The Bayous, Bays, and Dune Lakes of South Walton: a Florida Paddler’s Paradise
PADDLEBOARDING, SOUTH WALTON
- “Paddleboarding is to Florida as snow skiing is to Colorado,” the saying goes. And just as the Rockies are a skier’s playground, Florida is a paddler’s paradise -- but with one vital distinction: You can paddle anywhere in Florida all year long. The beaches of South Walton -- Seaside, Miramar, and Grayton among them -- offer an unmatched diversity of SUP experiences for any beginner.
- Start with the Gulf of Mexico. On warm-weather mornings along the Northwest Florida beaches, before the southerly winds rise, the emerald Gulf is flat, a no-bump ride. A paddle here is panoramic -- snow-white beaches stretching to the horizon. A paddle here also may include intimate encounters with nature such as dolphins and sea turtles.
- Between the beaches of South Walton and Okaloosa County and the mainland is Choctawhatchee Bay. Thirty miles long from east to west, four to six miles across, Choctawhatchee and its adjoining rivers and bayous and the wildlife within (redfish, speckled trout, Gulf sturgeon) make each paddling trip memorable.
- Finally, there are the coastal dune lakes (VIDEO), a natural phenomenon that occurs in but a few places around the world. These bodies of water are found in dune ecosystems within two miles of the coast. They are permanent fixtures though their water levels may vary.
- South Walton has 15 dune lakes along its 26 miles of coastline. The lake water is perfectly clean but coffee brown in color due to tannins.
- For a paddler, especially beginners, the lakes are typically sheltered from wind and therefore a great place to build confidence. And when that comfort level arrives, paddlers might navigate an outfall where the dune lake’s brown water meets the green-glass Gulf of Mexico.
- The transition is symbolic; you are an open-water paddler now.
- PLAN A VISIT: From boats to paddleboards, South Walton has options.
MANATEES, HOMOSASSA SPRINGS
Have You Met a Florida Manatee Yet?
You Can -- If You Behave
- In Homosassa Springs on Florida’s central Gulf coast, adventure lovers of all ages can pay homage to a wildlife superstar: the beloved manatee. And there is literally so much to love: The typical adult manatee is 10 feet long and weighs 800 to 1,200 pounds. Which probably comes from eating 10-15 percent of its body weight every day.
- They also are adorable. That pillowy physique. That smushed face made for kissing.
- But stop right there. No touching, please. The manatee is a threatened species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. In the rare places where humans can interact with manatees, there are strict rules to guide our behavior.
- At Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, an underwater observatory at the headwaters of the Homosassa River allows visitors to observe from a comfortable distance the slowly moving sea cows and dozens of fish species, depending on the time of year.
- The park also is home to rescued animals and rehabilitated birds and animals native to Florida. Among them: a black bear, Florida panthers, alligators, Key deer, and a dedicated building just for reptiles. There is a flock of flamingos, plus roseate spoonbills, wide-eyed owls, herons, egrets, and the majestic hawks and bald eagles.
- Finally there’s Lu, the oldest hippopotamus in captivity, who turned 60 in January. Sixty, as it happens, is also the lifespan of the Florida manatee. If you get a chance to meet one, mind your manners.
- PLAN YOUR VISIT: Manatees are seasonal visitors in search of warmer water in the winter. See the state park website for details.
CANYONS ZIP LINES, OCALA
Ocala’s Believe It Or Not:
Zip-lining a Canyon in Florida
- The Canyons Zip Lines & Adventure Park in Ocala is a Florida vacation destination unlike any other.
Start with the name: Canyons? In Florida? Believe it.
- Only at a theme park imagined from an abandoned limestone quarry can you soar (VIDEO):
- between 15-story cliffs above a shimmering blue-green lake;
- on a zip line that stretches more than three football fields;
- at speeds up to 45 mph;
- with the occasional swooping hawk and kingfisher to keep you company;
- and the only sound is the whistling wind (besides your shrieking).
- “Ahhhhmazing,” was one visitor’s Instagram post with the hashtag #zipthecanyons. Another said: “Thrilling adventures … it just screams IM ALIVE!”
What adventure seeker wouldn’t be attracted to rides with names such as Sky High, Treetops, and Big Cliff Canyon?
There are nine zip lines to choose from, plus two rope bridges, horseback trails, and wine and chocolate tasting.
