The Best Way to Spend 3 Days in the Everglades and Big Cypress
March 5, 2022
The Everglades is one of the largest wetlands in the world. While some may imagine them just to be endless flat swampland filled with alligators, there are actually nine distinct habitats found in the park. Not only will you find sawgrass prairies, but also mangroves, coastal lowlands, pine rocklands and freshwater slough.
This Everglades itinerary encourages you to explore a bit below the surface during your visit to the Everglades. Find a connection to the unique landscape by walking out into the water, kayaking among the mangroves and exploring some of the many trails.
If you have three days, I recommend spending two days in Everglades National Park and one day in Big Cypress National Preserve. Both parks have so much to offer and you’ll likely find Big Cypress to be a bit less crowded, yet just as beautiful (if not more).
Everglades National Park is the third largest national park in the lower 48 states and emcompasses 1.5 million acres of water and land.
You will have a very different experience in the Everglades depending on when you visit. There are two distinct seasons: dry season and wet season. Dry season is from December to April and is characterized by little rain and mild temperatures. This is by far the most popular time to visit so it may be crowded.
I visited in March and had very nice weather. It was crowded in some areas but also easy to find moments of solitude.
Wet season occurs from May to November when the Everglades receives a lot of rain and very high temperatures. Average highs are in the 90’s°F(32°C) and humidity can be over 90%. Afternoon thunderstorms are daily occurrences. The unfavorable temperatures and conditions mean there are less crowds and limited to no availability for some guided tours, such as wet walks.
If you are interested in wildlife photography and seeing the wildlife when they are most active, April or May are the best times to visit. This is mating season for the alligators, so they will be more active and visible.
This itinerary is based on visiting in the dry season.
Everglades National Park, the Big Cypress National Preserve and the surrounding wetlands span almost all the way east to west in Southern Florida. If you are flying, you have several airport options. You could fly into the Southwest International Airport in Fort Myers, where you’ll be just over an hour from where this itinerary begins near Big Cypress Preserve.
Alternatively, you can fly into the east coast of Florida to either Fort Lauderdale or Miami. The Miami Airport is located under an hour from the Shark Valley Visitor Center. For this itinerary, the ideal scenario will be to fly into Fort Myers and out of Miami or Fort Lauderdale.
I love to fly in and out of different airports to maximize my time. Sometimes multi-city tickets are more expensive, but that is not always the case. I recommend comparing prices for split airports and one-way rental cars before booking your trip. Whether you can fly in and out of different airports or not, you will need a vehicle to properly explore the area.
You will find the best located hotel options in Everglades City for Big Cypress and Homestead for the Everglades. For this itinerary, I would recommend staying one to two nights in Everglades City and one to two nights in Homestead. Everything is very spread out, so moving hotels will save you a lot of driving time. The middle nights can be in either city because day two begins directly between them in Shark Valley.
In Everglades City, the Everglades Adventures Hotel Suites by Ivey House is a great option that has been newly remodeled and has spacious rooms. The Everglades City Motel is another option for affordable lodging in the area.
There are options for camping in both Big Cypress Preserve and Everglades National Park. There are two frontcountry campgrounds in the Everglades that are near the Homestead entrance. If you are more adventurous, there is also wilderness camping available deep into the park along the canoe trails (but this would involve a different itinerary!).
There are also campgrounds in the Big Cypress National Preserve. The Midway Campground in Big Cypress could be a great option to be more centrally located between Big Cypress and the Shark Valley Visitor Center in the Everglades.
- Bug spray is one of the most important things to bring on your trip to the Everglades. The mosquitos can be terrible, especially in the evenings. I love Ranger Ready because it doesn’t use DEET and actually smells good. Use code LOSTWITHLYDIA10 for 10% off your order.
- If you are doing a wet walk, be sure to bring shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy. I recommend hiking boots or trails runners, but ideally use an older pair because they’ll get very messy.
- Bring long, durable pants for the wet walk.
- Bring layers such as a light jacket and windbreaker. When I visited in March, some areas were quite windy and cold, while others were hot.
- Carry plenty of sunscreen as some areas will have very little shade. I love Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch sunscreen or Super Goop Unseen sunscreen.
- In addition to sunscreen, you’ll want a hat to help shield you from the sun. And don’t forget your sunglasses!
