By Kate Witcher
The Sunshine State’s allure includes ecotourism attractions in a stunning variety of locales across the state. Best of all, you won’t need to venture far from urban destinations to experience them.
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
Coastal dune lakes are exceedingly rare ecosystems that exist in only a handful of places in the world. Santa Rosa Beach in South Walton has 15 of these hauntingly beautiful bodies of water. A large variety of nesting birds, including Least Terns, are common here. Explore the area on Scenic Route 30-A, or take one of the guided tours at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
Big Cat Rescue
Big Cat Rescue is a nonprofit sanctuary near Tampa that is home to tigers, lions, a liger, leopards, cougars, bobcats, ocelots, servals and caracals. All are among the threatened, endangered or nearly extinct species at the park, which boasts the most diverse population of exotic cats in the world. Educational programs are a significant part of the mission, and you’ll want to plan ahead since the tours vary daily.
Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens
Among the 2,000 rare and exotic animals and 1,000 varieties of plants harbored at the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens are vipers, cobras and mambas, the world’s deadliest snakes. The expansive animal park is home to the largest collection of jaguars in North America. Elephants cavort in a 275,000-gallon pool. Carousel lovers will enjoy the animals beautifully rendered on the Wildlife Carousel.
South of Orlando in St. Cloud, Forever Florida's vast, 4,700-acre wildlife conservation area encompasses nine distinct ecosystems, including streams, forests, pastures and wetlands. Alligators, black bears, white-tailed deer, bald eagles and the endangered Florida panther are often spotted. Innovative horseback and zip-line safaris are offered during daytime or as moonlight programs. A unique attraction is the new zipline roller coaster, the only one in the U.S.
Cape Canaveral National Seashore and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
The Space Coast, encompassing the region from Titusville south to Melbourne, is synonymous with NASA and technology. But it also boasts two other national treasures: the Cape Canaveral National Seashore and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Cape Canaveral’s 24-mile-long beach is the longest undisturbed surf segment in Florida. More than 330 bird species pass through on their annual migration, while dozens of manatees escape winter’s cold in these parks. At the neighboring refuge, more than 500 animal species can be found in the thick carpet of saw palmetto, yucca, beach berries and sunflowers. Catch the daily two-hour pontoon tour led by a Canaveral ranger or take the refuge’s Cruickshank Trail to the 10-foot-tall observation tower.
Madison Blue Spring State Park
Florida has 200-plus natural springs, which are crystal clear and maintain a steady temperature of 72 degrees. Madison Blue Spring State Park in Lee, near Tallahassee, features a first magnitude spring that empties into the Withlacoochee River. Madison Blue Spring is a photographer’s heaven because of its 82-foot-wide and 25-foot-deep spring surrounded by scenic woodlands of mixed hardwoods and pines. Certified cave divers are welcome down under, while above ground, visitors find a picturesque setting for picnics and a paddling trip.
Myakka State Forest
Myakka State Forest and the scenic Myakka River flow through 57 square miles of wetlands, prairies and woodlands, creating one of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks. Stretching from Sarasota south to Charlotte Harbor, in 2010 it was ranked No. 4 for biking trails and No. 6 for canoeing by Reserve America. Hiking, fishing, camping and wildlife observation are also popular.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo and the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary feature the only living coral reef in the continental U.S. The vibrant color and activity of the shallow reef is easy to explore through snorkeling tours or on 65-foot catamarans with glass bottoms that offer a glimpse of the glory below.
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