From the Canyons website: “We strive to break all the rules about what people expect to find in Florida.”
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Information about activities, reservations (which are recommended), and weight and age restrictions can be found at zipthecanyons.com.
KITEBOARDING, ST. PETERSBURG
Kiteboarding in Florida: Daily Launches in St. Petersburg
- There are no flashing signs pointing to the best kiteboarding spots around St. Petersburg. Like hiking trails or a waterfront fish shack or a favored spring, word of mouth builds a reputation and a community forms.
- Kiteboarders from Florida and beyond know that on the Gulf coast two of the best places to launch are the Sunshine Skyway and Fort de Soto.
- The Skyway is one of the world’s most spectacular bridges, more than four miles long, rising 430 feet above Tampa Bay, canary-yellow cables reflecting light both day and night. Approaching the bridge from the north, a final exit points left to the Skyway Fishing Pier. Kiteboarders turn right.
- A half-mile back on the frontage road is a break in the mangroves with room for parking and, footsteps away, a boarder’s playground.
- Locals cite the flat, consistent breezes and calm waters that are knee-high to waist-deep for more than a mile.
- Minutes from the Skyway, Fort de Soto County Park is more commonly known for its beaches (regularly ranked among America’s best) and the Spanish-American War-era fort. To kiteboarders, a lagoon near the North Beach is nirvana.
- But if you choose to sit on the sidelines, kiteboarding in Florida is a spectacle worth seeing and capturing on camera. The vividly colored sails come to life in the breeze and propel the surfers on and above the water.
- The choreography occurs daily.
- PLAN A VISIT: Beginners will need lessons, equipment, and a tour guide. An understanding of the terminology and etiquette also will help.
HIKING, FLORIDA CAVERNS STATE PARK
Geological Mysteries and Other Cave Dwellers at Florida Caverns State Park
- Fifty-five feet underground, beneath the floor of the Florida Caverns State Park forest, a cave room reveals its geological mysteries. Limestone stalactites (remember “c” for ceiling) hang from above, growing a drip at a time. Stalagmites (“g” for ground) rise from the floor. Natural sculptures called soda straws and flowstones and draperies add to the wonderment. Shadows cast by floor lights and the occasional bat add to the creepy.
- Then the guide shares something remarkable. Eighty years before, Civilian Conservation Corps workers who were being paid $1 a day spent four years widening the passageways and expanding these cave rooms -- with hand tools. The Florida Caverns opened in 1942, but like most of Florida’s historic attractions, native American tribes likely knew this place first. It’s believed they sought relief from the brutal heat and escaped underground to the 65-degree temperatures.
- There are a dozen rooms in all, each bearing a name that reflects the formations within. The Wedding Room has sculptures, for instance, that look like a wedding cake and a pipe organ.
- Back above ground, the park includes swamp and natural springs, canoe and kayak rentals, and campsites. But as you hike one of the trails, stop and realize that five floors beneath your feet, another world awaits.
- PLAN YOUR VISIT: High water levels in the Chipola River can close some or all of the caves. Be sure to call in advance.
Airboating: The Uber of the Everglades Explores Florida’s River of Grass
- This is the Fast and the Furious, Florida-style.
- The Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, a wondrous place of ghost orchids and old-growth cypress, alligators and Florida panthers.
- The Everglades is seemingly impenetrable -- 1.5-million acres of wetlands with but a handful of roads.
- Enter the airboat.
- This is how you experience the “River of Grass” -- on the ultimate slip ‘n’ slide, a flat-bottomed boat, armed with an airplane propeller, capable of skimming over water that is barely inches deep, and then over land, and then through fields of water hyacinth.
- John Tigertail, a Miccosukee Indian whose family and people have lived here for 150 years, shows visitors the Florida that is eternal.
- He is possessive of the great blue herons and the white ibis here. “It’s our place,” Tigertail told native Florida author Jeff Klinkenberg. “We take care of it.”
- The flora and the fauna and the Miccosukee are Everglades icons. So is the airboat.
- PLAN A VISIT: Whether your Florida destination is Miami or Fort Lauderdale, Naples or the Keys, the Everglades is within reach. Check for tour operators in each region or start with the national park website.
