettos aren't too thick.
Tall cypress trees usually mean deeper water, areas you'll normally want to walk around.
Short cypress trees mean shallower water and clear walking since tangling plants don't tend to grow among the small cypress trees.
And the majestic Sabal palm is always a welcome sight, because it almost always signals high ground, and perhaps a good place to camp.
Disinfecting drinking water
There may be a few wells here and there, but for all practical purposes, there's no drinking water in the swamp. You'll have to disinfect your own, which you'll probably retrieve from a deep cypress swamp.
Properly disinfecting drinking water calls for some know-how. Essentially, you need to kill protozoans, bacteria, and viruses. There are a variety of methods to do this, and some involve two steps. I usually use a micro-filter and chlorine drops, but there are other ways, too.
For detailed information on water disinfection methods, see chapter six of
Surviving the Wilds of Florida
Be sure to fill out a backcountry permit before you head off into the swamp. For complete information on permits and regulations, contact Big Cypress National Preserve (listed in the Contact Information table).
The Ivey House
in Everglades City can drop you off at the Concho Billy trail on Turner River Road and can pick you up at Monument Lake Campground. There may be others in the area who provide shuttle service, but I'm not aware of them. Note that since this is a cross-country trip, you're trek through the swamp is not limited to the route suggested here. You may, for instance, wish to end your trip at the Oasis Ranger Station on U.S. Highway 41 (a relatively safe place to leave a vehicle unattended for a few days). Once you get the hang of swamp trekking, you can go just about anywhere you wish through the preserve. Do check with the Park Service for up-to-date regulations.
For footwear, I prefer good jungle boots. Their drain holes allow water to escape with each step, plus they're high-topped, lending lots of ankle support. Underneath Florida soil lies a bed of porous limestone rock. In more than a few places throughout Big Cypress, the soil is thin and the rough knobby limestone is exposed, making walking difficult. Good, supportive boots are a great help in such spots where it would be easy to twist an ankle.
Where to Camp
You'll camp on the highest ground you can find, although that may still be fairly damp. Pines and especially Sabal palms signal higher ground. As the afternoon shadows lengthen, scan the distant treetops for pines and palms in search of a dry place to camp. Since you're not limited to specially designated campsites, you're allowed to camp just about anywhere you can find a spot
Best Time to Go
The cooler months (January through March) of the year are more enjoyable in the preserve. It's the dry season, it's relatively cool (it can get downright cold, 35 degrees or so Fahrenheit on the coldest winter nights) and the mosquitoes are much fewer. In the summer, water levels tend to be higher and the mosquitoes are a lot worse. Plus, it's hot and humid. For these reasons, many people avoid trips through here in the summertime.
Mention Florida swamps and the first thing that comes to mind for many people is a large alligator. Yes, there are gators in here, and yes, they can be dangerous. But, usually, in their natural wild state, alligators go out of their way to avoid human contact. Especially dangerous alligators are those that have been fed by people. These gators typically hang out in areas where lots of people go.
Deep in the swamp, it's not likely you're going to find an alligator that people regularly feed, so any gators you run across are probably still in their natural wild state, and haven't come to associate people with food. Don't walk too close to an alligator. Even though they look large and lethargic, they can rise up on all fours and run 30 miles per hour over a short distance.
There's one thing about alligators you can be certain of—they're unpredictable. Keep that in mind, use your good sense around these creatures, and you'll probably be okay.
Among the great variety of other animal life in the preserve, you may flush some wild turkeys and see the distinctive white-flag tails of deer as they bound off across the prairies.
Florida panthers now prowl the preserve in greater numbers than in recent years past. These big cats, a sub-species of the cougar, used to thrive all over Florida. But their numbers thinned out as people hunted them and they lost most of their natural habitat due to encroaching civilization. Just a few years ago, as few as 25 or 30 remained. Now, after some successes at restoring the panther population, there are around 80 to 100 in the Everglades area, including the preserve. But they are shy and elusive, so consider yourself lucky if you happen to see one. Look for their four-toed tracks, which, unlike the tracks of a dog, display no claw marks. If you find a good one, you might wish to photograph it.
Black bears live in the preserve, so I like to "bear bag" at night. This means to hang your food in a bag over a high tree limb in the hopes that bears can't get to it. Myself, I've never seen a bear in the preserve. And just so you'll know, there's never been a documented case of a black bear attack in Florida on a human. So take reasonable precautions, but don't be too worried about bears.
This is Florida, so naturally, there are snakes. But—in my experience—there aren't as many as you might think. I've been in the Big Cypress for days without seeing the first snake, although I have no idea as to how many saw me, which is a whole other story. Other times, I've seen two or three.
Most snakes are harmless. They won't hurt you, but it's said they can make you hurt yourself. The dangerous and venomous species include the cottonmouth water moccasin, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the pygmy rattlesnake, and the eastern coral snake. You'll want to keep a watchful eye out for these guys.
When traveling off-trail, I've taken to wearing
light-weight snake-resitant gaiters from TurtleSkin.
The chance of a bite is small, and I suspect my gaiters will never have to deflect a snake's fangs, but the added peace of mind they provide makes my outdoor adventures more enjoyable.
Some of the more interesting plants include the beautiful cardinal bromeliads. In winter, their red blooms provide sharp color contrasts to the winter grayness of the cypress swamps. Also, look for the splashing white spider lilies which occasionally adorn the brown, grassy prairies. Orchids grow back in here, too, including the ghost orchid, that most delicate flower, noted for its ethereal air of passion and intrigue, and made famous in Susan Orlean's captivating book The Orchid Thief. A summertime bloomer, the ghost orchid is hard to find. As Orlean points out so well in her book, some people go absolutely stark-raving nuts over ghost orchids, and will stop at nothing to possess one.
Big Cypress: A Priceless Legacy
The Big Cypress National Preserve is an important part of wild Florida, and remains a priceless legacy one hopes will be preserved for generations to come.
Last revised December 2010
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