A World of Nat­u­ral Won­ders

Travel Guide to Florida - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - BY SAN­DRA FRIEND

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.

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