Great Rustic Retreats in Florida
By Kara Franker
Whether you like to travel off the beaten path or simply enjoy reconnecting with nature, Florida offers plenty of rustic places to spend the night.
“Florida is incredible. It's one of the most biodiverse places imaginable, with plant and animal species found only here and nowhere else on the planet,” said Kevin Mims, a journalist and nature enthusiast. “More and more people are discovering that Florida is the ultimate outdoor recreation destination, with activities that range from mild to wild.”
Choose from waterfront stilt houses, a historic fort, a hidden treehouse, chickee campsites in the Everglades, an old railroad car or even a luxe teepee.
“I've stayed in cabins in a dozen Florida State Parks, and I hope to eventually stay in them all. You can go out with your coffee as the sun rises and almost all of them have fire rings where you can have a campfire under the stars,” said Bonnie Gross, co-creator of FloridaRambler.com, a website devoted to helping people discover Florida’s authentic side. “They’re all situated in places of great natural beauty and solitude, so they are much more of a psychic retreat than staying in a motel or hotel.”
You won’t find any televisions or phones in most of these primitive locales, so get ready to unplug and unwind with an all-natural getaway to the Sunshine State.
Waterfront Stilt House at Bahia Honda State Park
Snorkel underneath a century-old bridge in crystal-clear waters by day and sleep in a stilt house overlooking a picture-perfect lagoon by night. Located in the Florida Keys, Bahia Honda State Park in Big Pine Key is famous for its beautiful beaches and excellent snorkeling. It also happens to be a great place to explore the historic remnants of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad. Three duplex cabins on stilts overlook the bay and come equipped with a kitchen, bathroom and air conditioning. There’s also a spacious front porch—perfect for dining al fresco on your fresh catch of the day. The catch? These cabins are very popular and can be hard to come by. Your best bet is to make your reservation 11 months in advance. “Bahia Honda State Park is just mind blowing and it’s a great basecamp in the winter months for exploring all of the Florida Keys,” said Mims. In the event the cabins are sold out, opt for one of the tent campsites at the Sandspur or Bayside campgrounds. Admission to the park is $8 per vehicle. Stilt cabins start at $120 per night and campsites are $36 per night. If Bahia Honda is booked, check out the more than 20 Florida State Parks across the state that offer overnight accommodations to campers.
Historic Fort in Dry Tortugas National Park
Up for a true trek? Located 70 miles off the coast of Key West on a protected island and accessible only by boat, Dry Tortugas National Park is truly a site to behold. And the good news is that you can spend the night. But you might not get much sleep with those stars shining brightly in the sky above—the views are spectacular. Built in the mid-19th Century, Fort Jefferson is a historic wonder where you can explore its decorative brickwork and 2,000 arches on land, and then snorkel with schools of brightly colored fish offshore. Eight overnight camp sites are located on the Garden Key campground, just south of the fort. This is primitive camping at its best and you’ll need to bring all the necessities with you: food, water, tent and charcoal for grilling those fish you caught. And beware that there is no running water on the island. Campsites are available for $15 per night. Hitch a ride on the Yankee Freedom III ferry boat for $175 per person, which also includes the National Park entrance fee.
Treehouse at Camp Chowenwaw Park
Spot a bald eagle’s nest from a hiking trail or a family of manatees at the mouth of Black Creek near its confluence with the St. John’s River. First opened as a Girl Scout camp in the 1930s, Camp Chowenwaw Park is located in Green Cove Springs, just south of Jacksonville. Today the park is managed as a conservation and historic preservation area by Clay County. Go hiking on tree-draped nature trails, plan a family picnic, canoe along the river or go for a dip in the camp swimming pool. With nine treehouses to choose from, these unique structures provide elevated bunk beds that any birdwatcher would fawn over. The electricity-free treehouses sleep four to a cabin and start at $20 per night. There are also log cabins starting at $25 per night and tent campsites for $15 per night.
Chickee Backcountry Campsites in the Everglades
Spanning 1.5 million acres across southern Florida, Everglades National Park is one of Florida’s most stunning natural assets. For an adventure you’ll remember for a lifetime, chuck your smart phone (no cell service here) and get ready to spend some quality time with wildlife. Glide into the heart of the park by canoe or kayak where you can pitch your tent on a “chickee” or elevated camping platforms in the wilderness. If you’re headed out to the backcountry, you’ll need to stop by the Flamingo or Gulf Coast visitor centers and purchase a permit for $15 plus $2 per person per day. If you’d rather drive up in a vehicle and camp on the outskirts, the Long Pine Key Campground is open seasonally (November to May) and is set amongst a forest of tall pines near the Anhinga Trail and Long Pine Key Trail. There you’ll find individual drive-up campsites for $16 per night.
Old Railroad Caboose on Coldwater Creek
Live out your dream to be a train conductor and spend the night inside a restored red caboose on Coldwater Creek, situated between the Alabama/Florida border and Pensacola. Named “Katie’s Kaboose,” this historic railroad car looks like a tiny cottage on the inside, complete with a mini kitchen, small shower and full size bed. Outside you’ll find a charcoal grill, fire pit and a hammock—perfect for taking a snooze on a lazy summer afternoon. When you’re not cozily all aboard the caboose, head out for an action-packed zipline canopy tour across the creek. Or tube down clear, swift flowing streams through the Blackwater River State Forest. Both tours, and more, are offered by Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center, the same folks who rent out the train cottage and other cabins on the property. Katie’s Kaboose starts at $159 per night.
Teepee in Central Florida’s River Ranch
Forget traditional Florida treehouse camping if you book one of the teepees at Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo near Lake Wales. It’s more like you’re staying in a luxurious villa full of upscale amenities. Because let’s be honest: some of us like to “camp” with all the comforts of home and this is the perfect option to get the best of both worlds. Think Native American-themed decor complete with a double-sided stone rock hearth fireplace, cowhide furnishings, a porcelain cast iron claw bathtub and access to the resort’s 1,700-acre dude ranch. You even get a personal “glamping” concierge, who can arrange tickets for you to the Westgate Rodeo, pony rides (on actual horses or a mechanical bull) and swamp buggy rides. Teepees sleep up to four guests and start at $450 per night. If that price tag sounds high, then opt for one of the cottages, cabins, RV sites or traditional tent campgrounds located on the property. You’ll still get access to all the fun activities at the dude ranch.