A World of Natural Wonders
Diving deep into Florida’s rich natural heritage is easier than you think. The Sunshine State is also the splashdown state, with diverse aquatic activities for outdoor recreation, from swimming in springs and rivers to paddling down quiet creeks and diving offshore reefs and wrecks. Even when you’re high and dry, trails offer sweeping views of winding waterways and extensive estuaries. It’s this mix of wet and dry that makes Florida a year-round destination for ecotourism. Wade right in!
Celebrating the success of marine conservation programs in the Florida Keys, REEF Fest is an annual gathering of divers, naturalists, photographers and people who care about the quality of Florida’s coral reefs. The event features seminars, snorkeling, diving and eco-adventures, with proceeds benefitting the non-profit Reef Environmental Education Foundation based in Key Largo.
A mile and a half off the Pompano Beach Pier, Shipwreck Park is a new and easily accessible major dive site centered on the Lady Luck, a 324-foot ship with casinothemed art installations, the centerpiece among 16 other shipwrecks in the Atlantic Ocean. South Florida Diving Headquarters leads regular trips to the wrecks. In Riviera Beach, Little Deeper Charters takes guests out to the Ana Cecilia, a recent addition to the 151 artificial reefs off the coast of The Palm Beaches. Paddlers can explore the Jupiter Waterway Trail, an interconnected route of more than 39 miles including the Loxahatchee River, the Intracoastal Waterway and Jupiter Inlet. An app aids visitors in discovering ecotourism destinations along the route.
Take a journey deep into Florida’s most jungle-like habitat, the Fakahatchee Strand, on a Fakahatchee Tram Tour led by experienced guides from the Friends of Fakahatchee, a citizen support organization for the state park. Each 2.5-hour tour takes visitors deep into the orchid capital of America with moonlit tours so popular they must be reserved well in advance. The Fakahatchee Strand is home to the endangered ghost orchid, which is rarely seen, even with a guide. Visitors to Naples Botanical Garden can now view ghost orchid blooms in a natural habitat, thanks to a special project by the University of Florida to propagate this delicate species in a lab setting. “Super blooms” of the orchids—multiple flowers on one plant—continue to be a sight at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary as well. Many of the University of Florida orchids have been restored to the wild at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. The annual Florida Panther Festival, held in November, has shifted to the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens as a new venue, now that a Florida panther is a permanent resident there.
It’s taken several years of major restoration efforts by several state agencies, but Lake Trafford is once again a serious draw for anglers and birders. Located in eastern Collier County near Immokalee, this 1,500acre lake can be accessed via the Lake Trafford Marina and Ann Olesky Park. Nearby Pepper Ranch Preserve now offers a tent campground with access to its hiking trails, and has added 4.5 miles of mountainbike trails for off-road enjoyment.
Established in 1862, Live Oak Point was one of the first communities on Charlotte Harbor. It’s now commemorated by Live Oak Point Park at the base of the US 41 bridge in Port Charlotte. For summer fun on the harbor, the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves offers snorkeling eco-ventures and nature tours that depart Gasparilla Marina in Placida.
Deeply canopied Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park is a favorite escape for mountain bikers, where the Myakkahatchee Area Mountain Bike Association keeps several miles of trails cleared for the enjoyment of visitors. A primitive campsite can be reserved through the City of North Port.
Encompassing 960 acres of backcountry in eastern Manatee County, Moody Branch Preserve is the newest natural area to open for public exploration. Expect to see gopher tortoises and Florida scrub jays along the hiking trail system; designated riding trails for equestrians are also part of this expansive day-use preserve.
In Martin County, rent a kayak at Halpatiokee Regional Park in Stuart to explore the wild and scenic South Fork of the St. Lucie River, or wander by foot down the River Trail to discover a quiet campsite along the river’s edge. This 65-acre county park, which sits across the river from the 4,886acre Atlantic Ridge Preserve State Park, also features 7.5 miles of mountain-bike trails, numerous picnic pavilions and a sports complex. In Jensen Beach, families will enjoy the outdoor amenities of Indian RiverSide Park along the Indian River Lagoon, which includes an interactive play fountain, picnic areas, beach and a boardwalk through the mangroves.
