Category Archives: Road Trip

Big Cypress: Snakes, Swamps, and Staying the Night

a mall purple flower in the swamp at Big Cypress
Big Cypress is vast, but the beauty can be smaller than your pinky fingernail.
Photo via Cathy Salustri

At the start of this year, I said I wanted to take more Florida road trips in 2024. This worked out well, because for my birthday, El Cap arranged a swamp walk and two-night stay in Big Cypress. Specially, at Clyde Butcher’s place, where they not only offer swamp walks, but bungalows where you can stay.

A few weeks ago, we set out, cutting across Florida on US 41 (one of my favorite stretches), arriving later than we’d hoped. If you’ve driven across US 41 from Naples to Miami (or the other way around), you’ve passed Clyde Butcher’s gallery. It’s a relatively small outpost in a relatively vast expanse of swamp, and while I’ve often stopped to drool over his gorgeous black-and-white, better-than-anything-Ansel-Adams-ever-did landscapes, I had no idea that, right behind this gallery was a hidden place to stay in the middle of the swamp.

The Bungalows at Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery

A screened porch looking out Into Big Cypress Swamp
This is as civilized as it gets here, and that’s OK with me.
Photo via Cathy Salustri

But here we were, at one of three available places to stay inside Big Cypress at Clyde Butcher’s property. (They have two bungalows and a two-bedroom cottage for public lodging.) As the sun set and we lugged our stuff into the bungalow, the twilight gave way to black skies that reminded me we were utterly and completely in the wilderness.

Our bungalow was a one-bedroom mobile home, and it had everything we needed: full kitchen, screened porch (because, well, mosquitoes), comfortable furniture, and, in essence, all the comforts of home.

Except, of course, we weren’t at home. We were in the swamp.

The Swamp

As excited as I was to spend a couple of nights in Big Cypress, I also had a significant amount of fear about the swamp walk. My last swamp walk in Big Cypress, led by a National Park Service ranger, did not go as planned. I came way too close for comfort with a juvenile cottonmouth — as in, I was about to put my foot down on it when the ranger stopped me. I appreciated that ranger immensely in that moment, but honestly, only for that moment, because after a spell it became apparent he couldn’t find his way out of the swamp.

Our two-hour hike lasted about an hour longer than it should have, and ended with us trudging through neck-deep water in a canal to get back to the road. For those of you who drive US 41 in this area and, as I do, play “count the gators in the canal”, well, I think that gives you a sense of why this was not the ideal exit.

a dry cypress swamp with greenery on the ground. It's almost completely hidden, but at the lower left there's a juvenile cottonmouth moccasin.
While it looks like one of those Magic Eye pictures from the ’90s, there is, indeed, a juvenile cottonmouth moccasin in this photo.
Photo by an incredibly shaken Cathy Salustri

But this was different. It was the middle of winter and would be super-dry, right?

Turns out Florida’s having a pretty wet winter.

The Swamp Walk at Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery

Our guide, Scott, told us the swamp walk would take us through waist-high water.  I asked about snakes and explained I’d had a less-than-favorable experience on my last swamp walk. He assured me that the snakes don’t love to hang out in the water, and as long as we paid attention near the banks, we should be fine.

I didn’t sleep much that night. The next morning, I walked around the edge of one paved road that circled the inside of the compound. Leggy birds picked through the swamp in the middle of the road; sunlight and dew illuminated the bromeliads and spider webs in the trees. A smaller gator basked in the sun on the banks near the cottage.

a female gator on the banks of a swamp in Big Cypress
You know the saying: “If mama gator ain’t happy…”
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Right. Scott told me she kept to herself and didn’t present a problem. She’d raised a clutch of hatchlings, and all but one — Crouton — had left the area. He mused that perhaps Crouton would one day be the bull gator who took the place of the gator he called Loose Screw, or Snaggle Tooth.

I didn’t think too much about that except to take him at his word, because we were about to step off the road and into the swamp. Despite my fear — which at this point was growing — I wanted to do this. You can’t write about Florida from the paved road, I reminded myself. 

And so we waded into the wilderness.

For the next two hours, it was wild and glorious and mesmerizing. Scott pointed out tiny plants, their medicinal uses, and what purpose they serve. He showed us fish-eating spiders and talked about how he had to work to keep invasive plants out of the area. We saw cypress and pop ash and more plants than I’ll ever hope to remember. My hiking shoes lost their soles halfway through the walk, and I was so mesmerized I didn’t realize it until I went to take them off after the walk (fortunately, we’d seen two soles floating and Scott grabbed them up to throw them out, so we didn’t add any trash to the swamp.)

