Big Cypress National Preserve | HALFWAY CREEK LOOP TRAIL


HALFWAY CREEK LOOP TRAIL


Length: 9 mile loop
Time: 5 hours

Halfway Creek runs 7.3 miles between the Nathaniel P. Reed Visitor Center in Big Cypress National Preserve and the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades National Park, a nearly 15-mile round-trip if you don’t have a ride waiting at the other end. However, a shorter, 9-mile trip can be made by paddling the Halfway Creek Loop Trail. This allows you to explore the Creek and other narrow passageways, plus a few large ponds. You should be able to do this in 5 hours unless you stop somewhere for an extended lunch, go fishing along the way, etc.

Halfway Creek is a coastal waterway and is subject to the effects of tides, but the Loop Trail is far enough inland that any effects are so minimal that they aren’t worth mentioning. The trail only covers the first three miles of Halfway Creek before breaking off onto other waterways. If you plan on paddling to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, you will experience tidal effects once you get closer to Chokoloskee Bay. See the How Tides Affect Your Paddling article for more information.

The majority of the Halfway Creek Loop Trail is out in the open, so you are going to be exposed to the sun for around five hours. Bring a hat and plenty of sunscreen if avoiding sun damage is important to you.

The launch point from Big Cypress National Preserve is the Seagrape Drive Boat Ramp. This is located at the end of Seagrape Drive, a dirt road that runs next to the Reed Visitor Center. Small motorized boats, canoes, and kayaks can be launched from here. This is a backcountry trip and it requires a backcountry permit. These are free and can be found at a kiosk near the boat ramp. All you need is a pencil or pen to fill one out.

The Halfway Creek Loop Trail is navigated by using white, numbered PVC pipes that have been placed in the water at each turn, this way you don’t really need to know how to navigate with a map and compass. Pipes with “HC” mean Halfway Creek. Pipes with “L” indicate the Loop that branches off of the Creek. However, there are no arrows on the pipes pointing the way, so you still need to use your judgement as to which way to turn. As you read through this review, you will find pointers on how to interpret the markers so that you can make the correct turns and avoid getting lost.

Typical trail marker on Halfway Creek, Big Cypress National Preserve

Typical trail marker on Halfway Creek, Big Cypress National Preserve

Though you can paddle the loop without any navigational aids, make it easy on yourself and pick up a copy of the Gulf Coast Paddling Guide. The guide is free and available at the Nathaniel P. Reed Visitor Center or at the Oasis Visitor Center and it contains a map of the water trails. It is made of newsprint and will most likely get wet, so bring a zip-lock baggie with you if possible. Furthermore, if you have a GPS, bring it as well. It is best to use the printed map and the GPS together, for while the printed map can give you an instant overview of the route, you can’t zoom in to see the details like you can on a GPS.

Your cell phone GPS should work fine as long as you can get a cell signal. A phone’s GPS does not use a cell signal per se, but you need a signal to get the maps from a source such as Google, otherwise it will just show your position on a blank screen. If you use your phone, just be sure that you have battery power to last the entire trip. Consider purchasing an external battery pack if you frequently make long hiking or paddling trips. I have one that can keep my cell phone going all day long.

When departing the boat ramp, take a right on the canal to get to Halfway Creek. After a mile of paddling, the canal, which has a fairly uniform width the entire way, empties out into the first of two large ponds. Paddle straight across and you will find the exit on the opposite side from where you came in. These open bodies of water are great places to see birds.

Canal leading to Halfway Creek at Big Cypress National Preserve

Canal leading to Halfway Creek at Big Cypress National Preserve

Pelicans flying above Halfway Creek at Big Cypress National Preserve

Pelicans flying above Halfway Creek at Big Cypress National Preserve

However, seeing a bird is not the same as photographing one. Most of the time all you see is bird butts as they fly away the second they hear you coming. If bird photography is the main purpose of your trip, there are two strategies to choose from to help you get some good photos. One is to have two people in your boat, one to paddle and one to take photos. When by yourself it is hard to put down your paddles and get your camera out quickly enough to get a good shot. The second way is to simply float silently down the creek (there is not much current, so you won’t go very fast). Every now and then you will float past an alcove and catch the birds unaware of your presence.