- You will have so many opportunities for wildlife photography in the Everglades! If you have one, bring a camera with a zoom lens.
- Bring binoculars if you’re interested in bird watching.
- Bring a dry bag if you will be kayaking.
You are very likely to see many alligators during your time in the Everglades. Always keep your distance (at least 20 feet, but preferably more) and never feed or touch wildlife.
In addition to the alligators, there is a large variety of birdlife in the park. One bird to specifically look for is the anhinga bird, which is nicknamed the snake-bird. These birds have long necks and are expert swimmers. It is fascinating to watch them hunt for fish underwater.
If you are interested in learning more about the wildlife, I recommend doing a guided experience at the beginning of the trip to help you gain a higher appreciation for the animals. This way, you’ll know what you’re looking at on the following days!
In addition to alligators, birds and fish, the Everglades is home to Florida panthers and bobcats, deer, manatees, frogs and many more animals.
- Entrance to Everglades National Park costs $30 for a 7 day period. If you’re visiting multiple national parks throughout the year, I recommend the America the Beautiful National Park pass, which will grant you entry into all national parks for a year.
- Big Cypress National Preserve is free to enter.
- The Everglades are gigantic and very spread out. This itinerary also includes Big Cypress National Preserve, so there is a lot of driving involved. Be prepared for some long drives, pack snacks and bring download offline maps for navigation.
- This Everglades itinerary doesn’t include a lot of time for restaurants. I recommend packing your lunches each day to maximize your time spent exploring.
Riding an airboat is the most popular activity in Everglades National Park. I left it out of this itinerary, opting to explore the water by kayak instead. I found it to be a much more peaceful and meaningful experience. If you do take an airboat, be sure to do your research and read reviews. I recommend going with one of the companies that are officially authorized by the national park service.
Wake in Everglades City so that you are close to the start of a sunrise kayaking adventure. After kayaking in Fakahatchee, hike and take a scenic drive through Big Cypress.
Kayaking through mangrove tunnels near the Everglades was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in all of Florida. I highly recommend a guided sunrise kayaking adventure with Jenny’s Eco Tours. Jenny is a local and absolute wealth of knowledge when it comes to the wildlife and plantlife in the area. If you are unable to go with Jenny, there are other tour operators that operate there too.
My sunrise tour was on the East River in Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. The adventure brought us through multiple mangrove tunnels where we observed birds, trees and alligators. We saw several alligators throughout the tour but were able to keep a safe distance. If you are nervous about them, go with a guide!
Kayaking through the mangroves was challenging at first. Luckily, the provided paddles split in half when needed. A short paddle made it so much easier to paddle through the tight areas. We improved as we continued with Jenny’s guidance and learned that it was easiest to go slow and minimize that amount of paddling.
Kayaking in this area was gorgeous and a fantastic way to learn about the mangrove ecosystem.
The Big Cypress National Preserve has two visitor centers with short boardwalk trails that are great for wildlife viewing. Not far from the East River paddle trail, you’ll pass by the Nathaniel P. Reed Visitor Center. The visitor center has a short trail behind it, where I saw alligators swimming and a small snake in a tree. It’s worth a quick stop.
Continuing east through Big Cypress, head to the larger Oasis Visitor Center. There is a short boardwalk trail in front of the building where I saw many alligators relaxing on the shore. You can borrow wooden hiking poles from either visitor center, which I highly recommend if you are planning to hike the Gator Hook trail. There is also a convenient hose outside to wash off your shoes after a backcountry adventure.
The Gator Hook Trail is a 4.7 mile out and back trail that includes river crossings. The trail begins with a walk over some interesting limestone rock formations. The path resembles swiss cheese as you gaze out on the surrounding prairie.
As you continue, you will enter a more shaded area with beautiful cypress trees growing out of the water on either side of the path. There are a few river crossings throughout and water levels will depend on recent rainfall and time of year. The water went a little above my knees when I did the hike. It is very possible to see alligators along the trail, but I did not see any while I was there. Overall, this is a trail worth doing if you don't mind getting a little wet.
Whether you hike or not, be sure to drive the Loop Scenic Drive in Big Cypress. This unpaved drive is 27 miles and will take you at least 45 minutes. While the road is unpaved, it is well maintained and any car should be okay to make the drive.
