Bike & Hike / Everglades / Road Trips / Southeast Florida

Loop Road: Storied road through Everglades is full of wildlife


Old car Pinecrest Loop Road

Pinecrest was a boom town on Loop Road in the ’20s, with bars, brothels and bootleggers. The nearest legal authority was in Key West. Today there are just a few signs of its heyday, including this ’54 Dodge.

If even half the stories about Loop Road are true, it was the swamp version of the Wild West well into the 1950s and ‘60s.

Old Pinecrest gas station

The old Pinecrest gas station is one of the relics on Loop Road. No trespassing! There are still residents here.

Loop Road is a 24-mile-long two-lane road that parallels Tamiami Trail through the Everglades in the belly of South Florida’s undeveloped center.

The eastern seven miles are paved and after that, it’s gravel or dirt. In the summer, parts of the road can be under water.

All year, the place teems with wildlife – alligators, birds, otters, deer, even the rarely seen Florida panther. It’s part of the Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge.

For years, people who wanted to get away from civilization lived here:  hunters and fishermen, of course, but also folks who didn’t want to be found for reasons not always innocent. There was a wild bar called the Gator Hook, immortalized in this great reminiscence by Florida writer Jeff Klinkenberg.  (His piece is well worth reading.)

This gator sauntered across Loop Road as we unloaded our bikes one April day.

This gator sauntered across Loop Road as we unloaded our bikes one April day.

Today, the people along Loop Road are tamer. But the animals, thankfully, are just as wild.

Those traveling across Florida on the Tamiami Trail should take Loop Road only if they aren’t in a hurry.  Once on gravel, your speed will be under 20 miles per hour. Like the rest of the Everglades, the scenery here doesn’t shout.  Appreciating the cypress forest and pine uplands requires quiet attention to the beauty of small things.

Fish in the water along Loop Road

Gaze into the water along Loop Road and you’ll see it is teeming with enough little fish to keep flocks of birds happy.

This Loop Road guide from the Big Cypress National Wildlife Reserve provides useful mile-by-mile information, history and background.  It’s a PDF; I’d recommend you print it out before you hit the road.

Florida Trail at Loop Road in Big Cypress

The Florida Trail, which stretches through the state, starts at Loop Road. The trail over exposed limestone is one of the quietest places you’ll find.

If you want to use Loop Road as a way to get out and explore Big Cypress, there are three good opportunities to take a hike:

  • Across from the Loop Road Education Center about seven miles west of the eastern entrance to Loop Road is the short Tree Snail Hammock Trail. It’s only a third of a mile long and it’s a jungly bramble. Hunting for the pretty tree snails on the trail makes it a bit of a treasure hunt.
  • A far longer trail is about at the mid-way point. Here is the southern terminus of the Florida Trail, which extends all the way up the state. You don’t have to hike for hours, however, to enjoy it. In the winter, this is an easy and lovely trail through cypress forest decorated with airplants. The surface is a craggy exposed limestone and it is a very still and silent place. On an April hike, the trail was lined with wildflowers. During the rainy season, this path will be ankle- or knee-deep underwater.
  • The third good place to hike is the Gator Hook Slough Trail. This trail is two miles east of the western entrance to Loop Road. In winter, the trail starts dry and then becomes a swamp slog through ankle-deep water. It begins in a pretty dwarf cypress forest and opens up to a prairie with cypress domes visible along the horizon. There are restrooms and picnic tables at the trailhead. Here famed wildlife photographer Clyde Butcher recounts going off-trail and getting lost on the Gator Hook Trail.

As you drive, you’ll find many openings in the forest at culverts and bridges where it’s worth stopping, looking into the water and listening. One of the prettiest spots is Sweetwater Strand, where deeper water and large cypress trees create a setting photographers find irresistible. Here are some pictures by a photographer who tromped into Sweetwater Strand in hip waders.

Bromeliad on Loop Road

Bromeliad blooms along trail on Loop Road.

Most people also snap a few photos at Pinecrest. A few houses, rusting antique gas pumps and a disintegrating ‘54 Dodge are the main elements of this ghost town, once home to 400 people. It’s an evocative scene, located so far off the main road.

Nearby is the home of one of Loop Road’s current characters, Lucky Cole, who specializes in what you’d have to call outdoor boudoir photography. Look for his red mailbox on the north side of the road.

And there are the alligators. Sometimes they’re in the road or crossing the road. Often, if you walk on Loop Road, you’ll hear loud splashes as they hear your approach. While on a bike ride down Loop Road one spring day, I wrote in my notebook: “There are so many gators, making mention of them would be like pointing out clouds in a Florida sky. Oh look: there’s another one.”

Motorcyclists on Loop Road

Planning your drive on Loop Road:

Loop Road guide from the Big Cypress National Wildlife Reserve

Florida Rambler’s guide to Tamiami Trail through the Everglades

Camping along Loop road:

 

Campsite at Mitchell's Landing along Loop Road

Campsite at Mitchell’s Landing along Loop Road

There are two campgrounds along Loop Road: Pinecrest and Mitchell’s Landing. They offer primitive camping with primitive toilets, but you must bring your own water. You do not need reservations and there is no fee.

Mitchell’s Landing (the more attractive of the two) does fill up on warm winter weekends. Pinecrest has 10 sites; Mitchell’s Landing has 15. Each has a picnic table and fire ring.

The campgrounds are located along the paved section on the eastern section of Loop Road and so would be accessible to RVs.

Here’s information on camping. 

Links to help you explore area around Loop Road:

Visiting nearby Everglades City and Chokoloskee:  

 

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11 Comments

  1. Pingback: Loop Road: Storied road through Everglades is full of wildlife | EYES! On News

  2. Pingback: Everglades Seafood Festival 2014: Feb. 7, 8 and 9 | Florida Rambler

  3. tom davis says:

    Miami herald dec. 4 1966 happy anarchy rulesthe loop. this article was about the loop and the way it was then my uncle was part of the article and rereading it was a trip back in time I spent many week-ends and summers with him from 58 thrue 69 when I was drafted. he died in 71 when I was in nam and I haven’t been back sense. tom

  4. Bonnie-
    What efforst are being taken to preserve and restore the Monroe Station? Action mst be taken soon before the building collapses. Is anyone writing to the state for grants?
    -Leigh

  5. Used to go out there shooting when I was a kid, from the early to late 1970′s. Not sure you’re even allowed to shoot there anymore… Monroe Station for BBQ wild boar sandwiches; sorry to see it’s boarded up.

  6. Paul LaBounty says:

    e lizzle: did you ever go on a “real” 4×4 road as we have in Colorado? I can hardly wait to take that road, but it’ll be in something I have to rent down there, not my Land Rover. I’m ready to test it out (the road that is). Did you see any wildlife there or were you too worried about making it out? Try our “shelf” roads out here.

    • Paul: There are several back-country roads off the Loop Road that will provide the challenges you seek, reaching deep into the Everglades and accessible only in swamp buggies, vehicle of choice in that country. Plenty of wildlife in those swamps, human and otherwise. :-)

  7. Thanks for the comment. Fortunately, road work was completed last year and Loop Road is in pretty good shape. It’s still gravel or dirt after the paving ends, but when I visited at the end of January 2013, there were not potholes or ruts as you experienced.

    • e lizzle says:

      Thank you for the update, I’ll have to make it a point to take a trip there again in the next couple of months, before rainy season starts.

  8. A few years back, we took loop road from east to west and be warned, the middle unpaved segment is the bumpiest, most rut-and-pothole-laden thing you could ever imagine. I was in a older jeep Cherokee and I thought we would never make it through.

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