We arrived at the southern terminus early on the morning of December 9. The road was waterlogged but passable. I was amazed at how remote the area seemed, even though we were only a short distance from Miami. On the drive we had two bobcat sightings and stirred up many flocks of wild turkeys. There was no sign at the southern trailhead, only an orange paint slash, which indicated the beginning of the trail.
As soon as we started walking, we found ourselves in water up to our knees. For the next eight miles, until the US 41, our trail would remain completely underwater.
Two things immediately surprised me. First, how comfortable my feet and legs feel in warm, still water. This was not at all like an ice-cold slog across a mountain stream. Within an hour the sensation of slogging for mile after waterlogged mile seemed almost normal.
Second, I was struck by how beautiful the route was. The thick subtropical vegetation consists of dwarf cypress, pine islands, cabbage palms, and saw palmetto. On the first day we spotted two nesting eagles, countless hawks and kites, feral hogs, an armadillo, and yes, several alligators. At times the trail would enter an area with dozens of large cypress trees that grew closely together, where shafts of light barely penetrated the canopy of drooping moss.
By midafternoon we had reached Highway 41 and stopped at the Big Cypress Preserve Visitor's Center to rest, wring out our socks, and enjoy the feel of dry land underfoot. But it didn't last.
We set off again under threatening skies. For the first few miles the route alternated between short patches of dry ground and long stretches of water six to twelve inches deep. We studied the map but it was impossible to identify any certain dry stretch ahead. We decided to pack on to the next junction, hoping that we'd find a place to make camp that wasn't underwater.
But when heavy rain began to fall, the few pockets of dry land disappeared. We arrived at the junction at dusk, but there was no dry spot to be found. We could see a cabin just a short distance off the route. Other than the visitor's center, this private inholding was the only structure we had seen all day. It was shut up tight, but we were able to pitch our tents under a metal-roofed picnic shelter. During the night some feral hogs were snorting no doubt annoyed that we had claimed the one dry place to sleep.
The next day offered a combination of challenges, even though the footpath was dry about half of the time. Many of the dry sections were badly overgrown, so we had to bushwhack through thick vegetation. There was also the issue of navigation: With no side-trails, no signs, and no identifiable landmarks, we eventually gave up trying to pinpoint our location. Occasionally we would pass some submerged dirt roads, which appeared neither on the topo maps nor in the guidebook. We had hoped we'd be able to make good time because of the flat terrain, but it didn't turn out that way. Because of the navigation difficulties and the overgrown vegetation (not to mention the 50 percent of the trail that was still underwater), it took us a full 9 miles to cover a mere 12 miles.
By late afternoon we found a flat, dry area on a slight rise and decided to camp. As we sat under the tropical vegetation, enjoying the beautiful evening sky, it dawned on me that this was one of the most isolated hiking experiences I've ever had in the eastern United States.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication