In our last two weeks on this trip, we’ve climbed mountains and hiked valleys and seen some of the most beautiful places our nation has to offer. Beautiful- and conventional. This week, things are changing a bit. As we wrap up our long drive from Ohio, our stop is at the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. But don’t expect any mountains or bike trails here; in fact, I suggest you turn in your hiking boots for a pair of muck boots and pants you’re willing to get pretty wet.
So far, I’ve introduced you to two parks that were deemed worthy of preserving for their contribution to the landscape of our country. Protected by the National Park Service, these areas are subject to public access and use. The National Park Service administers the Congressional laws and protections to several areas however, including parks, forests, monuments, and preserves. Big Cypress, a National Preserve established in 1974, differs from a park in that it has far less strict legal protections- allowing hunting, oil exploration, and some off-road vehicles.
Slightly smaller than one of the parks, Big Cypress has plenty to offer us in our search for discovery in America’s beautiful park system. Unlike so many parks along the east coast, its main allure lies not in its traditional forest atmosphere but in its unique environment of its own. An offshoot of the famous Florida Everglades, Big Cypress offers a smaller and less tourist-heavy view into the renowned wetlands of Florida.
If you’ve never been to the wetlands before, it can certainly be an adjustment from the pine-needle lined paths of deciduous forests. In a “freshwater swamp ecosystem,” terrain is far less predictable than your typical forest. A good first introduction into these new surroundings of this area would be the scenic drive around the park, which offers an overarching view of everything there is to see while you’re there. Both the Turner Road and Loop Road weave through and around the park area and will give you an orientation to the exciting new views in Big Cypress. Take notice of the trees that give this place its name and the large population of birds to observe. Watch how the swamp spreads as far as the eye can see.
But what is waiting within? Well, the wildlife of the preserve give it some of its most notable features. Avoid the alligators as you explore that waters of the lands and you just might get a chance to see the critically endangered Florida panther that calls this place home. With only 100-180 of this species remaining in the wild, even a brief glimpse of one in its safest habitat is an opportunity to embrace. The wetlands that the Florida panther calls home have disappeared at an alarming rate in the recent years (losing 260,000 acres of wetlands between 1985 and 1996) and as they did, populations of species like the Florida Panther and many types of waterfowl lost their home. As we adventure, it is important to remember that these places aren’t being conserved merely for their beauty- sometimes conservation is a matter of life and death. So keep an eye out for all the species that are being saved while we visit; there is much to be saved beyond beauty.
There is no question that Big Cypress National Preserve is vastly different from previous parks we’ve visited. It may not have gorgeous sunrises or waterfalls, but I hope you’ve come to see that there is plenty more out there than wooded pathways. Let’s keep the Florida panther and it’s wetland home safe for years to come!
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