Birds on Halfway Creek at Big Cypress National Preserve

Birds on Halfway Creek at Big Cypress National Preserve

Birds on Halfway Creek at Big Cypress National Preserve

Birds on Halfway Creek at Big Cypress National Preserve

Now let’s discuss how the navigation marker system works. After exiting the first pond you will travel down a wide channel that curves around to the right, straightens out for a short distance, and then curves right again before coming to another pond, though it is not nearly as big as the previous one. Straight across is the mouth of another channel, and taking a left looks inviting as well. From the air it is easy to see which way to turn, but from the water everything looks the same. Whenever there is an option to turn there will be a PVC marker, in this case HC2 (Halfway Creek marker 2). As mentioned, there are no arrows pointing which way to go, but the HC2 marker is located on the left corner, which means stay to the left. You would have seen a marker at the mouth of the channel straight ahead if this were the way to go. As you can see in the photo below, keeping straight leads into a dead end cove and you would eventually figure out that you went the wrong way. In nearly all cases, wrong turns simply end up at dead ends. Getting lost is always temporary, but you do waste time.

HC2 Marker Demo

HC2 Marker Demo

At 1.75 miles into the journey you come to the HC3 marker. If you look to the left you will also see L15, which marks the location at which you will come out at the end of the loop and back onto Halfway Creek. If this were a hiking trail you could go in either direction around the loop portion of the trail, but in this case there are passageways further down that are so narrow that two on-coming canoes cannot pass each other, essentially making this a one-way road. Thus, you need to continue paddling down Halfway Creek until you come to the L1 marker.

Halfway Creek remains a fairly wide body of water—in my book it’s a river—for another .75 mile, then it narrows considerably. Up until this point you may see motorized boats on the water, but here the channel gets too narrow and shallow for them. There are a few turn options on the way south, but all are marked with PVC posts.

Halfway Creek narrows about 2.75 miles from the start, Big Cypress National Preserve

Halfway Creek narrows about 2.75 miles from the start, Big Cypress National Preserve

Though narrow, at this point the creek is still not what I envisioned a “swamp” to be: a dark place with very narrow passageways and alligators hanging out at every corner. Yes, you will eventually come to the mangrove tunnels, but you probably won’t see many alligators on this trip (I saw none). Alligators like to sun themselves on the riverbanks, but the entire bank of Halfway Creek and the Loop Trail is nothing but mangroves. There’s no place for alligators to rest. There’s no place for you to rest either, other than in your boat, so if you have a bad back and can’t sit in a kayak or canoe seat for five hours straight you might want to reconsider the trip. The only way to get out of your boat is to jump into the water. In most cases it is not very deep, but you could sink up to your knees in the muck. Before jumping out, stick you paddle into the ground to see if the bottom is solid or muddy.

The banks of Halfway Creek are covered with mangroves, Big Cypress National Preserve

The banks of Halfway Creek are covered with mangroves, Big Cypress National Preserve

Halfway Creek will eventually get so narrow that those in kayaks won’t be able to use the kayak-style paddles. I had to take mine apart and use one half to paddle like in a canoe. By the time you get to HC7, where you will turn off of the Creek and begin the loop, you are into the mangrove tunnels where you can’t paddle at all and must grab onto the branches to pull yourself forward. This is what you paid for. This is paddling in a swamp. I kept waiting for a snake to drop on me (joke), and you will be passing through spider webs here and there.

Pull yourself along Halfway Creek by using the mangrove branches, Big Cypress National Preserve

Pull yourself along Halfway Creek by using the mangrove branches, Big Cypress National Preserve

Mangroves are odd looking trees. From their branches sprout what look to be roots and these eventually grow downwards and anchor into the ground, but until then they are movable. There are times when the passageways don’t look wide enough for a canoe or kayak to make it through, but if the roots haven’t anchored into the ground they can be pushed out of the way as you pass by.

Mangrove root that has not anchored into the ground on Halfway Creek

Mangrove root that has not anchored into the ground on Halfway Creek

At HC7 be on the lookout for L1 off to the right. This is where the loop portion of the paddle begins, but what I am about to tell you varies drastically from the park’s printed trail map and the Google map (street view). According to the park map you should stay on Halfway Creek until coming to HC8, which is supposedly where L1 is. This is incorrect. The L1 turn is at HC7. This bypasses the extra mileage covered if you continued to HC8, essentially creating a shortcut. As proof, when making voice notes during the trip I stated that L1 was at the HC7 marker, and just in case I misspoke, I have photos of the HC7 and L1 markers with a time stamp difference of one minute, so these two markers are undeniably next to each other.

