Family Friendly Parks on Florida’s Gulf Coast
By Rob and Chris Taylor
Want to take a family tour of Florida’s Gulf Coast parks? Here are some top spots, perfect for camping:
The Everglades is a unique destination. Discover iconic Florida wildlife by hiking the boardwalks across the grass marshes out of either the west side Flamingo or northern Shark Valley entrances No doubt you’ll see egrets and spoonbills, turtles and Florida alligators and, with luck, flamingos.
Tip: Visit the National Park Service for a list of approved tour operators to explore Everglades National Park on the water. Hiking, biking, kayaks, airboats or small motorboats offer varying experiences.
Bonus: Big Cypress National Preserve is also incredible for easy wildlife viewing along your Florida road trip route.
Matanzas Pass Preserve, a day-use area in Fort Myers Beach, is another refuge for Florida’s famous bird and turtle population. Hiking through the mangrove forest to an inland bay, the quiet Matanzas Pass Preserve is worth a morning visit in the sunshine, and if you’re up for some kayaking its bay is protected and calm.
Tip: Watch for fiddler crabs scurrying past the boardwalk and through the mangroves at low tide. Afterward, cross the street for beachcombing and exploring the sandbar of Fort Myers Beach.
At the edge of Pinellas County, Fort De Soto Park is full of family fun and incredible nature. Watch pink spoonbills foraging in the morning, then head to the bunkers of Fort De Soto to experience a piece of military history with cannons and tunnels. For the afternoon, either catch the ferry to Egmont Key lighthouse or head to the beach, watching for manatees and dolphins. Kayak and bike rentals are available if you’d rather explore the mangroves or go for a ride.
Tip: Fort De Soto Park campground is set in a palm forest, full of Florida wildlife. Waking up in the jungle-like setting is magical with kids.
While encountering wildlife is never guaranteed, Homosassa Springs State Park is home to the largest continual congregation of West Indian Manatees. Young travelers will love the variety of Florida wildlife at Homosassa and it’s an opportunity to learn about the state’s delicate ecosystem.
Tip: January through March is the best time to see the greatest number of manatees visiting Homosassa Springs
Slow moving and sparkling in the Florida sun, Crystal River offers the chance to swim and snorkel in manatee-inhabited waters. Guided tours on the river, including in-water experiences are available for almost all ages. It’s an unforgettable Florida family road trip option.
Note: Never try to touch a manatee no matter how gentle they may seem. Respecting Florida’s wildlife ensures enjoyment for future generations.
There’s no place on earth like Florida’s Rainbow Springs State Park. The blue waters flow slowly toward the Gulf Coast, with designated swimming holes easily accessible for family fun. The park also is home to both a butterfly and waterfall garden, making for a beautiful walk in Florida’s backcountry.
Rob and Chris Taylor write about LGBTQ family travel on their blog 2TRAVELDADS.