A zip line with views of the Atlantic Ocean—that’s what makes Cocoa Beach Aerial Adventures a compelling new destination for thrill-seekers, with several levels of canopy walks leading up to the spectacular ocean panorama.
As the Coast-to-Coast Connector Trail, or C2C, continues its expansion eastward to provide a 250-mile dedicated paved bike path across Florida, it is now sweeping through northern Brevard County into Titusville, crossing an exclusive bikepedestrian bridge over Garden Street into downtown, where bistros and a brewpub await cyclists.
One of the largest preserves in Volusia County, spanning more than 1,600 acres, Doris Leeper Spruce Creek Preserve now offers five entrance points for differing trail experiences, including paddling, off-road biking, equestrian use and hiking. At Rose Bay off US 1, the easily accessed boardwalk and observation tower provide fine vantage points for a panorama of the coastal estuary. For a more intimate paddling experience, launch at Riverbend Nature Park in Ormond Beach for a paddle along the sometimes narrow and often canopied Tomoka River Paddling Trail, a state-designated water trail that stretches 13 miles along the northflowing river, opening up into the estuary near a landing at Tomoka State Park.
Towering teepees under a natural live oak canopy are the newest glamping attraction at Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo in Takoda Village. Clustered around a large chickee hut, each luxurious accommodation lets you camp in style with a stone fireplace, leather chairs, king bed and sleeper sofa, and a private screened patio. At Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, a new Outdoor Kitchen and Edible Garden inspires visitors to create their own outdoor culinary experiences while providing a focal point for visiting chefs.
Once the edge of the Florida frontier, Kissimmee lets you ride back into pioneer times at Lazy H Ranch, with guided rides beneath ancient oak hammocks to the shores of Lake Tohopekaliga.
Flying into Orlando but want to get a bike ride in? West Orange Trail Bikes & Blades can help you with that. They deliver rental bikes to area hotels, direct you to the best bike trails, and lead guided rides on the 22-mile West Orange Trail, through the town of Celebration or historic downtown Orlando.
The new observation tower at Lake Harney Wilderness Area along the St. Johns River draws those who want to enjoy a panoramic view from its accessible 30-foottall upper deck. A long ramp slips through the canopy of live oak trees for a commanding view of the lake and its surrounding marshes, which burst into colorful blooms each fall.
Held in November, the Blue Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit in St. Petersburg casts a spotlight on worldwide conservation concerns. It brings together top ocean scientists and conservationists, underwater film and photography professionals, and the public for seminars, education and an international film competition.
Go green in Tampa with zipcar, with four downtown locations offering rentals by the hour. Tampa is the latest Florida city to embrace car-sharing with zipcar, which is also found at five major university towns and other big cities in the state.
Take to the treetops at the TreeUmph! Adventure Course Hernando, a new addition to Florida’s Adventure Coast. This aerial obstacle course features rope swings and rope bridges, zip lines, swinging logs and hanging nets amid 50 acres of rolling hills near Brooksville.
The Good Neighbor Trail, a 10-mile urban greenway connecting historic downtown Brooksville with the Withlacoochee State Trail, is an important link in the Coast-toCoast Connector Trail. This eastbound segment will be fully open in 2017; a westbound segment linking to the Suncoast Trail is also planned.
Cyclists will enjoy the Mala Compra Plantation Greenway, across from Bing’s Landing. A 5.5-mile mountain-bike trail winds through dense coastal forests in the aptly named seaside community of Hammock, with a 1.5-mile walking trail along its outer edge. Waves strum across the coquinastudded shore at nearby Marineland, where the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience has opened a sea turtle hospital, the first in Northeast Florida.