Somewhere during the walk, I forgot to be afraid. I forgot that, but I remembered why I am most myself when I am out in the wild, be it on water or in a swamp or near a beach. When we left the next day, I was already thinking about the next adventure.

Which is as it should be.

If You Go: Big Cypress Swamp Walks and Lodging

Clyde Butcher no longer leads the tours, but they’re amazing. I highly suggest it for anyone who wants to explore the Everglades on a visceral level.

Swamp Eco-Tour at Clyde Butcher Gallery 52388 East Tamiami Trail, Ochopee. $125. Reservations required.  239-695-2428; explorebigcypress.com.

Lodging at Clyde Butcher Gallery 52388 East Tamiami Trail, Ochopee. Bungalows start at $425/night; cottage starts at $550. Each have a two-night minimum.  239-695-2428; explorebigcypress.com.

a man in a woman standing in waist-deep water in a swamp.
10/10, highly recommend.
Photo via Cathy Salustri

Oh, and About Loose Screw/Snaggletooth at Big Cypress

I should mention that Loose Screw (aka Snaggletooth) is something of a unique alligator — as far as we know. Scott explained Loose Screw kept the area free from other gators. I didn’t ask how. But Scott lives there, has lived there for more than a decade, and, when he showed me this video he’d taken of the Loose Screw, I could see why other gators might not want to infringe on his territory.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Scott Randolph (@randolph.333)

Yeah.

But that’s what’s amazing about this gator: That’s a hand-held camera, and it’s not the only video of the gator approaching Scott. He told us the gator seems to find him when he’s working in the swamp. He doesn’t feed the gator, doesn’t touch the gator, but the gator, nonetheless, finds him. Sometimes he stretches out and suns himself next to Scott as he works. Other times he finds him and leaves.

Contact Cathy Salustri

You can reach me at cathysalustri@gmail.com, on Instagram (@cathysalustri) or Facebook (@salustricathy), or Twitter (@cathysalustri). You can also subscribe to my monthly (well, monthly-ish) newsletter, The Florida Spectacular.

Hidden Sarasota: Things To Do There

a field of marsh grass with a cabbage palm on the left side of the frame, and a blue sky with clouds
Hidden Sarasota? Yup, Myakka River State Park’s a far cry from the Van Wezel.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

A couple of weeks ago, my Florida Spectacular cohost Rick Kilby and I talked about Sarasota and things to do there. Sure, everyone knows about the Ringling, the St. Armand’s Circle, and camping at Myakka River State Park, but these hidden Sarasota gems are a don’t-miss for your next Florida road trip.

Here’s a few of our favorites from the show, and why we like them.

Hidden Sarasota: Places to Eat

a plate of boiled peanuts at Owen's Fish Camp in Sarasota
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Owen’s Fish Camp is a rustic yet elegant restaurant that’s always packed, so it’s not hidden at all if you’re local to Sarasota. The boil on the menu’s amazing, but don’t sleep on two of my favorites there: boiled peanuts and deviled eggs.

Rick raved about the Bali Hut Tiki Hut, because, well, all things Tiki. Not many of these left, so stop in when you can.

Hidden Sarasota: Outdoors and Nature Experiences

a field of marsh grass with a cabbage palm on the left side of the frame, and a blue sky with clouds
Hidden in plain sight: Take a hike through Sarasota’s Myakka River State Park.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Myakka River State Park is one of Florida’s first state parks, built during the Great Depression by the CCC. It’s a popular park for the boat ride and camping, but fewer people take the time to hike the trails. Watch out for wild hog. Seriously.

Although it took a hit from Hurricane Ian, Warm Mineral Springs is once again welcoming people to soak in its allegedly healing waters.

Selby Botanical Gardens has some beautiful specimens, but unless you were around when it happened, you may not know it’s also the sight of a sexy orchid scandal.

Mote Marine Aquarium isn’t simply a place to go to look at sea turtles; they offer some amazing kayaking trips, and in February they offer their Farm to Fillet fundraiser.

Looking for a beach day? Head to nearby Venice Beach, where you can find fossilized shark’s teeth near the shoreline and in the water.

