By Gary McKechnie
Chances are when you meet a Florida native, they’ll happily revisit their past and share memories of swimming in clear streams and walking unbroken miles of condo-less beaches and exploring forests untouched since… well, since forever.
Thankfully the Florida they remember is the Florida that will never be forgotten, largely because the Florida Park Service preserves, protects, and celebrates nearly 1,250 square miles of the state’s uniquely diverse nature, heritage, and history.
Even better, the highly-recommend (and quite affordable) $60 Florida State Parks Annual Pass lets you see Florida like a native.
The Florida Key
The Annual Pass, which is your key to Florida’s kaleidoscopic range of woods, waters, rivers, caverns, hills, and historic sites, may be the year’s best investment. With it you’ll have access to canoeing, camping, hiking, birding, fishing, photography, and 100 miles of sandy white beaches.
At Florida state parks you’ll find swimming, boating, boat tours, geocaching, cave diving, archaeological sites, character re-enactors, educational lectures, and guided tours. You can also receive scenic trails, museums, Indian mounds, historic sites, battle reenactments, art shows, museums, lighthouses, workshops, and festivals.
With the Florida State Parks Annual Pass you’ll have access to parks perfect for bicycling, picnicking, stargazing, kayaking, snorkeling, and scuba diving; parks where there are natural springs, campfire circles, horseback riding, equestrian trails, shelling, tubing, nature tours, recreational trails, and educational interpretive exhibits.
And some with really cool Spanish forts from the 1500s.
Not only is it extraordinary to discover how far $60 will go, it’s amazing how far you’ll want to go once you have an Annual Pass in your pocket. You may find yourself traveling across the state to discover rural counties where state parks rival, or surpass, those found in Florida’s most populated regions, often because these parks highlight notable natural features which, with the stamp of approval a state park distinction provides, adds a source of civic pride.
Florida is a state designed for discovery, and a $60 Florida State Parks Annual Pass and a sense of curiosity is all you need to become a modern-day explorer. Florida has 174 state parks and historic sites, and this short list suggests that you never have to be bored in Florida.
1. Grayton Beach State Park – A Shore Thing (850/267-8300)
Off the beaten path in south Walton County, it takes some effort to reach Grayton Beach, but that effort is rewarded with a glimpse of Old Florida. Not only is the town west of Panama City charming in its simplicity, the state park here offers nearly 2,000 acres of largely untouched Florida woodlands merged with walking trails, dune lakes, birdwatching, and several miles of undisturbed crystal white shoreline trimmed by sea oats and accessed by boardwalks. Need more time? Stay the night in one of the park’s 30 fully-equipped, air-conditioned cabins.
2. Florida Caverns State Park – Going Underground (850/482-1228)
Miles of caves and caverns snake their way beneath Florida, yet this system near Marianna is the only one where you can take a 45-minute guided tour to see stalagmites that rise from the floor and stalactites that drip from the ceiling. In the chilly chamber (the cave is a constant 65 degrees), the ranger points out how the cavern’s extraordinarily intricate composition is a testament to nature. In this sprawling cavern you’ll learn it takes roughly a century for dripping water to create just one cubic inch of limestone – a fact that resonates with the backdrop of thousands of surreal rock formations.
3. Weeki Wachee State Park – Home of the Mermaids (352/592-5656)
Thanks to mermaids that perform crowd-pleasing shows in the crystalline waters, this is the rare state park that is known around the world. Opened in 1947, by the 1960s the attraction became so popular that celebrities including Don Knotts, Esther Williams, and Elvis Presley stopped by for a visit. In 2008, the 538-acre attraction became part of Weeki Wachee State Park and while there’s canoeing, kayaking, boat tours, and a water park, the iconic mermaid show remains the highlight of any visit.
4. Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park – Starry, Starry Night (863/462-5360)
While this state park north of Lake Okeechobee safeguards the largest undisturbed dry prairie in Florida and is a destination for hikers, bicyclists, birders, and equestrians, it’s not only what’s around you that sets this park apart. It’s what’s above you. As the first state park in Florida certified as a “Dark Sky” site by the International Dark-Sky Association, it is a haven for astronomers and curious stargazers who, after the sun sets beyond the Kissimmee River, behold the universe illuminated with not just hundreds, but millions of stars painted across the evening sky. Hint: Lower humidity in the wintertime makes the stars even brighter.
5. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park – Water, Water Everywhere (305/451-1202)
So far you’ve seen beaches, springs, caves, and prairies. Here’s your chance to see the state park that’s nearly invisible. America’s only underwater state park starts one foot offshore and stretches into the warm waters off Key Largo where the wondrous sights of shallow-water reefs and the colorful marine life they attract, the remnants of a Spanish ship, and the famed Christ of the Abyss statue are seen only by passengers on glass-bottom boat tours or visitors exploring the depths of the park on scuba and snorkeling excursions.
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