With more than 2,400 acres along the Tolomato River, Nocatee Preserve is one of the rarest conservation areas along Florida’s Historic Coast. A 4.2-mile main trail provides access to side trails, including mountain-bike loops, and ends at picturesque Nocatee Landing. Built by community volunteers, the Jacksonville Arboretum was born out of a post-World War II strip mine. This urban forest covers 120 acres, with several miles of trails leading through ravines and around a man-made lake.
Pet-friendly eco cruises await visitors to Fernandina Beach, where Amelia River Cruises offers narrated exploration up Beach Creek at Cumberland Island and along the waterfront of Fort Clinch. Learn how shrimpers make their living on a Shrimping
Eco Tour, on which families work together to collect and identify sea creatures pulled in on a trawling shrimp net.
With 73 acres along Lake Bradford in Tallahassee, the FSU Reservation isn’t just for college students—although Florida State University students have access to stand-up paddleboarding, kayak and canoe rentals for free. A lifeguard monitors the swimming area, and a 40-foot climbing wall lets visitors test their agility.
Protecting nearly 5,000 acres of aquifer recharge for Silver Springs, one of the world’s largest first magnitude springs, Silver Springs Forest Conservation Area opened to the public with an extensive trail system, featuring more than 12 miles in two large loops and four connector trails along Half Mile Creek and through vast pine forests. Open for hiking and horseback riding, the trails also connect to the eastern side of the Cross Florida Greenway and to Indian Lake State Forest.
One of the more unexpected guided tours you’ll find in Florida is that of Two Tails Ranch in Williston. Here, elephants graze on the rolling hills under the live oaks. The ranch boards elephants in need of a home while their facilities are being rebuilt, and also hosts some permanent retirees.
Starting in April, pick your own fresh blueberries at Wacahoota Farms, a rural gem south of Gainesville. Nearby 5,719acre Barr Hammock Preserve expanded its trail system to more than 20 miles of interconnected footpaths and riding trails, and added a new trailhead along SE 175th Avenue in Micanopy. Both opened in November 2016.
For a taste of the past, Bob’s River Place is the answer. This old-time swimming hole near Branford is as simple as recreation used to be. Rope swings for taking the plunge dangle from the live oaks over the Suwannee River, and long slides lead down into the tannic water.
Conservation Park at Panama City Beach is now a state-accredited site for relocation of waif gopher tortoises—tortoises whose original homes are unknown. Sixty-eight acres of the 2,900-acre city park have been set aside for gopher tortoise habitat; 24 miles of trails wind through the park.
Williford Springs, north of Panama City and one of the most beautiful springs along Econfina Creek, reopened to the public with a new recreation area that features easy access for swimmers, a long boardwalk through the shady forest to a canoe launch, picnic pavilions, and a scenic interpretive hiking trail connecting to Pitt and Sylvan Springs past deep rocky crevices, bubbling springs and a tall bluff.
One of the newest and classiest private outdoor recreation destinations in Florida, Coldwater Gardens invites you to relax along Coldwater Creek near Blackwater River State Forest. Working organic gardens—including aquaponics and hydroponics—provide a centerpiece for a collection of eco-friendly cottages, a treehouse, glamping tents, camping platforms along the creek, and camping on the sandbars. Hiking trails wind through pine savanna and creekside habitats, and visitors are welcome to bring tubes or kayaks to enjoy the waterway.
BELOW: Manatee in the Tomoka River. BOTTOM: At play in the new Children's Garden at the Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales. OPPOSITE TOP: Child interacts with a dolphin at Marineland near St. Augustine.
OPPOSITE TOP: Headwaters of the Loxahatchee River in the Florida wetlands. OPPOSITE BOTTOM: A butterfly fish on a beautiful coral reef in the Florida Keys. BELOW LEFT: The rarely seen wild ghost orchid of the Fakahatchee Strand. BELOW RIGHT: A...
LEFT: Kayaking in the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. CENTER LEFT: Close-up of the endangered Florida gopher tortoise. CENTER RIGHT: Endangered Florida scrub jay. OPPOSITE TOP: Rendering of Kraken VR at SeaWorld Orlando.