Sarasota’s Best Roadside Attraction

A pink flamingo profiled in the frame, with a gazebo in the background. Pink flamingos abound at Sarasota Jungle Gardens, one of many things to do in Sarasota
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Sarasota Jungle Gardens remains a classic roadside attraction. Want to see a bird on a bicycle or feed a flamingo? This is the place for you. 

Hidden Sarasota:  Arts Worth a Closer Look

Urbanite Theatre offers a more intimate experience than Asolo or the Van Wezel, but moment for moment, their shows pack a more powerful punch than many Sarasota and Tampa Bay theaters.

Finally, it’s worth a trip to the Sarasota Art Museum for the architecture of the building — a former high school — alone.

Want more Sarasota travel suggestions? Take a listen to this episode of the Florida Spectacular podcast.


Looking for other Florida road trip ideas? I have plenty; check out a few of my favorites!

Take a Drive to One of These Seven Florida Springs Near Tampa Bay

Oranges in central Florida
Not one of the Florida springs near Tampa Bay, but the park that inspired me thinking about them. Pictured: Oranges at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Historic Site.
Cathy Salustri

Why am I writing about cooling off in Florida’s springs when all you have to do is step outside right now?

Because I hate the cold and I’m daydreaming about a time when it’s warm. But also: When the air is chilly, spring water feels warm. At least in Florida. 

And make no mistake: As I write this, it’s not only chilly, it’s ridiculously cold. It warmed all the way up to 51º this morning, which is really lousy on your part, Florida. We had a deal. 

In February, I’m giving a book talk at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, and so planning a road trip (because, you know, it’s what I love to do). Yes, I could go out there and back in one day, but we haven’t had the camper out in far too many months (2023, as I mentioned, was horrible, and I didn’t feel much like enjoying anything for a few months).

In between looking at campsites and figuring out what we can do that’s new, I allow myself to fantasize that it might be warmer than 80º when I go. And that, of course, leads to me thinking about all the great Florida springs near where I live and also near where I’ll be in February.

It likely won’t be “jump in the springs and cool off” weather when I get to the park, but hey, I can dream, can’t I?

When I worked for Creative Loafing Tampa, I wrote this article about Florida Springs near Tampa Bay.  Forgive any typos; I’m publishing it unchanged, except for removing an eighth “spring” that was not a spring at all. I… I didn’t have the best editor at the time, and I clearly can’t edit myself worth a damn.

Cool off in these 7 Florida springs less than a day away from Tampa Bay.

If you’re anything like us, you’re probably more than ready to explore the concept of “pantsdrunk” right about now. What is it, 99º in the shade?

Look, we’re not saying we’d trade one moist second of Florida’s in-your-face August heat for donning snow pants and ski boots to shovel out the car up north, but we are saying that right now, the idea of laying out on a hot sand beach with no shade in sight isn’t top on our list of things to do this weekend. The saltwater’s great, but you have to fight about seven million people to get to it, plus that sand is damn hot on your bare feet. 

But Florida has a secret: Our springs. OK, they’re not that much of a secret, but because we don’t have a whole lot of them less than an hour away (we do have some; keep reading, and we’ll tell you), we don’t always think about them. So this weekend —or, hell, right now — pack a sammy, your towel and maybe even a snorkel and take the plunge into a Florida spring.

Here’s a few to get you started, but remember, Florida has almost 1,000 springs — that we know of, with plenty more we don’t.

They’re not all suitable for swimming, and quite a few may sit inside private land, but if these don’t wet your whistle, check out thiswaytothe.net to find your own swimming hole. Some of these springs are part of parks that allow dogs, but remember: There’s not so much as a puddle of freshwater in Florida that alligators won’t call home.

1. Three Sisters

one of Florida springs near Tampa surrounded. by cypress trees
There’s magic at Three Sisters, and it’s about two hours from Tampa Bay.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Best for: cooling off, getting Zen and believing in magic.

How to get wet: Leave the boats at the entrance and fight the force of this mighty set of springs as you walk —likley stooped over, to fight the current —towards the springhead.

Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge & Tours, 123 NW US Highway 19, Crystal River. Sunrise-sunset. threesistersspringsvisitor.org; 352-586-1170 .

2. Werner-Boyce Salt Springs

a waterway surrounded by marsh grass and trees
A spring and a paddle. Sounds ideal.
Photo courtesy of Florida State Parks

Learn why Florida isn’t flat at Werner-Boyce Salt Springs. Anyone who thinks Florida is flat has never been to Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park. Its 351-foot-deep spring proves not having mountains doesn’t mean a state is flat.