The drive has several bridges over water and you will likely see many birds and alligators along the way. One of my favorite sightings was a baby alligator perched up on a log. If you are interested in wildlife photography, don’t miss this beautiful area.
If you have more time in this area, Fakahatchee Strand has some wonderful trails as well. Hike the East or West Tram trails and take in the scenery from roads that were originally built for logging.
If you stayed in Everglades City the night before, it will be just under an hour drive from Shark Valley. At the end of day two, I recommend relocating to stay in Homestead for the next leg of the trip.
Spend the morning of day two exploring the Shark Valley area of Everglades National Park. I highly recommend arriving at the Shark Valley Visitor Center early in the morning, because the parking lot tends to fill up and leads to a line of cars waiting to get in by the late morning.
The focal point of this area is a 15 mile paved trail leading to an observation tower. The tower offers amazing views of the surrounding prairie lands of the Everglades. To experience the trail, you can either ride a bike, hike or take a tram offered by the park.
I opted to rent bikes from the visitor center. They ask that you bike counterclockwise to the tower. The trail leading out to the tower is straight and follows along the water, offering a great chance to see wildlife.
On the way back, the trail was more windy and did not have as much cover from the wind. On the day I visited, biking back was very difficult with the wind conditions.
What to Expect from the Rental Bikes:
- The bikes are not the best for tall people. My partner is 6’ 4” and the seat was not tall enough for him to have a comfortable ride.
- The bikes have coaster brakes (meaning you pedal backwards) instead of hand brakes.
- Many of the bikes have baskets where you can put your things.
- As of this writing, the bikes cost $22/each to rent.
- The bikes are first come first serve and I recommend going early to make sure you get one.
The tower is 65 feet tall and has a ramp that curves around to the top. It was built in 1964 in order to improve the guest experience and is still loved by its many visitors today. It provides a wonderful view of the River of Grass down below. If you have a zoom lens or binoculars, this is a great time to pull it out.
If you would like to do an airboat tour inside of the national park, I recommend doing that after visiting Shark Valley and save the rest of today’s itinerary for later.
After a morning in Shark Valley, make your way to the southern portion of the Everglades, located about an hour and 15 minutes away. On your way, make sure to stop at the famous Robert is Here fruit stand.
The fruit stand has been open since 1959 and is known for carrying unusual fruits, along with milkshakes, sandwiches and an extensive variety of snacks. One fruit that they are most known for is canistel, a fruit that is similar in taste to pumpkin pie or a sweet potato. I enjoyed a strawberry canistel milkshake and felt that the canistel gave it a nice creamy taste and texture.
If you are interested in exotic fruits, Robert is Here is a great place to get some. Some fruits to try include canistel, guanábana or soursop, tamarind, jackfruit and many more. Whether you are feeling adventurous or not, Robert is Here is definitely worth at least a quick stop.
Robert was actually there when I visited!
As you drive into the national park, make a quick stop at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. There are a variety of exhibits here and it is the place to sign up for a ranger-led wet walk and other activities.
Hidden among miles of prairie and swamp land, 18 defensive missiles were placed in the Everglades by the military during the Cold War. The site is older than the park, it was placed in this inhospitable location because of its proximity to potential air attacks from the south.
Today, one missile site is open daily to the public from 10:00AM to 2:00PM. The site is hidden out in the Everglades and located down a long and straight road 15 minutes from the Royal Palm Visitor Center. It is staffed by volunteers who can tell you all about the history and purpose of the missiles.
After seeing the missile, make your way to the Royal Palm Visitor Center and hike the Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo trails. If possible, hike the Gumbo Limbo trail first and save the Anhinga trail for closer to the sunset. Note that vultures are known to eat the rubber off of cars here. The park service leaves some tarps that you can use to cover your car to protect it from the birds.
The Gumbo Limbo trail is a half mile paved trail that loops through a forest of gumbo limbo trees. It’s a beautiful place to see ferns, tangled roots, and plant life. One interesting thing about the gumbo limbo trees is that they are known as tourist trees because they also peel from sunburn.
The Anhinga trail is just under a mile and is all either paved or on a boardwalk. The boardwalk goes over the water and you’ll have a chance to admire lily pads and see a variety of birds. I saw an alligator in the water here that was crunching on a bird, which was a fascinating sight as most of the alligators I’ve seen in the Everglades do not move much.