CORAL REEF, KEY LARGO
The Florida Reef: A Treasure Worth Seeing and Preserving
- Welcome to Key Largo, the self-proclaimed Dive Capital of the World.
- John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, just offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, is the nation’s first undersea park. Author Jeff Klinkenberg, no stranger to adventures, says of the Florida Reef, the only living coral reef barrier in the continental United States:
- “(It is Florida’s) Grand Canyon, a place of clear-water wonders, where fish swim and lobsters crawl and colorful living organisms make up the reef. Taking advantage requires effort. The least adventurous (visitors) view the reef from glass-bottom boats. Others strap on air tanks and drop overboard. I’m a snorkel guy. I breathe through a tube while swimming slowly at the water’s surface. All I have to do is look down at the magnificence.”
- Christ of the Abyss, a bronze statue in 25 feet of water, is a bucket-list destination for snorkelers.
- Pennekamp falls within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, also the first of its kind, which protects 3,000 square nautical miles of coastal and ocean waters from Key West to south of Miami.
- The sanctuary designation means that all oil exploration or mining or any activity altering the sea floor is prohibited, as is the anchoring, touching, or collecting of coral. But because of nitrogen from poorly treated sewage and rising water temperatures, the reef remains in jeopardy.
- Non-profit organizations such as the Coral Reef Foundation are leading restoration efforts and they encourage eco-friendly volunteers to participate.
- While the coral reef is beautiful and fragile, the artificial reefs are historic and haunting. The 510-foot USS Spiegel Grove, six miles offshore in the Atlantic, is the world’s largest reef of its kind.
- PLAN YOUR VISIT: In Key Largo, it’s easy to find a guide who will take you to the reef.
HORSEBACK RIDING, AMELIA ISLAND
Horseback on the Beach at Amelia Island: An Adventure in Slow Motion
- Amelia Island, 13 miles of serenity along the Atlantic Ocean in the northeastern corner of Florida, is easy to get to and easier still to lose yourself.
- For adventure seekers, horseback riding would score a 2 on a 10-point scale for adrenalin -- one point for getting on the horse, one point for getting off.
- But this activity is a necessary and visually gratifying recharge before the next burst of energy. Consider the setting (VIDEO).
- Sunrise or sunset. A wide, golden-brown swath of shoreline. The Atlantic surf’s perfect white noise. A docile steed doing all the work.
- The rides also occur on hallowed ground. The Timucuan Indians were the original Floridians here. European colonization began in the 1560s, and Spanish, British, and French were among the eight flags to fly on Amelia.
- Fernandina Beach is the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry.
- American Beach, during segregation a black-only area, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
- So while your ride may seem to be going nowhere in particular, you’ve really already been somewhere.
- PLAN A VISIT: The Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau is a good place to start.
BIOLUMINESCENT KAYAKING, SPACE COAST
Space Coast Bioluminescent Tours: Kayaking Where the Water Glows
- In 1954, future Apollo 13 commander James Lovell was a Navy fighter pilot on a training mission off the coast of Japan. On a stormy, moonless night, his plane’s instrument panel short-circuited and went dark. He was flying blind.
- Staring into the blackness of the Pacific for some sign of his aircraft carrier, he saw a glowing green streak in the sea. It was the bioluminescent wake of marine organisms stirred alight by a passing ship. He followed that runway to safety.
- Bioluminescence has been a fascination for centuries -- from colonial-era thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin to military strategists to Nobel laureate scientists. The commonly shared definition today is “light produced by chemical reactions within a living organism.”
- In Florida, the phenomenon presents itself as a unique adventure available to kayakers on the Space Coast. In the Indian River and Mosquito lagoons, plankton and comb jellies can fill the water with radiant blue streaks. In that glow, outdoors writer Kevin Mims observed, “fish appear like blue comets.”
- Dark nights early in the moon phase are the best times for observation. Local outfitters conduct regular tours.
- As it happens, the lagoons also are within sight of the Kennedy Space Center (VIDEO), where four times Jim Lovell rode rockets into space.
- PLAN A VISIT: The seasons and the lunar calendar are important considerations. The Space Coast has numerous tour options.
SNORKELING, DRY TORTUGAS
Florida Reef Life Awaits Snorkelers at Dry Tortugas National Park
- After visiting Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida outdoors author Jeff Klinkenberg had to ask: “How would you, a 21st-century pilgrim, survive where time is meaningless?”
