Gator Hook Trail - Big Cypress National Preserve
by Keith W
(St. Petersburg FL)
Gator Hook Trail
The Gator Hook Trail is one of the newest of the designated hiking trails in the Big Cypress National Preserve. It's not long, with only about 1.5 miles of newly cleared sections, and is perfect for a family day hike. Like many of the hiking trails in the Big Cypress and nearby Fakahatchee Strand, the Gator Hook Trail runs along the remains of one of the many tram railways built by logging companies from the 1930s through the 1950s. The trail was named for the nearby Gator Hook cypress strand, and the name evokes memories of the gator hunters, trappers and moonshiners that maintained southwest Florida's reputation as a wild and lawless place for long after the Wild West had been tamed.
To get to Gator Hook, follow the Tamiami Trail (US 41) about 40 miles east from Naples, or 40 miles west from the intersection of Krome Avenue, just outside of Miami, until you get to the old abandoned Monroe Station rest stop and restaurant. You are now at the western entrance of the Loop Road, a worthwhile trip in itself. Follow the Loop Road south for about 2.5 miles and you will see the Gator Hook Trailhead on the left, complete with shaded picnic tables, plenty of parking, and a pair of restrooms. These amenities were constructed during the summer of 2004, and the trail was opened shortly after. The large parking area here also makes this the last place an RV or a large truck headed south can turn around on the one lane of the Loop Road, hence it's name: Last Chance Turnaround.
The trail begins just off of the Loop Road on the east and follows the raised ridge of the old tram road for about 120 yards. This short walk will take you through a sparse stand of bald cypress before dropping to a sawgrass prairie dotted with dwarf bald cypress trees. During the summer this prairie is a flood plain and can be shin-deep in water, and even during the dry season it can be muddy, so be sure to bring old shoes that you won't mind getting dirty and wet. The broken limestone bedrock of the Big Cypress comes to the surface here and is pitted with holes, so watch your step, especially when walking through deep puddles. As you're starting your walk across the prairie, look for the cross-tie remains of the old logging railway that was used to bring supplies into and lumber out of the forest during the heyday of cypress logging.
After another 70 yards or so, the trail forks to the left, where it passes through a stand of dwarf cypress, until it reaches the edge of the open sawgrass prairie with a beautiful view of Gator Hook
Strand in the near distance. This fork eventually loops back to the main trail where it continues for about a 10th of a mile before reaching another stretch of raised roadbed that leads into the wild heart of Gator Hook Strand. During the spring, when the bromeliads are in bloom, this section of the trail is a riot of color from their brilliant red, yellow and purple flower spikes. The roadbed is often cut by washouts, and piles of deadwood deposited by floodwaters are found in these cuts. During the dry season you can use these washouts as breaks in the scrub lining the roadbed, and walk for a good way off the trail into the surrounding cypress forest, but be sure that you have a GPS or a compass with you if you do (I prefer the latter - no batteries to fail!), because it all looks the same once you're out of sight of the trail. The raised tram runs dead straight WSW for nearly a mile before making a long, slow curve to the ENE, and continues on for about another half-mile before appearing to run out into a beautiful little cypress glade. This is as far as the new trail has been cleared by the BCNP, and finding your way onward from here will take some perseverance if you choose to go on.
If you're only out for a short day hike, this would be a good place to stop and have a bite to eat, or just sit and take in the sound of the breeze whispering through the surrounding cypress forest, before turning back. If you're up for a little more adventure, and can find your way around a pathless stretch of forest that looks the same wherever you turn, you can continue on for a while further, following the line of coco plum scrub and other shrubbery that marks the path of the tram road. This part of the hike can be difficult and wet in places, and I strongly advise caution when walking this section. I've managed to get nearly a mile-and-a-half further along this stretch, but there were some doubtful moments along the way. Eventually, the old tram road takes you into Roberts Lake Strand and the lake that lies at it's eastern end. I imagine that, if you kept going, you would eventually run into the north-south route of the Florida Scenic Trail that lies to the east.
The Gator Hook Trail is a good starting point for someone who wants to see the heart of the Big Cypress without making an overnight trip out of it. On the other hand, you may well find yourself spending the night here if you fail to take the proper precautions before leaving the trail.