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Loop Road

Figuring out how to  remove alligators from the roadway is not on the agenda of most Florida tourists when they decide to take the Loop Road drive. Nevertheless, be prepared for anything on this wild, spectacular 25-mile trip through Big Cypress National Preserve deep into the Everglades.

 

For all but about seven paved miles

Paved eastern end of Loop Road

Paved section at 40-Mile Bend

on the eastern end, Loop Road is a South Florida crushed lime rock road, in good condition and, in many places, wide enough to accommodate two cars. The roadway, for most of its length, is tightly bordered by canals, waterholes, trees and heavy underbrush. It's very dusty in the dryer winter and spring months and near impassible sometimes during the summer rainy season. It is easily negotiated by the family sedan throughout its length except during wetter periods.

 

Loop Road is a very special South Florida tour and one of the very best of the scenic driving trails in Florida. You probably won't find it mentioned in any Florida tourist brochure and may not find it on your map. It runs through Big Cypress National Preserve, south of the Tamiami Trail (US Highway 41) from Forty-mile Bend to Monroe Station. Its history includes tales of

Monroe Station - corner of Tamiami Trail and Loop Road

Monroe Station - Winter, 2006

bootleggers, poachers, thieves and cutthroats. Al Capone, the notorious Chicago gangster, had a depression-era hunting lodge there, conveniently located a few miles across the Dade County line in a mostly lawless area of Monroe County. While he and others like him came for the wild life, today visitors come from all over for the wildlife.

 

Exploring the Loop Road trail should include driving the entire length. The Eastern end of Loop Road is paved and houses dot its southern bank for some of the way.  The water follows the trail so there will be birds, snakes and alligators along the way. The pavement ends at The National Park Service's Loop Road Environmental Education

National Park Service's Loop Road Environmental Education Center

Environmental Education Center

Center where you can walk the Tree Snail Hammock Nature Trail, picnic and refresh yourself.

 

Continuing the journey westward takes you to the settlement of Pinecrest. Most of the Loop Road lore seems to emanate from this particular location: several older  frame houses and collections of well-aged trailers. The old rusted pumps of the Pinecrest Service Station are seen along the roadway

Pinecrest Service Station on Loop Road

Pinecrest Service Station

and off road - somewhere - are the remnants of Capone's old place and the notorious Gator Hook Lodge, as well as other spicy artifacts. While Pinecrest presents as a vestige of its former self - a bustling boom town replete with hunters and fishermen, poachers, gangsters, prostitutes, loggers and tough old pioneers - the area now appears to be a collection of private properties where trespassing is reportedly frowned upon. If you are interested in the history of this early settlement, looking at some old steps and broken concrete hulks, you may find someone knowledgeable here.

 

The real draw of Loop Road is west of a center point, though, all the way to one of the most primitive and beautiful scenes in Florida at Sweetwater Strand. Along the way the cypress swamp fences the road and culverts placed to allow the water to flow north-to-south across the road, create pools at intermittent intervals.  Plants and animals become abundant. Great, tall cypress trees, limbs laden with airplants - like ornaments on Christmas trees - gather around these pools forming some of the more spectacular scenery along the drive. Large wading birds can often be seen resting on branches or peering into the shallows, looking for food.

 

Here too, alligators frequently sun on the southern edge of the roadway, feet and inches from car doors and windows. It is not uncommon, after a chilly winter's morning, to find these huge reptiles sprawled across the road sunning themselves, in alligator nirvana, making the trail impassible. Most of the time they will readily yield in advance to an oncoming vehicle and hastily crawl back to the water. Sometimes, though, you'll run across an obstinate creature, who'll challenge your use of the road. We use the "vehicle creep" method to dislodge these big lizards, inching forward as slowly as possible and allowing the noise of the engine compartment to intimidate the gator into retreat. Sometimes they are as little as a few feet from the front bumper before they finally give in, slowly crawling off in a haughty display of defiance.

 

On one trip we stopped initially about 10 feet from our obstacle, an eight-footer across twelve feet of roadway. It moved when we stopped, revealing what must have been a broken left front leg. We wondered if its unfortunate condition had come from a vehicle collision; someone driving too fast and expecting it to move rapidly from the road. It bears repeating: most of the time they do get out of the way well in advance of your arriving vehicle but be prepared to stop for those that don't. It's not wise to get out of the car to prompt them either, as they seldom respond to any of your gestures or verbal threats and this may provoke an attack.

