Big Cypress National Preserve | WILDLIFE VIEWING

Alligator at the Oasis Visitor Center

Alligator at the Oasis Visitor Center

Big Cypress National Preserve offers visitors an opportunity to see exotic animals in their natural habitat. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, the best time to view wildlife in the swamp is during the dry season, which runs from November through mid-April. The reason for this is because there aren’t many water sources during this time, and the animals love to congregate in the ones that do exist. Luckily for tourists, many of these water holes are located at easily accessible areas of the park, including right along Highway 41, the Tamiami Trail. When the road was built, a ditch was dug on either side of the planned road and the dirt was piled in the center to create an elevated road bed. Those ditches stay filled with water year round, so you’ll find alligators and all sorts of birds along the road. In the wet season the water is everywhere and the animals can spread out all over the park. The last place they want to be is along the road and the subjects of nosy tourists.

MANATEES

Manatees? In the middle of a swamp? Don’t they live along the coast? Yes they do, but they also live in salt and fresh water inlets and rivers. There are a few of these in the southwest section of the park, but the most easily accessible place to see a manatee is in the man-made canal that runs from the Halfway Creek area up to behind the Nathaniel P. Reed Visitor Center. From a boardwalk viewing area you can see their bloated forms floating in the water, and you may spot an alligator as well. The manatees are not right under your feet, so if you want to get good photos, bring a telephoto lens, 400mm or longer. If you paddle in the Halfway Creek area, you may spot manatees as well, but for landlubbers, the Reed Visitor Center is the only place in the park to see them.

Manatees swim in the canal behind the Nathaniel P. Reed Visitor Center

Manatees swim in the canal behind the Nathaniel P. Reed Visitor Center

ALLIGATORS

While you can see alligators in a number of places, I had my best luck at the Oasis Visitor Center. The Tamiami Trail and its canals run right in front of the building, and a nice boardwalk viewing area has been set up for tourists to view the alligators, which are right below your feet just like at the zoo.

You can also see alligators swimming in the man-made canal at the Nathaniel P. Reed Visitor Center, but they are pretty far away. The H. P. Williams Roadside Park is also right along a canal and has a viewing area. Another option is the viewing platform at the end of a short boardwalk at Kirby Storter Roadside Park. I saw two alligators there.

When hiking any of the trails that run along the many canals in the park, you always have a chance of seeing an alligator (try the Florida Trail north of I-75 and the Turner River Road canals). While many people are terrified of getting eaten while hiking, I found that 100% of the time it is the alligators who do their best to avoid you, and most of the time you will hear a splash as they make a get-away into the canal long before you stumble upon them. Unless you go swimming in their waters, you don’t have much to worry about when hiking. Just don’t do anything stupid like trying to ride one.

Alligators at the Oasis Visitor Center

Alligators at the Oasis Visitor Center

BIRDS

You can find birds just about anywhere you can find water, but these guys are hard to get close to. On the trails, I always felt like I had a 300-foot force field around me, because as soon as I got within that distance the birds would fly away. To get good photos you need to pick a spot and sit silently and wait for the birds to come to you.

Ibis in the swamp along Loop Road

Ibis in the swamp along Loop Road

For those in a car, I found the greatest concentration of birds to be along the Loop Road, a dirt road that runs south from near the Monument Lake Campground. This road differs from the similar Turner River Road in that Turner River Road runs along a canal and is exposed to the open sun, whereas the Loop Road is in a very swampy area and offers much more shade and trees for the birds. Turner River Road is a better place to see alligators, though people report seeing plenty along Loop Road as well (I did not see any).

Blue Heron along the Loop Road south of the Oasis Visitor Center

Blue Heron along the Loop Road south of the Oasis Visitor Center

If on foot, the canal that runs next to the Florida Trail north of I-75 is a good place to see birds. Morning time is the best, for the area is out in the open and the birds appear less frequently once it gets warm.

Wood Stork in the canal

Wood Stork in the canal


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Last updated on February 21, 2021
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