Going to Extremes for Adventure in Florida
By Terry Tomalin
Want to go to extremes in Florida? Here are some of the Sunshine State’s best adventure spots, for swimming, diving, camping, hiking, paddling and more:
Wild Water Holes
There’s no shortage of swimming pools in Florida, but if you really want to get wet and wild, check out a natural spring. Ponce de Leon State Park has a main spring that produces 14 million gallons of invigorating water every day. Fanning Springs State Park, a hub of the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, is often visited by manatees that swim all the way from the coast to take advantage of the year-round 72-degree water. One of Florida's most famous springs (thanks to a recent National Geographic expedition) is Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, southwest of Tallahassee. With swimming platforms and a dive tower, the park is a popular place to take a dip.
The Ocala area also has its share of swimming holes. About 25 miles northeast, Salt Springs Recreation Area is one of three springs in Ocala National Forest. Alexander Springs Recreation Area, about 30 miles southeast, offers swimming, canoeing and scuba diving. Juniper Springs Recreation Area, one of the oldest and better-known recreation areas in the forest, has the best canoe run in the state.
For some real Florida adventure, look to the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST) began as a 110-mile segment of the Florida National Scenic Trail, which stretches all the way from the Everglades to Northwest Florida. The trail, mostly a double-track gravel road atop a 35-foot high dike, is Florida’s most unique bike path. The trail opened in 1993 and quickly became popular with day hikers and backpackers, many of whom participate in an annual, week-long group walk around Lake O. Mountain bikers also fell in love with this elevated roadway, which can be completed in two to three days if you have the right equipment and the intestinal fortitude. You’ll find more than a dozen of places to camp, both public and private. Some are a long ride away (10 miles) and others are within walking distance. You will find public campgrounds in Pahokee, Belle Glade, Okeechobee and South Bay. These areas have fresh water, toilets and showers, but do charge a fee. Primitive camping is also an option. The Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway runs 110 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. Johns River, traversing about every kind of habitat the Sunshine State has to offer. Complete this trail in a few days and you will see more of Florida than most of the state’s residents experience in a lifetime.
Highlights include a nature trail that winds through Marshall Swamp, great views of two of Florida’s most scenic rivers, the Ocklawaha and the Withlacoochee, and for off-road cyclists, the Santos trails provide some of the state’s best mountain biking. Count on seeing wild turkey, white-tailed deer, feral pigs, a variety of reptiles, including Florida’s favorite, Alligator mississippiensis.
Heavy Metal Tour
Florida has the best wreck diving in the Lower 48. The Spiegel Grove, a 510-foot U.S. Navy Landing Ship Dock, rests in 130 feet of water off Key Largo. In its heyday, the "Spiegel Beagle" ferried troops and landing craft throughout the world during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Today, the upper decks can be reached at a depth of about 50 feet. The superstructure is teeming with tropical fish, another reason why this wreck is so popular with underwater photographers. And while you’re in the neighborhood, check out two other nearby ships, the 327-foot former Coast Guard cutters Bibb and Duane, widely considered two of the best wreck dives in Florida. About 90 miles away, off the Southernmost City of Key West you can find the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, sunk in 140 feet of water. The 524-foot long former Navy vessel, one of the state’s most popular artificial reefs, began its career in 1943 as a troop transport ship, the Gen. Harry S. Taylor. The “Vandy” has been on the bottom only a couple of years, but already a variety of local sea life has made a new home on the old ship, giving divers a rare view at the underwater world of the Florida Keys.
One way to see the state’s vast, unspoiled wilderness is on foot. The Florida Trail stretches for more than 1,000 miles from the swamps of Big Cypress National Preserve to the rolling forests of Northwest Florida. Check out hikes in Torreya State Park, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and the eastern and western sections of Apalachicola National Forest. Head east and explore Bulow Creek State Park or south and hike the trail segments that run through the Richloam, Croom and Citrus tracts of Withlacoochee State Forest. Many of Florida's best backcountry campsites are accessible only by water. Everglades National Park, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Biscayne National Park have great paddling and camping. The 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, which runs from Everglades City to Flamingo, should be on every kayaker’s bucket list.
Around the state
The Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, a 1,500-mile aquatic trail, begins at Big Lagoon State Park near Pensacola, runs south along the Gulf Coast beaches, around the Florida Keys, then up the East Coast to Fort Clinch State Park near the Georgia border. Die-hard paddlers call it the “CT” for short and only a few dedicated kayakers have actually made it all the way around the Florida peninsula. But if you try, you will encounter every type of ecosystem in Florida, from the towering sand dunes of Northwest Florida to the mangrove jungles of the Ten Thousand Islands. The trail is divided into 26 segments, some longer and more difficult, some short and ideal for beginners. In areas such as St. Petersburg or Miami, you’ll never be too far from civilization. But down in near Everglades or up in the wilds of Big Bend, you will be on your own. A good place to start is the first section of the trail that opened to the public, the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail, which stretches 105 miles from the St. Marks River Lighthouse to the Suwannee River. This bit of coastline southeast of Tallahassee has few towns or inhabitants. During the Civil War, rebels boiled salt water in iron kettles in camps along the shore to make Confederate salt. The area was also known for bootleggers, who counted on raccoons and wild pigs as their only witnesses.
Rollin’ on the River
Well-known to most Floridians thanks to the song by the composer Stephen Foster, the Suwannee River starts in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp and twists and turns for more than 200 miles before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, north of Cedar Key. The Suwannee has dozens of access points, which allows for a variety of day or overnight trips. This is also Florida’s best camping river. You can take your pick of numerous spots to pitch a tent in the wilderness, stay in a state park or use one of the state's new “river camps.” The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, with its cabins and camps strategically placed roughly a half-day's paddle apart, makes this an ideal for those embarking on their first, multi-day paddling adventure.
The upper Suwannee, the stretch north of Live Oak, is without a doubt the most scenic part of the river. For a good two- or three-day trip, put in at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, paddle 40 miles downstream and take out at Suwannee River State Park.