Before the rainy season rolls into South Florida and the humidity renders you useless, hop across Alligator Alley and explore Florida Panther territory on the western fringe of our Everglades.
I won’t dwell on the endangered nature of these beautiful cats — only an estimated 160 remain in the wild — but how many of you have actually experienced a walk on the wild side where our panthers still roam?
And while Panther sightings are rare, they are not unprecedented.
There are many access points, some obscure or well-hidden, so here’s the rundown on the more accessible trailheads.
Big Cypress National Preserve
Accessible from Alligator Alley and State Road 29, the 1,200 square mile Big Cypress National Preserve boasts a wide variety of Everglades eco-systems, not the least of which are cypress swamps, a favorite haunt for the panther. For backpackers, there are three primitive campgrounds along these trails.
The first access point is from a parking area at Mile Marker 70 on I-75. At first sight, access appears restricted by the chain-link fence that parallels the highway, but at the rear of the parking area is a gate that opens up to miles of trails for your enjoyment.
A second access point is a few miles up the road on U.S. 29. After you exit I-75 (Exit 80), drive about a mile north on 29 and you’ll see a nondescript chain-link gate on the right that opens into a sand lot where you have to leave your vehicle. The trailhead, a park-service road, has a gate that blocks all but refuge vehicles.
The U.S. 29 trailhead is the best access point for overnight backpackers. The hike to the nearest campground, known as Pink Jeep, is just two miles.
If you plan to hike into this backcountry, fill out a backcountry permit and leave it in the box at the gate, and notify friends or family of your plans. (Yes, you can get lost!)
You should also be aware that Bear Island is a popular area for off-road vehicles, swamp buggies and the like, especially on weekends. They take a roundabout route to get here, a bumpy 20-mile park service road that originates on the Tamiami Trail.
Hikers may also want to avoid the area during hunting season.
You can read more about camping in this area by referencing this article: RV, Tent and Backcountry Camping in Florida’s Everglades
Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
For hundreds of years, towering cypress trees up to 130 feet tall and 25 feet in circumference dominated the landscape of what is now Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Logging of cypress trees in this swath of Southwest Florida began in 1944, and by 1957, the last of the trees were harvested, laying bare the eco-system that harbors the Florida Panther.
The 26,400-acre refuge is the core of occupied panther territory today, and it was established to ensure that panthers and their remaining habitat are protected. An estimated 5 to 11 panthers are known to be living in this refuge today.
The trailhead is off State Road 29, about a hundred yards north of I-75 Exit 80. You’ll see a sign and the gate on the left. Follow the sandy road back to the well-marked trailhead, about 1/4-mile.
There are two trail loops, one a modest 1/3-mile that is wheel-chair accessible, and the other an unimproved 1 1/3-mile trek that goes deeper into the refuge. This second trail often floods in summer, so be prepared to hike in water. Be sure to close the gates behind you. Better yet, get there before summer.
Both trails allow the hiker to experience hardwood hammocks, pine flatwoods and the wet prairies that are common throughout the Everglades. You will also see evidence of the cypress forest re-establishing itself.
A good reference for this hike can be found on the Florida Hikes! web site.
Collier-Seminole State Park
If you plan to car-camp or camp in an RV, Collier-Seminole State Park is a great spot to anchor your panther-oriented weekend. There are also primitive campsites available to backpackers and along kayak/canoe trails.
The park has three designated trails, a mile-long nature trail, a 3.5-mile off-road bike trail also accessible to hikers, and a 6.5-mile hiking trail for the more adventurous.
The park offers recreational facilities for boating, fishing, a playground, picnic areas, a nature center, restrooms and it even has showers for day visitors.
As an added benefit, Collier-Seminole home to a national historic landmark, the 1924 Bay City Walking Dredge, which was used to help build the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp, linking Miami to Tampa.
Campground Note: Collier-Seminole’s campground is undergoing renovations, so not all of its 120 sites are available, and reservations are not being accepted at this time. Campers are assigned sites first-come, first-serve, but you should not have trouble getting a site now that the season is over. Contact the park at 239-394-3397 for up-to-date information on campsite availability.
For more information, check out this article on Collier-Seminole State Park
To visit Collier-Seminole State Park, follow State Road 29 south to the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), and turn right (west). The entrance is a few miles west on 41.
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
The 75,000-acre Fakahatchee Strand is dubbed “the Amazon of North America,” so that should provide a clue or two about back-country hiking here, especially during the rainy season.
There is a “drive thru” option, and during the winter months (November to March), guided swamp walks are conducted by park rangers and volunteers.
But for most people, the 1.2-mile (round trip) boardwalk trail at Big Cypress Bend is the most accessible and, therefore, most popular. The boardwalk is on Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), 7 miles west of SR 29 on the right side.
The main ranger station is on SR 29, about 15 miles south of Alligator Alley in the sparsely populated community of Copeland. From here, you can access Janes Scenic Drive, a graded but unimproved logging road that will take you 11 miles into the wilderness.
There are dozens of trails along the drive that take you deeper into this cypress swamp forest, which is recovering well from the clear-cut logging activities of the last century. You can obtain trail maps from the ranger station.
For a photographic journey along Janes Scenic Drive, I recommend this gallery by wildlife photographer Nick Botner.