Forego the Theme Parks and Get to a State Park

By: Jill Martin

ADD TO FAVORITES
The Sunshine State may be known for its theme parks, but Central Florida's state parks also offer affordable family fun with a fresh, natural twist.

How many state parks can you find within a 50-mile radius of downtown Orlando? If you guessed seven, you’re right. With so many families visiting Central Florida each year (and looking to save money), state parks offer an abundance of activities and even accommodations. Plus, Florida state parks are open from 8 a.m. to sunset every day of the year, leaving plenty of time to explore everything the whole family wants to see.
 
Canoe or kayak the Wekiva River and see where the Timucuan Indians fished and hunted at Wekiwa Springs State Park. Prefer hiking, biking or horseback riding? This park has 13 miles of trails that you’ll love, even a cool spring for swimming. Campers can choose between full-facility or primitive grounds. This is Central Florida like you’ve never seen it.

Take a refreshing dip or try snorkeling in the 73-degree, crystal-clear waters at Blue Spring State Park. This park is a manatee refuge with the giants congregating in large numbers from November to March. A favorite time to visit is January for the annual Manatee Festival. Make reservations well in advance to stay in one of their air-conditioned cabins. The spring and the spring run are closed to all water activities during manatee season (Nov. 15 – March 1).
 
In De Leon Springs State Park, take a 50-minute boat ride on the M/V Acuera along Spring Garden Run, where you can sometimes spot eagles, manatees and alligators. After, have breakfast or lunch in the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant – this place is so neat because the tables have built-in griddles and you can make your own pancakes. Or, bring a picnic and admire the beautiful scenery.
 
Accessible only by private boat or park ferry, Hontoon Island inspires the feeling of being worlds apart from everything, even though you’re only six miles west of De Land. Hike, fish and learn about Native American history or bring a cooler, grill out and enjoy the playground. Want a true rustic experience? Rent a bathroom-less cabin or pitch a tent.

What’s not to love about Lake Louisa State Park? Lake Luisia is the largest of six lakes in the park, and it’s perfect for canoeing or fishing. This park is just a short drive from Orlando, and it’s so scenic with its lakes and rolling hills. It also boasts 25 miles of hiking trails and 20 rental cabins.

Lake Griffin State Park is home to one of the largest live oak trees you’ll find anywhere in Florida – follow a short trail by the entrance to admire its grandeur. After snapping a few pics, take a ride on the Dead River to Lake Griffin and paddle yourself happy. With lots of fish to be caught here, there’s even a kids’ fishing clinic held each May. Lake Griffin State Park has also become a popular camping spot due to its canopied trees and pleasant facilities.

Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area is a more-than-30,000-acre wildlife management area where avid hikers and aspiring photographers gather to satisfy their cravings for remarkable scenery and wildlife. In addition to rare orchids, you can spy eagles, deer, turkey, bobcats and the largest stand of cypress forest in the state. There are no cabin rentals here – just tent camping – but you can fish, hunt and ride horses.

If you go:

For cabin rentals or to reserve a camping site at any Florida state park, call 800-326-3521 or log on to FloridaStateParks.ReserveAmerica.com.

Wekiwa Springs State Park
1800 Wekiwa Circle, Apopka
407-884-2008

Blue Spring State Park
2100 West French Avenue, Orange City
386-775-3663

De Leon Springs State Park
601 Ponce de Leon Blvd, De Leon Springs
386-985-4212

Hontoon Island State Park
2309 River Ridge Road, De Land
386-736-5309

Lake Louisa State Park
7305 U.S. 27, Clermont
352-394-3969

Lake Griffin State Park
3089 US Highway 441/27, Fruitland Park
352-360-6760

Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area
3365 Taylor Creek Road, Christmas
407-568-5893

More By Jill Martin

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