By Kevin Mims
Outdoor adventures are easy to come by in the Sunshine State.
Sometimes you want to rough it, and sometimes you don’t. Either way, Florida’s got you covered. From snorkeling a living barrier reef to wildlife viewing from the comfort of your car, here are some of the best hot spots in Florida to experience the great outdoors.
Throughout Florida, you’ll find miles and miles of trails, both paved and off-road. For paved riding, choose the 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail, which offers long stretches of straight, well-maintained pathways perfect for fast-paced road biking or a leisurely pedal underneath huge oaks and pines. For a break, hit up the shops and places to eat in Floral City or Inverness. Off-road riders should check out the challenging single-track trails at Miami’s Oleta River State Park or on Florida’s east coast at Flagler County’s Graham Swamp Conservation Area. Both spots feature miles of technical trails complete with twisting turns, rock gardens, log bridges and switchbacks. Bring your skills and be prepared to ride hard.
Take a hike and explore pathways that showcase Florida’s history, culture and natural beauty. Hal Scott Preserve near Orlando is a great getaway for those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Look for pitcher plants in bogs along the trail. At Hillsborough River State Park in Thonotosassa, near Tampa, you’ll find one of the most scenic hikes in Florida as the trail follows along the river. In the summer, see the ultra-rare ghost orchid – nicknamed the Super Ghost – along the boardwalk at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples.
Paddling in Florida is the best you’ll find anywhere. Paddles range from epic trips along the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail to shorter day excursions along sand-bottom rivers and lily pad-lined lakes. In Milton, called the “Canoe Capital of Florida,” paddle the Blackwater River or Coldwater Creek, two extremely scenic northwest Florida waterways. Spend a couple of weeks plying the waters of the famed, cypress-lined Suwannee River along the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, complete with screened-in camping platforms in its river camps. Moving south, the Peace River Canoe Trail starts at Fort Meade and terminates near Arcadia, and you’ll find tons of great day paddles along the way. For the ultimate getaway, kayaking in Everglades National Park is world-renowned for its scenery and seclusion.
Like I said before, sometimes you want to rough it, and sometimes you don’t. Whether you prefer tent or RV camping, look no further than Florida’s award-winning state parks system. The Gregory E. Moore RV Resort, located at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park in Santa Rosa Beach, is a perfect base camp for exploring more than three miles of pristine beaches and rare coastal dune lakes. St. Augustine’s Anastasia State Park is a favorite for east coast camping, thanks to shady, well-laid-out campsites situated within walking distance to the beach. Spend time in paradise at Bahia Honda State Park, where coconut palms and magnificent blue water are framed by the Old Bahia Honda Bridge, which was constructed between 1910 and 1912 as part of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad.
More people travel to Florida for wildlife viewing than any other place in the U.S. – and for good reason. There are more than 2,000 miles of viewing opportunities on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, where you’ll spot the inquisitive Florida Scrub Jay, Swallow-tailed Kites and the majestic Crested Caracara. On Sanibel Island, check out the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to American crocodiles, bald eagles and 270 species of birds. East of Titusville, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 140,000 acres with seven distinct habitats. In the cooler months, take the seven-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive and view migrating birds right from the comfort of your vehicle.
Ready for some underwater fun? Grab your snorkel gear and see what’s happening beyond the beach. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo is the crown jewel of snorkeling hot spots in Florida. Take a short boat ride and snorkel a section of the only living barrier reef in the continental United States. The crystal-clear water and intense colors of the reef are unmatched. In Stuart, Bathtub Reef Beach is perfect for beginners or groups with children, with a shallow reef creating a protected swimming lagoon and beach. Moving away from the beaches, Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River affords visitors the chance to see one of Florida’s most breathtaking freshwater wonders. It will be open to visitors once a month for open houses during manatee season from November to March. Call 352-563-2088 for open house times.