Big Cypress National Preserve is massive, diverse and a keystone component of the greater Everglades, filtering water destined for Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. These >729,000 pristine acres are a jigsaw puzzle of 5 distinct habitats, each supporting an abundance of flora and fauna – many of which are Threatened or Endangered Species.
This amazing preserve is part of an even larger mosaic of state and federal lands that blanket the southern and southwest tip of Florida, all of which are part of the largest natural area restoration project in history, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). In its simplest terms, the plan is to restore as much of south Florida’s natural water flow as possible.
While there are many places to explore in Big Cypress, this exploration is of the Turner River Road Loop Drive, which took us north on Turner River Road from Tamiami Trail (Hwy 41), west on Upper Wagonwheel Road, and south on Birdon Road, taking us back to Hwy 41. The loop itself is 16.4 miles; from the Big Cypress Preserve Headquarters, around the loop and back was 23.34 miles, as you can see on our WonderMap (below).
The Big Cypress headquarters are in a modern “green” building that is much like an elaborate welcome center, with elements of a museum and a general store combined. You can easily spend an hour here learning about Big Cypress, checking out their souvenir shop, and strolling the boardwalk out back.
From the HQ, the 1st stop is on the corner of Highway 41 and Turner River Road – H.P. Williams Roadside Park. This park features a large shaded picnic area and a sizable boardwalk along this small, shallow, lazy river. No doubt a pretty place where you could burn a couple of hours, particularly if you stop for a picnic, but since this is mile 0 on the loop, we dared not linger too long.
As the name implies, Turner River Road runs alongside Turner River – and where there’s water, there’s life. Alligators, birds, turtles, fish and wildflowers are plentiful, as you might expect. As with the other pieces of Florida’s Big Green mosaic there is a distinctly tropical feel. (See Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Preserve, Picayune Strand State Forest, Collier-Seminole State Park, Everglades National Park and 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge)
While our visit during the last week of March (2014) was at the height of the dry season, the vegetation was nonetheless verdant, especially along the river. As the rainy season picks up over the next few months, water levels rise and the complexion of the land shifts into swamp mode.
After several roadside stops to view wildlife and/or flowers, we reach Upper Wagonwheel Road about 7 miles from Tamiami Trail (Hwy 41), where we turn left (west). Just 3 miles later we reach Birdon road, where we turn left again, directing us back towards Highway 41. The entire loop, with many brief stops, took us slightly over 2 hours. Sure, we could have spent much longer, but we were on a mission to investigate as much of this massive patchwork of natural lands as we could squeeze into a week. I’m already making plans for return visits to explore these gorgeous lands in greater detail.
Speaking of spending more time, Big Cypress offers 8 campgrounds, one of which is restricted to group camping. Backcountry permits are also available at the HQ. And while you’re here, you might want to stop by Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery – but be prepared to have your breath taken away by this world-renown black & white photographer’s work.
Check out our Photo Gallery and WonderMap (below), then put this Florida Natural Wonder on your Bucket List.
Turner River Road Loop WonderMap. NOTE: Click on waypoint flags for location photos.