- The United States’ southernmost park, 70 miles due west from the Key West, is reachable only by boat or seaplane. And “park” is misleading here; the Dry Tortugas are seven small islands dotting 100 square miles of open water. Fort Jefferson, a Civil War-era fort and prison, is a stunning brick-red anomaly in a vast turquoise sea. Campers are welcome if you like remote and being on your own. Phones are useless here.
- But below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, life erupts.
- Here is the third-largest barrier reef in the world. Welcome to a world of coral reef heads and shipwrecks, barracuda and nurse shark, spiny lobster, and all colors and manner of tropical fish.
- Water depths are typically 4-7 feet, suitable for all snorkelers, and the popular reefs have names: Little Africa, Texas Rock, and Pulaski Shoals which, in the days before navigational aids, claimed many ships. Their remains are scattered here.
- For campers at the fort on Garden Key, extraordinary snorkeling is available along the exterior of the moat wall, where an octopus scouring for shellfish can be a common sight. The National Park Service recommends daytime diving along the wall to capture underwater vistas, and then snorkel again at night for more intimate discoveries.
- Take only photographs. Leave everything untouched.
- PLAN A VISIT: First, how do you get here? And then if you choose, how do you stay here?
ROCK SPRINGS RUN, APOPKA
To Properly Appreciate Florida’s Rock Springs, Immerse Yourself
- Pay attention, adventurer. Here is an outline of a perfect day in the Florida outdoors that involves a baptism in one of the state’s great natural wonders.
- You will sweat. You will be cool. You will be energized. You will relax.
- Welcome to Rock Springs Run, a bit of paradise in Apopka’s Kelly Park, 35-40 minutes drive from Orlando.
- For exercise, there is kayaking and canoeing, hiking and bird-watching.
- Time to cool off. Immerse yourself in the clear springs, which are 68-72 degrees year-round.
- Hungry? Fire up the grill at your campsite.
- Now do it again.
- Here’s an important tip about Rock Springs: This is a popular destination with limited capacity. On a warm summer day, park officials recommend arriving well in advance of the 8 a.m. opening hour.
- But Florida’s extraordinary freshwater springs (VIDEO) are worth your time and it so happens that Rock Springs is just one of 700.
- Florida author Jon Wilson wrote of the real fountains of youth: “To dive or snorkel in them is to experience an otherworldly sensation, a weightless flight through an underwater garden shaped by water clear as a lens, gnome-like rock formations, darting fish, and billowing aquatic plants.”
- Sounds like a Florida adventure.
- PLAN A VISIT: Here are the important questions and answers about Rock Springs at Kelly Park. Here is VISIT FLORIDA’s guide to the springs.
BEACH CAMPING, GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE
Florida at Its Most Intimate: Beach Camping on Gulf Islands National Seashore
- Beach camping at Gulf Islands National Seashore in the northwest corner of Florida is a rare opportunity for the adventure seeker to intimately experience rich history and natural beauty.
- The Southeastern Creek Indians were the original inhabitants here. The Spanish would give the island its name, Perdido Key, or Lost Key, in the late 17th century. In the next 100 years, the French and British also planted flags in Pensacola.
- During the Civil War, the barrier islands were critical chess pieces. A triangle of forts guarded the entrance to Pensacola Bay and its deep harbor. The Confederacy occupied McRee and Barrancas, the Union had Fort Pickens (VIDEO).
- In the mid-20th century, Jim Crow segregation laws limited African-Americans to the eastern end of Perdido Key. In 1971, Congress established the National Seashore and the Park Service later named that section of beach after Korean War hero Rosamond Johnson, the first Escambia County resident to die in the conflict.
- Today, Johnson Beach is also distinctive because it is one of the few shorelines in Florida where an adventure lover can set up camp footsteps from the sea.
- Reaching a campsite requires a two-mile hike or a boat trip, but the payoff is a front-row seat at one of nature’s cathedrals.
- Turn off the phone. Crack a book. Cast a line. Count your blessings.
- Under the daytime sun, the beaches of northwest Florida are snow-white until they meet the gentle Gulf of Mexico surf, which transitions from pale green glass to emerald.
- Just before sunset, the western sky is layers of yellow and orange, sapphire and amethyst. To the east is pink and blue cotton candy.
