Big Cypress National Preserve – Ochopee, FL

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Established in 1974, Big Cypress National Preserve holds the title of the first national preserve in the U.S. Comprising 729,000 acres of swamps, hardwood hammocks, prairies, pinelands, and estuaries, this national treasure enables the natural flow of freshwater into the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands. As with the other protected lands and waters of south Florida, the preserve originally faced many threats due to human expansion in the area, including the proposed creation of the world’s largest, futuristic jetport with the world’s largest runway. Construction began in 1968 but was halted in 1970, thanks to efforts of scientists and environmentalists such as Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and Dr. Luna Leopold (yes, son of Aldo) and others. The results led to Florida’s first Environmental Impact Study, which stated unequivocally that such development would destroy the entire south Florida ecosystem, including the Everglades.

Visitors can explore two scenic drives: Loop Road, a 27-mile drive through dwarf cypress forests and pine forests, or if you prefer more open landscapes, you can opt for Turner River/Wagonwheel/Birdon Roads Loop, a 17-mile drive through open prairies. Wildlife is abundant, so please use caution, stay alert, and as always, never feed, harass, or disturb wild animals.

The preserve’s two visitor centers are located on the Tamiami Trail (US 41): Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center, near the western boundary, and Oasis Visitor Center, which is closer to the eastern boundary. Both locations provide visitors with maps and information, indoor and outdoor exhibits, gift shops, restrooms, trailhead access, picnic areas, and more. Ranger-led hikes, paddles, and programs are popular here, and reservations are required. 

Visitors can also enjoy bicycling, wet/dry hiking, birding, photography, and canoeing/kayaking within the preserve. There are several boat rental companies and canoe/kayak liveries in the area, or you can launch your vessel from one of the preserve’s five launches. Note: only two of the launches allow boats – all allow canoes/kayaks. Paddling is allowed year-round, but best from November through March, when water levels are lower and the heat and insects are less bothersome. It is risky the rest of the year because the high water levels can make waterways indistinguishable, plus it’s downright miserable due to the heat and insects.

There are eight front country campgrounds, but only one is full facility, and it is open year-round. The others offer varying amenities and are opened seasonally and/or due to flooding, so please plan accordingly. Backcountry camping is also available, but a permit is required.

When you’re in the south Florida area, this is another wild and wonderful place to explore and experience the Real Florida!

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Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge – Boynton Beach, FL

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Officially named Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge after said scientist/environmentalist/activist who pioneered much of the comprehensive south Florida wetlands preservation we know today, this refuge comprises the northernmost section of what remains of the original Everglades. Established in 1951 under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the refuge protects over 147,000 acres (229 square miles) of wetlands, prairies, sloughs, and pinelands, providing habitat for many endangered and threatened plant and animal species. It also serves as a freshwater storage area and flood control for the surrounding areas. Considered a “gateway site” for The Great Florida Birding Trail, it is home to some 250 bird species, as well as pollinators, fish, turtles, alligators, snakes, otters, deer, raccoons, and bobcats.

Visitors can enjoy interpretive programs, guided tours, fishing, kayaking, photography, hiking, biking, and special events throughout the year. A visitor center and short boardwalk through a cypress swamp will whet your taste for exploring the rest of the refuge, by foot, bicycle, canoe/kayak, or boat. After a peaceful stroll on the boardwalk, I opted for a long hike through the restoration area, where I spotted butterflies, spider lilies, gators, and birds of all kinds. Be sure to take drinking water, sun protection, bug spray, and watch out for fire ant mounds. This is another fun and gorgeous outdoor experience you don’t want to miss if you’re in the area!

Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge – Copeland, FL

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Did you know? The Florida panther is the state animal of Florida….and there’s not a more deserving species! What beautiful and fascinating creatures they are! Once roaming freely throughout the state, they are now considered critically endangered, occupying less than 5% of their original habitat and suffering from lack of genetic diversity due to their many threats caused by human activity/population growth.

This protected area consists of 24,300 acres purchased by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1989 and expanded to 26,400 acres in 1996, in order to provide healthy and safe habitat for the imperiled Florida panther. USFWS restores and conserves the ecological diversity, conducting research and monitoring the flora and fauna of the refuge. During the 1940s and 1950s, almost all of the ancient, towering cypress trees in southwest Florida were harvested for lumber, and today a new generation is taking their place in protected areas such as this. The refuge is part of a connected network of protected areas including Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, ensuring the survival of the Florida panther and many other irreplaceable species.

Florida panthers require 100-300 square miles for their home ranges, and females tend to stay close to their mothers’ range. Young males, however, will wander great distances to find a mate and suitable range, and are often killed by vehicles while crossing roads. Habitat loss/degradation and fragmentation have been major factors in panther population decline, currently estimated at around 230, but was as low as 20 individuals in the 1970s.

Between 12-16 panthers live within the refuge, denning, hunting, and roaming these cypress swamps, hardwood hammocks, pine forests, and prairies. They are joined by bobcats, coyotes, deer, black bears, fox squirrels, wood storks, alligators, and marsh rabbits, and many other species who benefit from these protected lands.