 

You'll recognize Sweetwater Strand easily as the tall patch of cypress straddling the road near the only concrete bridge along the trail. People enjoy this spot as much as the local wildlife do. Beautiful vistas - probably some of the most beautiful in Florida - are to be found here. It's a peaceful, serene spot most of the day. Some vehicular traffic changes that as a few oafs don't feel the need to slow down when crossing the bridge. But this is a special place recognized by many; they'll exit their cars and unconsciously communicate in whispers, as not to disturb the silence of the area. These feelings of solemnity are not unlike those similarly experienced when one enters an empty church: inspiring and awesome. The magnificence of this natural testimonial to God easily overwhelms. His tabernacle; I should not be surprised to find out that He rests and contemplates here, much as I do.

 

While the stillness at Sweetwater Strand can be stunning, the intermittent cacophony of sounds can sometimes be startling. Raucous calls from large wading birds roll down the slough like thunder. Flocks of Ibis, trumpeting their presence, move periodically through the forest, flying sometimes directly overhead, their wing beats heard uncomfortably close. Black vultures roost overnight in the trees here, an early morning surprise to intrepid visitors standing under the overhanging branches. The communal prompting of these large black birds objecting to intrusions sounds so much like a dog - "wuf... wuf..." - that you'll repeatedly look around for Fido. Red-shouldered hawks, sentinels of the forest, scream in the distance. Alligators intermittently lend their bellows to the chorus, sending nervous shivers through all animal life nearby. Frogs, insects and even the wind in the treetops contribute to the primordial sounds that echo through the cypress forest.

 

For optimum wildlife viewing, it is best to avoid the rainy season in South Florida. This generally includes the months of June, July, August and September but can be as early as May and as late as October. During these months water levels in the interior rise, creating new food sources and territories. Land, water and air creatures migrate to these generally remote locations, reducing the amount of wildlife available to see along most of the more popular trails, including Loop Road. Avoiding the Summer means that you'll miss an outstanding opportunity to integrate with some really hostile predators of  the Florida swamps - mosquitoes, biting horse flies, gnats and no-see-ums - but that's the breaks!  However, horticultural displays are generally the most prominent in late Spring, Summer and early Fall so those wishing to see flora rather than fauna should plan visits then.

 

You will be touring through a remote and wild area of Florida so remember to check your gas and automobile fitness; bring food and water; wear adequate clothing, sun and insect protection. As always, when viewing wildlife, keep a safe distance and resist the urge to feed them. Care should be taken on Loop Road when leaving your vehicle. Snakes and alligators can gather in the pools and canals in large numbers and can be easily overlooked in the dense underbrush. While they will generally retreat when you get too close, it's those you don't see that may pose the greatest danger. Remember also that there can be penalties for feeding and aggravating some wildlife and disturbing or collecting plant life so it's best to observe the motto: "take only pictures; leave only footprints."

Sweetwater Strand - Early morning in Spring

Sweetwater Strand - Early morning in Spring (click for large image)

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ARTICLES

 

 

Picturesque view along Loop Road

View along Loop Road in Winter

 

Cypress trees with airplants

Cypress trees with airplants

 

Bridge at Sweetwater Slough on Loop Road

Bridge at Sweetwater Slough

 

Dense undergrowth near Monroe Station

Dense undergrowth South of Monroe Station

 

Cypress swamp view along Loop Road

Cypress swamp view

 

Cypress tree trunks

Cypress tree trunks

 

View of wildlife pool along Loop Road

View of wildlife pool

 

Alligator in roadway along Loop Road

Alligator in roadway

 

Defiant gator finally moves

Defiant gator finally moves

 

Submerged gator not easily seen through pond reflections

Submerged gator not easily seen through pond reflections

 

Brown water snake

 Brown water snake - this 3' long water moccasin look-a-like bites!

 

Thousands of small fish

 collect in pools along the canals

 

Little blue heron

Little blue heron

 

Tricolored heron

Tricolored heron

 

Black vulture

Black vulture

 

Great egret

Great egret

 

White ibis feeding

White ibis feeding

 

Little green heron

Little green heron

 

Red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered hawk

 

 

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