- A clear night means infinite winking stars.
- PLAN YOUR TRIP: The entire Gulf Islands National Seashore stretches 160 miles from Cat Island in Mississippi to east of Fort Walton Beach on Florida’s Emerald Coast. A dozen distinct areas include beaches, shaded picnic shelters, trails, and campgrounds.
SAILFISHING, MARTIN COUNTY
Stuart, on Florida’s Treasure Coast, is the Sailfish Capital of the World
- This open-ocean tough guy has been a Martin County celebrity for more than 80 years. He stars on the city logo. His image adorns trash cans. A fountain with a sculpture bearing his likeness dominates the downtown.
- Welcome to Stuart, Sailfish Capital of the World. A northern newspaper columnist conceived that nickname in 1938 and it stuck.
- Season after season in Sailfish Alley, an underwater banquet table along the Gulf Stream that stretches from Fort Pierce to the Palm Beaches, these predators come to feed and fight.
- “They’re faster than a shark. They’re afraid of nothing. They’re basically desert wolves,” said Terry Gibson, 46, an avid outdoorsman and waterman who grew up here and has spent his life fishing inshore and offshore around Florida.
- Catching a sailfish is both high art (see something called kite fishing) and adventure (the rougher the weather, the better the action).
- But the reward during the December-March run can be two and three sailfish on lines at the same time.
- “Their sails come out of the water and they are so fast, it sounds like the tearing of a sheet,” Gibson said. What’s more, he said, “when they get excited, they change colors like a disco ball: purple, blue, gold, brown.”
- But the most important color in these waters is red, for a flag that is flown from the port side as a message to fellow anglers: We caught a sailfish and we let him live.
- PLAN YOUR VISIT: Sailfish pervade Stuart’s culture and commerce. There are more than a half-dozen tournaments and charters are available year-round.
SAILING, FORT MYERS
Sailing the Fort Myers Coastline Is an Adventure for the Senses
- To fully appreciate the waterways around Fort Myers and its Gulf coast beaches and the hundreds of islands, set sail.
- The question about this Florida adventure is: How much natural beauty can you handle?
- Look at a map. As you sail the Caloosahatchee River southwest and leave the grip of the Florida mainland behind, the view beyond your bow is blue water and more adventure choices.
- There are mangrove keys and small islands such as Fisherman and Starvation and Black Skimmer, where birds of the same name come to nest on the sandy shore. There are larger islands, renowned destinations such as Sanibel and Captiva. Drop anchor and wade through the green-glass surf to the beach, then ogle the treasures of the Seashell Capital of the World (VIDEO).
- Nature is plentiful here. Bottlenose dolphins may escort you through Pine Island Sound. There are dedicated preserves and the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, an important stopover for migratory birds.
- The last stop (for today) is Cayo Costa State Park, nine miles of untouched Florida and white beach on the Gulf of Mexico. Centuries ago a Calusa Indian fishing ground, Cayo Costa remains an undeveloped paradise for snorkeling, swimming, birdwatching, and an intimate understanding of the Joy of Missing Out.
- PLAN A VISIT: Set sail on the southwest Florida coast. Here are some thought starters.
CYCLING, SANTOS TRAILHEAD, OCALA
Santos Trailhead, Center of the Florida Mountain Biking Universe
- True or false: Mountain biking is a popular adventure activity in Florida.
- The fact is, Brandon Shuler wrote, Florida can boast of hundreds of miles of trails that welcome the beginner and challenge the best mountain bikers in the world.
- At the top of the list with a rating of Epic, according to the International Mountain Biking Association, are Alafia River State Park near Tampa and Santos Trailhead in Ocala.
- Santos is the center of the Florida biking universe, with more than 80 miles of single-track trails, which means a path approximately the width of a bike.
- The Vortex Trail is carved from an old quarry, a challenging set of ups and downs with rocks and roots for good measure. Bryar Patch features a wooden bridge that is all of eight inches wide.
- After a day of joint-rattling, quadriceps-burning exercise, it’s helpful to know that Santos is also a state campground. Or, 30 minutes away in Dunnellon, is Rainbow Springs State Park where you can do something truly demanding, like tubing on a lazy, spring-fed river.
- PLAN A VISIT: If you’re new at this, here’s a list of what to bring.