There are two short hiking trails open to the public – one is .4 miles and the other is 1.3 miles. Both are accessible from the trailhead parking lot near I-75 and SR-29. The gates are spring-loaded to keep the panthers and other wildlife safe, in order to avoid traffic fatalities, so please be sure the gate is closed as you enter and exit. Also remember to take bug spray, water, and stay alert. Another awesome park in southwest Florida that I will be revisiting soon, promise!

Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park – Copeland, FL

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Welcome to Florida’s largest state park, aka “the Amazon of North America”!!! Encompassing 100 square miles (85,000 acres), Fakahatchee is surrounded by Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Picayune Strand State Forest, and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. This gorgeous wilderness area located in southwest Florida is a step back in time…to the Real Florida landscapes of cypress swamp, slough, hardwood hammock, prairie, salt marsh, and mangrove. Many of the flora and fauna thriving in this unique environment can be found nowhere else in the continental U.S. This unique environment is the orchid and bromeliad capital of North America, home to 14 native bromeliads and 44 native orchids, including the rare ghost orchid. It also boasts the most abundant royal palm population in the state.

There are four main public use areas: Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk, the East River (canoe/kayak launch), the Jones Grade Lakes and Trail (canoeing/kayaking, fishing, hiking), and Janes Memorial Scenic Drive (11-mile scenic dirt road providing access to several trails). The most accessible part of the park, and the quickest if you don’t have much time, is Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk, a 1.2 mile (in-and-out) trail including a 2,500’ boardwalk through towering, old-growth cypress trees, located in the southern end of the park.

Bicycling, picnicking, and bird-watching are also popular activities at this incredible, one-of-a-kind park, and wildlife is abundant, including many endangered and threatened species. Florida panthers, black bears, Eastern indigo snakes, Everglades minks, diamondback terrapins, manatees, American crocodiles, alligators, bald eagles, barred owls, red-shouldered hawks, deer, sandhill cranes, and many more of our beautiful friends call this place home.

It’s worth noting that the efforts from the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (CERP) have and will continue to have a positive impact on Fakahatchee and all surrounding areas as the old drainage canals are filled in, thus rerouting water in more natural ways, for the benefit of all.

A real gem of a park and a pretty glorious place to explore – I’m adding this to my list of re-do’s, for sure, where I can experience even more of the Real Florida!!!

Biscayne National Park – Florida

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The southeast tip of Florida is home to this spectacular and unique 173,000-acre park which is steeped in a rich history of native inhabitants, European explorers, shipwrecks, and environmental challenges. Consisting of 95% water, the park is accessible only by watercraft, aside from the visitor center on the mainland. Over the span of several decades, the park endured many battles for development due to its prime location as a seaport and proximity to the developing south Florida economy. Officially established as a national monument in 1968, it was expanded in 1974 and again in 1980, when it was established as a national park, protecting its waters and lands and all flora and fauna within.

The Dante Fascall Visitor Center is the main hub for park activities, offering tickets, maps and information, art galleries, videos, and educational programs. A gift shop and restrooms are available as well. On weekends from late November to April, the Homestead National Parks Trolley offers public transportation to the visitor center and departs from downtown Homestead at Losner Park.

A sanctuary for hundreds of plant and animal species, this park is home to pelicans, ibises, egrets, terns, and other shorebirds, as well as hawks, owls, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, etc. Bats, snakes, whales, turtles, fish, lizards, and manatees thrive here as well, many of which are endangered or threatened.

Popular activities include boat tours to the islands, fishing, snorkeling, kayaking, windsurfing, and reef-diving. Guided fishing/snorkeling/sightseeing tours are operated by several concessionaires, and paddlecraft are available for rent at the visitor center. Visitors can enjoy the beautiful mangrove-lined reef trail, extending out ¼ mile from the visitor center into Biscayne Bay, and there are hiking trails on the islands as well.

One of the park’s most incredible features is the northern portion of the Great Florida Reef, the world’s third largest coral reef. Constructed over thousands of years by tiny polyps, the beautiful and fragile calcium carbonate structures are home to snails, eels, sea fans, sponges, over 500 species of fish, sharks, and many more species. Snorkelers and divers can also explore the six shipwrecks along the Maritime Heritage Trail.

Overnight camping sites in the park are available on two islands, Boca Chita Key and Elliot Key, and are accessible only by boat. No services are available at Boca Chita, but restrooms, cold showers, and running water are available at Elliot Key. Picnic tables and grills are available at both locations. A tent camping fee of $25/night plus a boat docking fee of $15.00/night applies, with the exception of May 1-September 30 when all fees are waived. All sites are first-come/first-served and must be paid (exact change) at the harbor front. A 65’ lighthouse at Boca Chita built in the 1930s still stands, but was never truly operational, and the windows were blown out by Hurricane Andrew. Public entry into the lighthouse is not permitted.

