Six Spectacular State and National Parks

Natural Florida , Expert View Column
Six Spectacular State and National Parks
By ATD’s Florida Experts, Susan and Simon Veness
We often say, “Don’t visit Florida without really seeing Florida,” and there are no better places to immerse in the state’s biodiversity than at her State and National Parks.

There are more than 175 on offer, and we’ve done the hard work of whittling them down to the best 6 when you’ve only got a few hours, or a couple of days, to enjoy them.

When visiting Florida’s natural areas, bear in mind it is illegal to harass wildlife and you should never (wait… make that NEVER) approach an alligator or (even more dangerous) a crocodile. Bring your common sense along with a picnic and an eye for adventure, and let nature slow your pace!

Parks are listed according to drive time from the Disney area, in parentheses.  

Lake Louisa State Park: (32 min) If you only have a few hours to spare or you don’t want to travel very far, this pretty park is easily accessible from Orlando’s main tourist area. Although it is named for the park’s largest lake, Lake Louisa, there are actually several lakes here, each with its own personality.

 

Lake Louisa

 

Hire a kayak or canoe at Lake Dixie for an afternoon of boating, cool off with a swim in Lake Louisa, enjoy one of the park’s 20 miles of hiking trails or download the Official Tracking Sheet from Goecaching.com and hunt for geocaches. Visiting with children? Check out the Florida State Park’s Operation Recreation GeoTour. Biking is also a popular pastime for locals, and bikes are available for hire, but 7 miles of paved trails also make it ideal for an easy stroll.

Wildlife such as deer, gopher tortoise, raccoons and opossum live within the park’s boundaries, and bobcats also make their home here, though it takes some luck to spot one.

7305 US-27, in Clermont. $5 per vehicle.

Blue Springs State Park: (1 hr 27 min) Known as one of the best places to spot manatees during colder months, the gentle sea cow may be the park’s main claim to fame, but what if your holiday coincides with the infamous heat of a Florida summer? Never fear, there is still a great deal of watery fun to be had.

 

Tubing Lake Louisa

 

In Susan’s native state of Michigan it’s called “rump bumping,” for the way your rump bumps on the river bottom in shallow areas.  In Blue Springs it’s called “tubing.” Hire an inner-tube, head to the river, plop down on the tube and let the current slowly whisk away your cares. Pure bliss! 

Obviously, you’re going to bring the snorkel gear you got during your visit to Discovery Cove (or at WalMart or other large store) and spend several happy hours snorkelling in the crystal-clear water that makes this such a special place.

Visiting in mid-March? Go manatee spotting by day, then stay until evening and you may have the rare treat of watching dusk light up with fireflies!

2100 West French Ave, Orange City. $6 per vehicle.

Ocala National Forest:(1 hr 40 min) One of Florida’s most popular destinations, Ocala National Forest is relaxation personified. First, it’s huge. Second, there are so many things to do you’ll want at least a full day; probably two.

 

Juniper Springs

 

Be sure to bring your swim costume for a dip in one of the forest’s gorgeous natural springs. Juniper Springs and Alexander Springs are popular spots for their ultra-clear waters, and you’re welcome to snorkel in both. Prefer to stay dry? Hire a canoe or kayak, get some exercise on one of the parks 66 miles of hiking trails, sign up for a horse riding tour or indulge in wildlife viewing (watch for raccoons, white-tail deer, armadillo, wild boar and Florida black bears) or world-class birding. Feel like staying overnight? Hire a motorhome or rent a cabin and experience the park after dark.  

Big Cypress National Preserve: (3 hrs 37 min) A swamp may not be the first place you think of when you think of beautiful scenery, but it’s practically the birthplace of all of Florida’s natural landscape, filled with tropical plants, a vast array of birdlife, mammals (including river otters), manatees and alligators. It is also one of the few places you might catch a glimpse of the elusive Florida panther.

 

Panthers in Florida

 

Two scenic drives will give you an excellent overview of the preserve. The 24-mile Loop Trail features historic buildings, sawgrass prairies, native and invasive plants, and walking trails, including the 5-mile Gator Hook swamp walk. Along the way, you’ll pass through Pinecrest, a town where infamous gangster Al Capone was said to have owned a home, a hotel, and a brothel. The 17-mile long Turner River, Upper Wagonwheel, and Birdon Road Loop drive is another scenic option, highlighted by canals that provide plenty of opportunities for viewing birds, turtles, fish and gators.

We highly recommend taking an organised Ranger-led tour during your visit. Choose from themes such as Mangroves & ManateesScales, Teeth, and a Big Tail; or Heart of the Swamp Canoe Trip.

331000 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee. There is no fee to enter the park.

Everglades National Park: (3 hrs 40 min) World-famous Everglades National Park should be on your list of iconic attractions the way the Tower of London or Buckingham Palace are must-sees in London. Also known as the “River of Grass,” this ecosystem is among the most important in Florida, and is absolutely teeming with wildlife.

 

Everglades

 

Bird-watching is excellent here, and you may see roseate spoonbills, osprey, Barred owls, Wood Storks and Bald Eagles along with more common birds. But the area may be best known for its huge population of gators. Haven’t seen one in the Orlando area? You will in the ʼglades!

Hiking, boating, geocaching and fishing are popular pastimes, but the touristy way to experience the Everglades is by adding an airboat ride to your visit, and we strongly recommend doing so. We also recommend taking a Ranger-led nature walk, tram ride, bike or boating tour, and if you’re really adventurous, don’t miss out on the Everglades’ coolest programme, the Slough Slog off-trail hike. Boots on, binoculars in hand, it’s the chance to get knee-deep and explore the hidden world of an Everglades cypress dome. Spectacular!

40001 State Rd, Homestead. $30 per car, valid for 7 days. 

Biscayne National Park: (4 hrs 30 min) This is a park like no other, mainly because its major tourist draw is underwater. If snorkelling or diving is your thing, it’s an absolute must-do experience.

 

Biscayne Florida

 

Eco-adventures in the clear waters off Key Biscayne make the 4–hour drive from Orlando worth doing. Dive or snorkel to shipwrecks and coral reefs, hire a kayak or paddleboard and explore the mangroves, or take a day or evening eco-tour by boat and explore islands, lighthouses, or the quirky Stiltsville village situated in the bay.

As you would imagine, wildlife is another major highlight, and while birding is exceptional in the Keys, and bobcat, raccoons, opossum, deer, and other mammals are common, you’re primarily here for the marine life. It isn’t unusual to see manatees, sea turtles, dolphin, spiny lobster, and countless varieties of fish. Although a few species of whales have been known to visit, they are less common. Still, keep watch!

The main objective is to get out on the briny blue and appreciate the abundant attractions of the peninsula’s water-world. You’ll need an overnight stay (or two) to get the most out of a visit, and it will be time well spent.

9700 SW 328th St, Homestead. There is no fee to enter the park.

Are you considering a visit to a State or National Park? Do you have questions you need answered? Join us the ATD forums and let us help you feel like a Pro!

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Natural Florida , Expert View Column

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