10333 Scenic Dr., Port Richey. floridastateparks.org; 727-816-1890.

3. Manatee Springs State Park

a spring surrounded by trees
Manatee Springs State Park is on the Suwannee River in Chiefland.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Best for: camping and swimming.

How to get wet: It’s a state park. Pay your admission, park and walk right into the water.

11650 NW 115 St., Chiefland. 8 a.m.-sundown. $6/vehicle; $4/single occupant; and $2 car-less arrivals. floridastateparks.org; 352-493-6072.

4. Warm Mineral Springs

Warm things up at Warm Mineral Springs. Yes, we know. It’s face-of-the-sun hot right now and we’re telling you to go to Warm Mineral Springs? Chill out (literally), it’s only 87º, not “hot spring” hot. So, still pretty chill. Bonus: the spring discharges a whopping 9 million gallons of water per day, which means the water turns over in the spring every two hours.

Best for: swimming and picnicking.

How to get wet: You pays the entrance fee, you gets your swims.

12200 San Servando Ave., North Port. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 20; $15, under 18; free, under 5. Aug. 11: All Sarasota residents (who pay a lower entrance fee all year) get in free. northportfl.gov 941-426-1692.

5. Wakulla Springs State Park 

A billboard with a fish about to pole vault. Text reads "Wakulla Springs – Henry the Pole-Vaulting fish"
Henry’s really talented. Well, he was. Of all the Florida Springs near Tampa, this one is the longest drive.
Cathy Salustri

Learn about pole-vaulting fish, Old Joe and the Creature From the Black Lagoon at Wakulla Springs. Henry the Pole-Vaulting Fish may have moved on to the great freshwater spring in the sky, but his legend remains at Wakulla Springs State Park. And this place is hallowed ground to some people, particularly people who love Creature From the Black Lagoon, Tarzan (both were filmed, in part, in the spring and on the river) and Old Joe, the taxidermied alligator who lives in the lodge (he was apparently the friendliest gator ever).

Best for: swimming, wondering who the hell thought an alligator was friendly.

How to get wet: Pay the park admission, then walk right in, or dive.

465 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla Springs. 8 a.m.-sundown. $6/vehicle; $4/single occupant; and $2 car-less arrivals. floridastateparks.org; 850-561-7276.

6. Rainbow Springs State Park

Check out this crumbling zoo and float down the Rainbow River. Rainbow Springs State Park used to have a zoo. Because why wouldn’t you put wild animals in cages when they’re surrounded by wild animals? Nature’s reclaiming the cages, so go find them before you float down the river.

Best for: Creeping yourself out at the remnants of yesteryear, and, as every kid who was part of any youth group in Florida ever knows, tubing down the river.

How to get wet: Find a local livery to rent tubes. Yes, you can bring your own, but this way you don’t need to shuffle cars —they’ll pick you up. If you want to stay in the spring, after you pay your entrance fee, you can.

19158 SW 81st Place Road, Dunellon. 8 a.m.-sundown. $2/person for the spring entrance; $5/vehicle at tubing entrance. floridastateparks.org; 352-465-8555; 352-597-8484 for tubing info.

7. Devil’s Den, Devil’s Whatever

Have a Devil of a time. Up ‘round Gainesville, you can’t take two steps without tripping over a spring or sink with the word “devil” in its name. Devil’s Den, Devil’s Sink, Devil’s Kitchen, Devil’s Open Concept Living Room… you get the idea. Devil’s Den is a below-ground-level sink that has its share of divers, but you don’t need to gas up to go down there. Snorkelers can also cool off in the sink (it’s like a spring, only geologically different, with the same result for humans), check out the ancient limestone, then have a picnic topside.

Best for: snorkeling, SCUBA, feeling subterranean. Do not go in the caves; the odds of survival are not in your favor.

How to get wet: There’s a set of stairs down to the sink, then a platform to get you in the water.
 
5390 NE 180th Ave., Williston. Mon.-Thurs., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fri. & Sun., 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; and Sat., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Snorkelers, $15-$20; divers, $38. No swimmers. 352-528-3344, devilsden.com.
 

This article about Florida Springs near Tampa originally appeared in Creative Loafing Tampa sometime in 2018 or so. Please check with each venue before making the trip.