Notably, in 1992, the eye of Cat 5 Hurricane Andrew made landfall here before heading on to the city of Homestead, south Miami-Dade county, and the Everglades. With top wind speeds of 175 mph and a storm surge of almost 17’, Andrew had a devastating effect on the local economy, leaving 160,000 people homeless and costing an estimated $25-30 billion in losses, making it the costliest hurricane in U.S. history at the time.

This is one amazing place where it seems like the beauty never ends!!! I will most definitely be back to explore more of it soon!

Everglades National Park – Everglades, FL

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The Florida Everglades is unlike any other place on Earth. Protecting 20% of the original Everglades, its 1.5 million acres comprises the largest subtropical wilderness in the US. It is recognized as an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance. As the third largest national park in the U.S. after Death Valley and Yellowstone, it hosts up to a million visitors a year from all over the globe. Established in 1934 and dedicated in 1947, it is the first national park to protect a fragile ecosystem rather than a scenic landscape. Early 1800s “settlers” regarded this sensitive ecosystem as a worthless swamp, and tried to turn it into “useful” land for agriculture and other human purposes. This led to damming, dredging, draining, and invasive species, all of which degraded the environment for over 100 years. It was no easy task to convince the government and public about the importance of this special place, championed by the likes of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and others. The challenges continue to this day, but progress is being made and restoration efforts are well-underway.

Native inhabitants were the Tequesta on the east and Calusa on the west, separated by the natural boundary of the Everglades. Later came the Seminoles and Miccosukee, who all understood how to live in harmony with nature for thousands of years. Shell mounds still remain.

The entrance fee is $30 per vehicle/$25 motorcycle/$20 bicycle, and is valid at any entrance for 7 days. There are four visitor centers: the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center at the main entrance, Flamingo Campground Visitor Center, Shark Valley Visitor Center, and Gulf Coast Visitor Center. There is no shortage of hiking and biking trails throughout the park, and wildlife is abundant and potentially dangerous, so stay alert and plan accordingly. Also check out the ranger-led activities such as tram tours, field excursions, and wet hikes, as well as guided boat trips via the concessionaire. Canoes, kayaks, and bicycles may be rented via concessionaires also. The Flamingo Marina has a small convenience store and emergency fuel service.

For overnight guests, there are two campgrounds – Long Pine Key Campground (6 miles from the entrance) and Flamingo (another 34 miles from the entrance). Long Pine Key Campground accepts reservations for a few of its 108 sites, but most are walk-up only, and it is closed during the summer. Reservations can be made for any of the 234 sites at Flamingo, but partially floods during rainy season. Several backcountry sites and chickees are accessible via canoe/kayak, boat, or hiking, but permits and reservations are required. Busy season is November through March due to lower heat and humidity, less rainfall, and fewer insects.

This is an incredible slice of the real Florida that is everything it’s cracked up to be and then some! I absolutely fell in love and will certainly be back for more!

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park – Okeechobee, FL

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Comprising 54,000 acres of prairie and wetlands, this fascinating park protects the largest remaining tract of its kind in Florida, including many of its threatened and endangered native species of flora and fauna. Established as a state park in 1997, this land is kept healthy by a balance of frequent prescribed burns and an abundant wet season, very similar to the way it was when indigenous people lived here, and of course when the early settlers arrived. Previously altered by modern human activity such as cattle ranching, agricultural practices, railroads, and military target practice during WWII, it has been mostly restored to its natural state, albeit still a work in progress. Note: unexploded military ordnances potentially remain on the property, therefore digging is prohibited, and visitors should leave the area and notify a ranger if a suspicious device is noticed.

But I’m not trying to scare you off, ha! This is a must-see park, and preferably for an overnight stay! In 2016, it was officially designated as Florida’s first Dark Sky Park. Due to its vast expanse, there is very limited light pollution, which enables spectacular views of the stars, planets, constellations, the ISS, the Milky Way, etc….with the naked eye! Campers can choose from 20 sites in the family campground or 15 sites in the equestrian campground, which all include water and electricity. The family campground also offers restrooms, showers, and laundry facilities. Those wanting the best nighttime sky views can opt for one of five “astro-pads”, but there are special restrictions such as red lights only and no camp fires. There are also three primitive campsites accessible only by hiking or biking 2.5 miles which accommodate four persons each (pack in/pack out).

A park this size surely consists of trails, and trails there are! Over 100 miles of multi-use trails offer a variety of sights, sounds, and endless opportunities to enjoy some of the wonderful species here such as blazing star, St. John’s-wort, the carnivorous pitcher plant, barred owls, burrowing owls, crested caracaras, bald eagles, and swallowtail kites.

On weekends and holidays from November through March, visitors can take a fun and educational prairie buggy tour with a ranger, exploring remote areas of the park. Tours are weather-dependent and reservations are required. Highly recommend!

This is such a unique and fantastic place to visit and explore, especially for an overnight (or a few) stay!