To understand what I am talking about, switch from the satellite view to the street view on the Google map at the top of this page. The street view does not show the waterway on which I traveled, but when you switch back to the satellite view you can definitely see that there is a water trail the way I went. I believe you can still get onto the loop from HC8, but you add distance to the trip and I am not sure if the turn is marked. Thus, turn right at L1 once you get to HC7.

The L1 marker is 3 miles from the start of the trip, and between here and L3 is where you really get into the hairy parts. Looking down the passageway, you wonder if it is even possible to make it through. The smaller your canoe or kayak the better, and if in a kayak you must once again break your paddle into two sections. When you can paddle at all, you’ll have to do it like in a canoe.

Mangrove tunnel on Halfway Creek Loop Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

Mangrove tunnel on Halfway Creek Loop Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

Despite being in a dense mangrove thicket, the sun shines through and if you can catch it hitting the water you’ll notice that it is the color of tea. This is the tannin from the mangrove roots leaching into the water. You can still see down to the bottom of the creek, so the water, while brown, is crystal clear.

Tannin stained water of Halfway Creek Loop Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

Tannin stained water of Halfway Creek Loop Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

At L3, 3.9 miles into the journey, the narrow passageway spills out into a small pond. Continue straight across to the other side. Kayakers can snap their paddles back together and proceed as normal. However, until you get back onto Halfway Creek at L15, the route will alternate between wide passageways, even crossing a few large ponds, to mangrove tunnels where paddles must again be broken down.

L3 marker on Halfway Creek Loop Trail at Big Cypress National Preserve

L3 marker on Halfway Creek Loop Trail at Big Cypress National Preserve

After the pond you will travel a short distance down a wide creek before coming to the largest body of water on the trail, large enough to be called a lake. These large bodies of water are subject to considerable wind, and if you are as unlucky as I am, you will always be traveling against the wind (I swear that I could be going against the wind and turn around and still be going against the wind). Because the water is so shallow the wind can easily create waves large enough to capsize a canoe or kayak. From the comfort of the narrow channels it is hard to believe that wind could ever be a factor on this trip.

It is important to keep a close lookout for the L4 PVC marker because it is not at the mouth of the channel that you just exited. You must venture quite a ways out onto the lake before you are able to spot it. The marker is near the lake’s mid point and off to the left, thus the best way to proceed is simply to hug the left shoreline. Once you get to L4 you will see the exit from the lake straight ahead.

Lake at the L4 marker on Halfway Creek Loop Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

Lake at the L4 marker on Halfway Creek Loop Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

Upon exiting the lake you will come to L5, but it is not readily apparent as to which way to turn. Look to your right and you will see a post in the distance (L6) sticking out of the water. This brings up the next tip about the PVC markers. In a narrow channel where there is no place to go but straight ahead you come upon the markers only at intersections, but on these large bodies of water some of the posts are so far away that you need pretty good eyes to spot them. Do not proceed too far without locating the next marker, otherwise you will waste time paddling around the lake looking for the way out.

L6 marker far in the distance on Halfway Creek Loop Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

L6 marker far in the distance on Halfway Creek Loop Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

Once at L6, the half-way point on the trip, you are back on a fairly wide waterway with plenty of room to paddle freely. It’s about .6 mile to the next marker, L7, and here the waterway narrows once again, but it’s nothing like the mangrove thickets encountered earlier. This brings up another obstacle to be aware of. During my visit the L7 marker had nearly fallen over had been in the water for so long that it was covered with muck. The problem may well be fixed by the time of your journey, but posts can be down or damaged at any given time. This is where the printed map and GPS come in handy. If the L7 marker has not been fixed when you visit, stay straight at the intersection (the other option is a left turn).

L8 is literally just around the corner from L7, and L9 is another quarter mile from there. The printed park map is again completely out of whack at this point, not to mention that there is so little detail that you can’t figure out the layout of the waterways, so ignore it. The printed map is nothing more than the Google street map, which we already know is not that accurate. Instead of drawing a correct map, the National Park Service simply stuck the L-icons in approximate locations to conform to the Google map. All you have to do is switch between the Google street and satellite maps and you will see that the street map does not correspond to the actual waterway that is clearly shown in the satellite view.

