Big Cypress National Preserve has some of the most diverse plants and wildlife in the world.
One of the places that has a special hold on me is the Everglades area of Florida. It's a wild, huge place filled with birds and wildlife as diverse as the flooded cypress and sawgrass prairies that make up the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States.
Every time I'm in south Florida, I budget time for the glades. I've ridden my bicycle along an eight-mile paved loop at Shark Valley, cruising yards past snoozing gators with their huge tooth-filled mouths open to cool off.
There are airboat rides, nature walks where you can actually get wet and wade in the swamp, and fishing not to be believed.
When and What to See
The winter dry season, which lasts from December to April, is the best time for wildlife viewing in the park. Weather conditions are generally pleasant during the winter and standing water levels are low, causing wildlife to congregate at central water locations.
Shark Valley, the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm, and Eco Pond in the Flamingo area are popular areas for viewing alligators, wading birds, and other wildlife. Boaters have additional access to wildlife viewing opportunities in Florida Bay and along the Gulf Coast.
Big Cypress National Preserve
On one trip, I devoted an afternoon to the Big Cypress National Preserve. It's a 729,000 acre part of the Everglades whose crystal clean freshwater plays a vital role in the health of the entire ecosystem of south Florida.
Jennifer and I drove a 24-mile loop road that runs south and east off Highway 41 at about mile marker 59.
It's a dirt and gravel road, well maintained but meant for slow travel. Bounded on both sides by trees, there are frequent drainage ditches and small open spots all along the route.
It's fine for Class B and Class C RVs. Too rough for a Class A. And once you commit, there are limited spots to turn around.
Amazing Wildlife Viewing
Found here are dozens of species of mammals, birds, and reptiles unique to Florida's climate. It is easy to view and appreciate Florida's largest reptile, the American alligator, living here in its natural environment. They are in almost every water hole, all along the banks, even sunning themselves on the shoulder of the road.
The birds are something else: Anhingas, egrets, wood storks, and herons are found in plentiful numbers feeding, displaying courtship feathers, and nesting in and among the cypress trees.
There's a reason the speed limit is 25 miles an hour. Herons often launch from the trees and fly right across and over the road. Because of their bulk, it takes them some considerable wing power to get to altitude and if we had been traveling faster, we would have hit one several times.
Occasionally, one can witness river otters, bobcats, black bears, and the endangered Florida panther on the Preserve's back roads and trails. We didn't see any panthers, but Route 41 is peppered with warning signs noting that panthers frequently cross the road.
Invasive Wildlife in Everglades National Park
Not all of the animals are native.
In recent years, snakes from around the world have been turning up in and around Everglades National Park. Burmese pythons, one of the largest snake species on earth, are now known to be breeding in the park and spreading throughout south Florida.
Over 5,000 pythons have been removed from the park and surrounding areas-likely representing only a fraction of the total population. The population of Burmese pythons presently established in the park is the result of accidental and/or intentional releases by pet owners.
These introductions can have devastating consequences on our ecosystem. Burmese pythons have been found to feed on a wide variety of mammals and birds in the Everglades-even the occasional alligator!
By preying on native wildlife, and competing with other native predators, pythons are seriously impacting the natural order of south Florida's ecological communities. The continued proliferation of Burmese pythons-and the continued introduction of new foreign species-can further threaten many of the endangered plants and animals we're working diligently to protect.
These creatures reach 15-20 feet in length. We didn't see one. Jennifer considers that good. Me, I would have liked to get my own photo instead of the Florida wildlife one used above.
Big Cypress National Preserve Visitors Center
The trip we took on the scenic loop road makes for a delightful afternoon. There's a large visitors center for the Big Cypress National Preserve on US 41 that is well worth seeing.
And there are numerous federal campgrounds right off 41 up and down 41 from Naples to Miami. Most have openings every day.
Many campgrounds have amazing access to fishing opportunities and some even provide gear for their campers. If you want to maximize your experience, I recommend hiring a fishing guide. These guides know the complex everglades and variety of fish like the back of their hands.
Mike and Jennifer's Favorite Places in Florida – all 3 ebooks!
We RVers may wander far and wide but it’s true for most of us that we end up with some favorite “Go-To” places – places that draw us back again and again.
Florida is one of those places for us. And we know it is for many RVers looking to get away and explore during the winter.
That's why we've created three guides, covering Florida's Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and the Keys.
Each of these guides is a seven-day guided exploration of one of the coasts. And each stop is a curated view of the best things that we’ve enjoyed on this trip and want you to experience.
Altogether these guides are over 300 pages of content!
FAQ's about Florida Gulf Coast beaches of interest to RVers
What is the weather like along Florida's Gulf Coast?
The weather along Florida's Gulf Coast can vary depending on the time of year and the specific location. In general, the area experiences hot, humid summers and mild, pleasant winters.
The Panhandle region can be quite cool in January. It is seldom below freezing, but daytime highs are typically in the 50s. It warms up about 10 degrees each month.
You can also generally add about 10 degrees for every 150 miles you travel south down the Florida peninsula.
By the time you hit Naples, daytime highs in January are in the comfortable 70s.
Did Hurricane Ian destroy many beach campgrounds on the Gulf Coast?
While it severely damaged almost two dozen RV parks and campgrounds, about 8-10 campgrounds in the Naples-Ft. Myers area were completely destroyed. Most of the damaged campgrounds have been repaired and reopened.
Check with the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds if you have questions or concerns.
Are there any websites that can help me get a reservation for a Florida beach campground?
One of the best resources we can recommend is called Campnab. This service monitors parks for cancelations and sends you an alert when an opening matches your criteria. That said, it isn’t magic. The app doesn’t create availabilities.
The service works – but it is not free.
Campnab offers two ways to use the service. The first is individual pay-per-use scans. These watch for vacancies at a specific park for a specific date. These work well if you know exactly when and where you intend to camp. Pay-per-use scans cost $10 – $20, depending on how frequently you want them to check availability.
The second way to use the service is through a membership. These typically run monthly and are tailored to those who camp more frequently or are looking to maximize their chance of finding a site. Membership allows you to scan multiple parks and/or dates simultaneously. With memberships, you pay a monthly recurring fee ($10, $20, $30, or $50), depending on your needs.
Are there places in Florida where you can literally camp on the beach for free?
Not many. And they are very pricey. If you want to sleep directly on the sand in an RV, you'll have to stay at a developed commercial campground like Camp Gulf on the Emerald Coast or an RV resort like Big Pine Key Resort in the keys. Some state parks like the Gamble Rogers State Memorial Recreation Area in the Atlantic Coast or Bahia Honda State Park in the keys or Fort Desto State Park near St. Petersburg have beachside sites, too.
But are there free, unrestricted RV beach camping spots in Florida?
Sorry, none that I know of that would work for RVs.
There is unrestricted camping on wild beaches on a couple of islands, but you need a boat to get there, and it is for tent camping only. If you want to sleep directly on the sand, there is Anclote Key offshore Tarpon Springs, and Shell Key in Pinellas County. Another favorite is Keewaydin Island between Naples and Marco Island but that area remains pretty devasted from Hurricane Ian.