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.
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.)
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.
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.
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. (Note: The roadsign was missing when we visited in December 2014, so you might miss the trailhead. It’s across the road and near the well-marked parking lot and access point for off-road vehicles.)
- 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 you’ll find in the Everglades 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.
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.”
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
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. (Note: As of Jan 15, these campgrounds are closed due to flooding impact from Hurricane Irma. Visit the preserve website for updates.)
Mitchell’s Landing (the more attractive of the two) does fill up on warm winter weekends. It costs $24 a night and is open to RVs.
Pinecrest is reserved for group camping only and the group sites are $30 a night.
The campgrounds are located along the paved section on the eastern section of Loop Road.
Links to help you explore area around Loop Road:
- Shark Valley
- Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery
- Ochopee Post Office
- Joanie’s Blue Crab Cafe
- Big Cypress National Preserve
- Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk
- Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
Visiting nearby Everglades City and Chokoloskee:
- Historic Smallwood Store in Chokoloskee
- Everglades National Park Gulf Coast Visitor Center: A good place to take boat tours into the Ten Thousand Island NWR and get information about kayaking and hiking in the area.
- Camping and kayaking in the Ten Thousand Islands
- Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge
- Kayak Everglades City and first of the 10,000 Islands