From L9 you cannot see the L10 marker, and this ends up being the only really tricky turn on the trip. You have the choice of continuing on a channel to your left at about the 10 o’clock position or taking a large, U-shaped turn to the right, hugging the righthand shoreline. The L9 marker is on the right, so this indicates a right turn, but what threw me off was another post on the right with a yellow band at the top. I had never seen one of these and didn’t know what to make of it—was this a warning to stay away or was it marking the way to go? The right U-turn ended up being correct, so I initially figured that the numbered markers were too far apart and everyone complained so the National Park Service put up an intermediate marker. However, since there is another such post by L11 that marks the wrong way to turn, I think that this one being on the right was just a coincidence and I have no idea what these yellow-topped posts indicate.

Yellow-topped poles can be found at various places on Halfway Creek Loop Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

Yellow-topped poles can be found at various places on Halfway Creek Loop Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

Even when you go around the corner you cannot see the L10 marker, and I suspect that many people will turn around and take the channel to the left, which just dead ends into a small pond, a quarter-mile round-trip waste of time. This brings up the next obstacle to be aware of. Mangroves grow so quickly that in some places they have consumed the poles. Continue down the channel and eventually you will see L10 hidden by the mangroves. It sits right at the mouth of a very narrow passageway, one so narrow that it is easy to doubt that it goes anywhere. This is another mangrove tunnel, though in this case the tunnel is very short and within a few minutes you are back out into the open.

Mouth of a passageway into a mangrove tunnel on Halfway Creek Loop Trail (center of photo) at Big Cypress National Preserve

Mouth of a passageway into a mangrove tunnel on Halfway Creek Loop Trail (center of photo) at Big Cypress National Preserve

Once you come out of the tunnel, the wider creek winds its way through the mangroves and eventually comes to another small lake. There is an option to take a right or a left, but there is no trail marker. What I discovered was that if there are turns and no markers, that means to stay straight. Once exiting the pond on the other side you are back into a narrow waterway with a few mangrove tunnels, but again, it’s never like it was back at L1 through L3.

Marker L11 is also hidden in the mangroves. It marks an intersection with options to stay straight or to turn right. As mentioned earlier, there is another pole with a yellow stripe on it at this intersection and it is on the right hand side. In this case, however, right is the wrong way to go. Stay straight and you will soon see the L11 marker in the brush. From here on out you are either paddling on fairly wide waterways or through ponds.

Like L11, marker L12 is buried in the mangroves. It is located on the left, thus indicating a left turn.

L12 marker hidden by the mangroves on Halfway Creek Loop Trail at Big Cypress National Preserve

L12 marker hidden by the mangroves on Halfway Creek Loop Trail at Big Cypress National Preserve

At this point the waterways are wide and the water deep enough to accommodate small motorized boats, so if you hear one coming try to paddle over to the side.

Motorboat on the backcountry waterways of Halfway Creek Loop Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

Motorboat on the backcountry waterways of Halfway Creek Loop Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

Right after passing L13 you will come to another large pond. Hug the right bank to find the exit channel, which is the last narrow channel that you will travel on before hitting the massive lake that takes you back to Halfway Creek. When entering the lake look for the L14 marker. The lake is not as large as the one at L4, but it is just as long and you must paddle the entire length (at L4 you paddled across the narrower width). Again, watch out for wind and cross with extreme caution if the water is rough. It takes about five minutes of constant paddling to get across.

Lake at the L14 marker on Halfway Creek Loop Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

Lake at the L14 marker on Halfway Creek Loop Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

At the far end of the lake is a very short exit channel marked by L15, the final marker. This dead ends back into Halfway Creek. Take a left to return to the Seagrape Drive Boat Ramp, which is about 1.75 miles away.

L15 marks the end of Halfway Creek Loop Trail and reentry onto Halfway Creek, Big Cypress National Preserve

L15 marks the end of Halfway Creek Loop Trail and reentry onto Halfway Creek, Big Cypress National Preserve

On the way back I had a manatee swim by me. I tried to catch it by paddling as fast as I could, but as slow as the animals seem to move, I don’t think a human in a kayak is going to keep up with them.

Manatee swimming in Halfway Creek at Big Cypress National Preserve

Manatee swimming in Halfway Creek at Big Cypress National Preserve

Total distance of the trip is 9 miles and it took me about 5 hours. I did not stop often and pretty much paddled straight through. I cannot recommend this trip enough. If you don’t have a canoe or kayak, rent one. If you have any athletic ability you don’t really need any experience paddling. You can walk around the backcountry on the hiking trails, but there is no better way to see Big Cypress than from the water.

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Last updated on June 13, 2023
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