For years I drove across Alligator Alley wishing there was an easy way to access the Everglades from the road.
New recreation areas have been added and now there are several scenic stops where you can get out of your car and look at waterways and sawgrass vistas. But all of them keep you very close to the highway.
I was late to discover a really good alternative for hiking: The rest stop at Mile 63, where the Florida Trail crosses Alligator Alley.
The Florida Trail runs from Big Cypress National Preserve along the Tamiami Trail to Fort Pickens at Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola Beach. It’s one of 11 National Scenic Trails. It crosses Alligator Alley MM 63 and so this rest stop is also the access point for Florida’s longest hiking trail.
Here you can park in a large, safe parking lot on either the south side or the north side of the highway, close to restrooms, picnic tables and even vending machines, and begin a well-marked hike for miles into the Everglades.
Recently, we did a 5.7 mile loop on the north side of the I-75 and discovered it’s a great way to explore the Everglades and Big Cypress Preserve.
We returned to hike 2.5 miles into Big Cypress via the Florida Trail on the south side of I-75, and concluded that unless you are a hard-core through-hiker, you’re better off starting on the north side of the Alley. (See below for details on the southern trail.)
To start on the north side of the Alley, park at the end of the parking lot on the north side of the highway. In winter 2018, a rest stop on the north side is under construction, but the nearby parking lot for the trailhead is unaffected.
The hike begins along what was a gravel access road, Nobles Road. (Nobles Road can also be bicycled on fat-tire bikes.) A few steps down the trail you’ll see a sign-in box and a sign with a good trail map. Once you head out, you’ll find the trail is clearly blazed and easy to follow.
Thanks to a canal that parallels the road, one begins to see alligators, turtles and birds almost immediately. The path is lined by cypress trees with air plaints. Wildflowers dot the landscape. The longer you walk, the fainter the highway noise gets. We passed only a half dozen other hikers all afternoon and it was welcome solitude.
If you’re on a road trip and just want a short leg-stretcher, this is a good stop where you can hike as long as you’d like and then turn around.
If you want a longer hike, the map shows you ways to make it into loops of various lengths. You can even hike overnight and stay at a primitive campsite.
We took the first loop option and it led us down a trail that was narrower than the initial road, passing through a mixed pine forest.
Here I had one of the most thrilling wildlife sightings I’ve experienced. This is Florida panther country, and on this trail I got a fleeting glimpse of a tawny cat crossing the trail far in the distance. I can’t be sure it was a panther; it could have been a bobcat. But looking on the Internet at photos of both, I’m leaning toward the panther theory.
There was enough other wildlife to provide a little Everglades flavor – a pair of circling hawks, many alligators, a few birds.
Backpackers can head for primitive campsites along the way. They’re free. Register at the sign-in box and be sure to bring your own water. The closest campsite – about two miles from the parking lot – was a lovely clearing with a picnic table a short distance off the trail. Three campers told us it had been a good experience camping there. There are several campsites in the trails north of Alligator Alley.
A few things to keep in mind:
- The trail begins at one of two major rest stops along Alligator Alley. This one is about 40 miles west of U.S. 27 and is the Mile Marker 63 rest stop.
- It is a sunny trail, so bring lots of sun protection.
- There is no water; bring plenty.
- The winter dry season is the time to do this hike; I think it would be brutal in summer.
Hiking south on the Florida Trail form Alligator Alley
What about hiking south on the Florida Trail?
It’s a more challenging hike – muddy in spots even in March and underwater much of the year. For the first mile, the trail is actually a wide rutted road full of tire tracks.
A place called Ivy Camp – really, just an area of high ground where Florida Trailer hikers camp — is 3.7 miles in.
The whole route to Tamiami Trail is for pretty serious hikers, as described in this blog about a three-day hike between the Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley.
Resources for this Everglades hike:
- Map of Big Cypress, including trail area
- Florida National Scenic Trail information from Big Cypress
- Florida Trail Assn.
Recreation opportunities near Alligator Alley
- Take a hike in Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
- Outdoors things to do in Naples
- Naples Bird Rookery Swamp
- Biking and beach-hopping in Naples.
- Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
- Clam Pass Beach in Naples