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By Laima Rastikis ITWPA Member rastikis_gator_in_swampNeed a break from the sun and sand while visiting south Florida? Whether you’re staying in the Naples area or Miami/Fort Lauderdale, you have a vast natural wonder less than an hour’s drive away. The 729,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve and western everglades are a fascinating ecosystem that’s home to hundreds of animal and plant species. Warm up to your park adventure by taking a slow drive around the 24-mile Loop Road Scenic Drive. On this part-gravel, part-asphalt road, you’ll view diverse landscapes ranging from the wide, open, prairie-like “sea” of green and brown sawgrass against a backdrop of towering slash pines to deep, dark swamps with tangles of tree roots and vines growing out of black water. As you ride along, it’s easy to spot the dark brown form of an alligator sunning itself along the side of the road. Look deeper into the swamp to see even more of them submerged, with only snouts and eyes peeking above the surface. (Yes, it’s okay to get out of your vehicle, but not okay to get too close to — let alone feed — the wildlife.) rastikis_red_bellied_turtleAnother reptile, the red-bellied turtle, is an expert at camouflage, so the challenge becomes finding the dome of its blackish brown and green shell — about the size of a football — and then its black and yellow striped head, among rocks in the water. Keep your camera ready to snap photos of exotic birds such as the great blue heron, a long-necked beauty willing to strike a pose worthy of a supermodel. And the pointy-beaked anhinga, perched on a tree limb or rock just above the water, will get your attention as it lifts its black and white wings out to the sides like the black-caped villain in a silent movie. rastikis_great_blue_heronDuring your drive, don’t forget to look up — way up. You’re likely to spot five or six red-shouldered hawks soaring and circling, tilting this way and that, in search of some small prey for their next meal. You don’t have to be a gardening enthusiast to find the plant life interesting, especially in the cypress strands. What looks like a tangle of tree roots just above the swamp water’s surface is actually the cypress tree’s natural adaptation for stability. The twisted mass binds the roots of many trees together, making them resistant to uprooting in the face of hurricane-force winds. Whether you’re nursing a sunburn or looking for a break from the beach, you’ll find the Big Cypress National Preserve a fun and interesting place to spend half a day exploring south Florida’s natural wonders. There’s so much to see, and it’s free. Loop Road Scenic Drive is accessible from the Monroe Station on the northwest end or the Tamiami Ranger Station on the southeast end of US 41 (Tamiami Trail). To learn more, visit the Big Cypress National Preserve website (http://www.nps.gov/bicy/index.htm). For special educational programs and ranger-led activities, contact the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center at (239) 695-4758. If you would like to purchase this article for your publication, please click here to contact the author directly.