Wake up in Homestead on day three and explore the southern part of the Everglades.
For your third day in the Everglades, I have two options to share. If you are interested in a full day adventure that includes more kayaking, book a tour with Garl’s Coastal Adventures. They offer a full day tour that includes a guided wet walk, fresh water kayaking and salt water kayaking. Unfortunately my tour with them was canceled due to high winds, but the reviews are fantastic for this company.
The Pineland Trail is a quick half mile loop trail that leads you through a forest of pine and palmetto trees. There are several “solution holes” along the path, holes that form from water dissolving limestone. The trail is a nice stop not far from the Royal Palm Visitor Center.
If you would rather not do a full day tour, I highly recommend doing a guided wet walk. The national park service offers daily wet walks where you will get to hike out into the swamp and enter into a cypress dome.
The wet walks are typically offered daily from December to March and involve about an hour and a half of hiking through water. They are free and you can sign up over the phone or at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. I couldn't get a hold of anyone on the phone but was able to sign up in person the day of the walk.
You will meet the ranger at the Royal Palm Visitor Center and then everyone will drive for about 20 minutes to the start of the hike. They provide wooden hiking poles and you’ll want to wear lace-up shoes and long pants.
The most difficult part of the walk is at the beginning, where you’ll hike through the muddy prairie. The poles are a huge help here, because there are several hidden holes that your leg can sink into.
The terrain is a mix of limestone and mud and some areas get really deep. This is also a great chance to see periphyton, a complex mixture of algae, bacteria and fungi that grows on the surface of the freshwater. Ranger Olivia encouraged us to touch and feel the periphyton, which was a great way to better understand the Everglades ecosystem.
When you enter the cypress dome, the terrain shifts entirely. The water gets deeper but also more clear and you no longer need to worry about getting stuck in the mud. A cypress dome is an area where the treetops make a dome-like shape. Smaller trees grow on the edge while taller trees grow in the center where the water is the deepest.
This dome was incredibly beautiful and had green air plants and moss that stood out in bright green. There were even some orchids to admire. Being in the dome was incredibly peaceful and you would never know that the area looked like this just from the road.
The ranger also took us to a gator hole located in the dome. A gator hole is an area where alligators dig deep into the swamp, knocking down trees as they make a home. The holes are typically occupied by an adult female alligator and they help the alligators survive through dry season by collecting fresh water to live and feed in. The holes are also a great habitat for fish, which is a food source for both birds and alligators.
The ranger knew the area well and said that she usually sees the same two alligators in or around the hole. Sure enough, one was in the hole and another was in the dome closer to the road. We were able to keep a safe distance away from the alligators and I felt very safe throughout the entire tour.
Overall, the wet walk was one of my top experiences in the Everglades and I highly recommend it to anyone. You can also do a wet walk without a guide, but it is easy to get lost. If you would like to go on your own, I recommend discussing your plans with a ranger, knowing the locations of alligator holes and having prior experience navigating this terrain.
The Mahogany Hammock trail is a short boardwalk trail located not far from the ranger-led wet walk location. Note that there are no restrooms at this trailhead. The trail is 0.4 miles and leads you through a dense forest with mahogany trees, gumbo-limbo trees and so much greenery. It feels as if you are exploring a jungle.
I loved that this trail was so entirely different from the cypress dome and the prairie grass swampland. It may not look like it from the outside, but there is so much to explore in the Everglades when you start to dig deeper.
The Flamingo Visitor Center is located on the Florida Bay, which is the area of the Everglades between mainland Florida and the Florida Keys. If you would like to see a new type of scenery in the Everglades, spend some time here. If you are short on time, it’s okay to skip it.
From this area, you can rent canoes or kayaks or go on a boat tour of the area. It is also not uncommon to spot manatees here. There is a visitor center that provides information and permits, a marina shop with snacks and gifts and a food truck with a variety of options. I wasn’t able to spend much time here and read mixed reviews on the boat tour. If wind conditions were better, I would have rented kayaks here to explore the water.
The Everglades are an incredible destination that I feel are often overlooked. I highly recommend taking the time to explore and enjoy everything that this area has to offer.
If you have more time in Florida, continue your trip with a day in Biscayne National Park, sightseeing in Miami or road tripping down the Florida Keys to Key West and Dry Tortugas.
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