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Loop Road: Storied road through Everglades is full of wildlife


Last updated on July 5th, 2024 at 11:06 am

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.

Old car Pinecrest Loop Road in Everglades
Loop Road: Pinecrest was a boom town in the 1920s, 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.(Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Old Pinecrest gas station on Loop Road
The old Pinecrest gas station is one of the relics on Loop Road. No trespassing! There are still residents here.(Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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 worth reading.)

Today, the people along Loop Road are tamer.

But the animals, thankfully, are just as wild.

This gator sauntered across Loop Road as we unloaded our bikes one April day. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
This gator sauntered across Loop Road as we unloaded our bikes one April day. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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:

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. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
  • 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 longer trail is about at the mid-way point. Here is a trail that used to be the southern terminus of the Florida Trail, which extends all the way up the state. (The trail is still here but the Florida Trail officially starts at the Oasis Visitor Center on the Tamiami Trail now.) You don’t have to hike for hours, however, to enjoy this trail off Loop Road.

    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, 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.
Loop Road in the Everglades: Birds and gators are easy to spot in winter. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Loop Road in the Everglades: Birds and gators are easy to spot in winter.

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.

Bromeliad on Loop Road in Big Cypress in Florida Everglades
Bromeliad blooms along trail on Loop Road in Big Cypress. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Of course, 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
Loop Road is a fun ride for motorcyclists and off-road bicyclists. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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 in Big Cypress
Campsite at Mitchell’s Landing along Loop Road in Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.  

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.

Here’s information on camping. 

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. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Visiting nearby Everglades City and Chokoloskee:  

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  • Wade says:

    Loop road,the last frontier.In the 60s and 70s that one hour drive out of Miami brought me into a John Wayne movie.As a young fellow I knew this other world was for me. So by hook or by crook I began going to loop road gator hook lodge , Monroe Station also
    My dad wound up buying a cypress board tin roof cabin on burns road! We miami city slickers became part of the “home team” from 1973 on till approx Y2K this everglades and big cypress life greatly defined who I am to this day.Watsons Store,Gene’s Chevron
    Hokeys beer/worms, Docs place, Mimis ,the Wayside the smallest post office,Turner River road ,Monument lake,Donna drive,Wagon wheel road ,the Oasis before it became Ntl.Park Headquarters The jetport as a place to camp and fish,Mitchell’s landing before excessive regulation.Midway lake.Janes mullet and grits, massive freedom like in the wild west,the kind that inspired people to be willing to fight and die for this country,for that kind of freedom was the kind once tasted you could not imagine living without. I know there’s a few still doing it ,God Bless You keeping the American dream alive.

  • Melody rider says:

    No mention here of the fabulous music scene back in the late 60s and early 70s…my mom and dad played music out there then… Ervin rouse was a regular and he wrote the orange blossom special… lots of famous musicians hung out there to just play and not be bothered… it was a magical time to a 4 or 5 year old little girl!!! Music everywhere!

    • HG says:

      @Lorraine Gambill, I found your comment because I just read an article about Pinecrest. In this article they digitized copies of the local newspaper from the 70s. If you scroll all the way to the bottom of the article you can see them in the form of a digital book. Might contain some stories about people you know!

    • Lorraine Gambill says:

      @Melody rider, I lived there and we may have been around the same age. My Grandparents owned the Hughes General Store. I remember Irvin Rouse very well. It was a time that no one that did not live it could imagine. I continued to visit Loop Road and my father lived there in the Mother in Laws house behind the Dayhoffs home until 2002. My mother Bunny is still living and with me in my home. I can’t find much on my Grandparents charles and Shirley Hughes owners of Hughes Genera. Store on the road til the late 70’s. Any articles with them would be appreciated. Nice to know people remember the magic of the area then.

    • Bob Rountree says:

      In the late 70s, i recall going to a few bluegrass festivals out there.

  • Sandy Mendez says:

    one further comment re the loop…in the 60s and 70s everybody would set up camp along the road and got along just fine. i was born a rural kid in the backwoods of carolina so miami was a big city to me when we had…yuck…to move down.neighbors in the gables were bear hunters with a hound pack. wow. like being home again. i hunt all over the planet but those first 2 wks of zone a turkey season are pricelees. always like visiting lucky cole when im out there. hikers please remember we may be turkey hunting in that swamp between early march and early april.

  • Sandy Mendez says:

    hunted the loop as a boy from early to late 70s. took a decent buck or two and one particularly good osceola turkey. about 15yrs ago started turkey hunting the first two wknds of the season along the trails off the loop. no other hunters and quiet. sun sentinel did a story about one of my hunts. have had some success. remember during season deer hunting and turkey hunting is legal along the loop.

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