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My Favorite Places To Explore In Florida

If you are in Florida or planning to visit, I hope you add one or more of my favorite spots to your adventures to do list.

By: Angie Vasquez + Save to a List

The Sunshine State is the perfect place for anyone looking to spend quality time connecting with nature year-round. I can be on the river one day and in the forest the next. Florida wildlife is diverse, and I tend to gravitate to places where I can view many species of animals.

I’ve explored throughout the state, but there are places special in my heart that I often revisit. Here are five of my favorite outdoor spaces to explore in Florida.

Orlando Wetlands Park

Orlando Wetlands Park is a water reclamation center. It converts highly treated sewage water into fresh water. The manmade wetlands brings not only a large variety of native and migratory birds to the park but other wildlife such as bobcat, alligators, deer, raccoons, turtles and others. It is the perfect hike to spend a few hours exploring.

The wetlands have wide open trails to hike, bike or ride horses on. It’s the perfect place for wildlife photographers and birders. I usually hike anywhere from three to eight miles making sure to climb the hill in the middle of the park so I can view 360 degrees around you. 

The colors from the lakes are mesmerizing in hues of blue. If you look closely, you can see flocks of birds in the trees and maybe even the resident bald eagle's nest. 

There are plenty of alligators in the park and one may even cross your path while hiking. During mating season, the male alligators are an amazing sight as they bury their bellies in the water, lift their large tails, and release huge bellows to attract mates. At a close glance, you can actually see the water above their backs dancing like little raindrops.

American Alligator at the Orlando Wetlands Park. Photo: Angie Vasquez

I take women from my group Girls Who Hike Florida to the wetlands to teach them the basics of hiking. A lot of the women in the group are transplanted in the state and are wary of hiking because of the wildlife. The wetlands are the perfect place to hike and learn about Florida terrain, wildlife and the different ecosystems. 

There are 18 water cells in the park, each growing special plants to attract animals and insects to help purify the water. As the water flows through the cells, it eventually will make its way to the last cell, reentering our Saint Johns River floodplains.

If you decide to visit the park, be sure to sign in at the pavilion and stop at the visitors center. Take plenty of water and snacks, your camera, and binoculars.Wear comfortable shoes and I guarantee you’ll have a great adventure!

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

Have you ever camped under a new moon and watched as the stars began to make their appearance? One by one, stars and constellations start to dance showing the vast universe above you. This is what it's like camping at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park on a clear evening. 

The park is a member of the National Dark Skies Association and has special campsites where only red light is allowed so you can witness the stars with no light pollution. It's one of my favorite parks not only because of the astronomy, but because it has so much to offer.

Early Morning in the Prairie. Photo: Angie Vasquez

Located in south Florida near the town of Okeechobee, you drive approximately twenty minutes to the campground after passing the front gate. The scenery of the open dry prairie reminds me of landscapes in National Geographic. If you pay close attention, you may see wildlife in action such as the red shouldered hawk sitting on the fence line scoping out its next meal or a bobcat crossing the road.

Juvenile Raccoon in Oak Tree. Photo: Angie Vasquez

I’ve camped at the park numerous times and each stay was magical. At night, I could hear coyote packs communicating and owls in the trees while sitting in my camp chair watching the moon rise over the plains. I woke up to the sunrise through the window of my tent to start the day and then rented a bike and took to one of my favorite trails, Alligator Alley. 

This trail takes you out toward the cow pastures on a narrow road. Along the banks of the canals, a few dozen alligators lay sunning, some as large as fourteen feet. It is an amazing sight to see them among other wildlife. For these reasons Kissimmee Prairie Preserve is a top place to explore.

Silver River Kayak Run

As I paddle my kayak down the springs, I can’t take my eyes off the clear bluish green waters. On a summer's day you feel the humidity in the air. The canopy of oak and palm trees line the sides of the canal giving the feeling of being in a tropical jungle. The run is a beautiful escape from the world. There are different routes that will lead you to the main river with lots of wildlife. If you’re really lucky, on a good day you can observe some of the troops of macaque monkeys in the trees, yes monkeys!

Kayaking With Manatees. Photo: Angie Vasquez

Back in the 1930s, the monkeys were brought from Southeastern Asia by a man named Colonel Toomey. He used them as an attraction for his jungle cruise attraction. Today, there are several troops in the Ocala area. I haven’t seen them, but I think it’s really cool they can call the river banks home. Other wildlife you could encounter include alligators, turtles, fish, river otters, and plenty of bird species.

Photo: Angie Vasquez

I like to paddle through the side canals to see some of the historical building sites. If you are with friends or family you can actually kayak the entire run which is about six miles one way and shuttle back to the beginning. There are places to pull off to have lunch and just take in all of the beauty of the river. I highly recommend Silver River for a day trip on the water.

Myakka River State Park

Established in 1941, Myakka River State Park is one of the oldest parks in the system. It is located in the Sarasota area. The park is over 58 acres and was once a cow pasture before being converted to a state park. It’s full of wildlife, beautiful scenery and diverse history.

I usually spend a day or two in the park to take my time exploring. I arrive as the gates open and make my way to the ranger station because there’s a hiking trail named the Deep Hole. I love to hike. Only 30 people are allowed on this backcountry trail per day and the permits go fast! The three-mile out-and-back trail takes you through prairie, palm, and oak hammocks to a 120 foot sinkhole.

When you reach the end of the trail, it opens up to the beauty of the lower Myakka River. To the left along the shoreline you will see tons of alligators sunning. The deep hole is home to hundreds of the reptiles. It’s an amazing sight to see them lying atop one another. You have to be very careful not to invade their space by viewing them from a distance. You are allowed to kayak in the river if you want a better view, but I like to look from afar.

Under The Oak Tree Hammock. Photo: Desiree DeLoach

After the hike, I normally head into the main park and take the pontoon boat ride. It costs about $20 and takes you around the upper river of the park. The conductor gives you the history of the park while showing you around. 

As the boat cruises the lake you will see alligators that follow the boat. The tour has been around since the 40’s and back in the day the conductors would carry bags of marshmallows to attract alligators. They’d throw the marshmallows into the water and slow the boats down. The alligators would surface to grab the treats thinking they were eggs. Even though an alligator's brain is the size of a walnut, the older ones have retained that memory and surface today looking for marshmallows.

Fawn and Her Doe Resting in a Field. Photo:Angie Vasquez

I have also hiked through the Oak Hammock forest and touching the 100-year-old trees and climbing over a hundred stairs to the top of the observation canopy where there is a 360 view of the park. If you are into birding, there are areas all throughout the park to see more than 240 species. I’ve spotted everything from the great egret to the roseate spoonbill and the beautiful sandhill cranes.

After leaving the park, I make my way to Lido Key Beach to walk in the sand and watch the sunset bringing the day to the end in a relaxing connective way.

Weeki Wachee State Park

Do you like paddleboarding or have you wanted to try? Florida has a lot of great spots to explore. I really enjoy Weeki Wachee Springs. The run takes a good three-to-four hours to paddle downstream and at the end of the run, you can grab a shuttle back to the parking area.

My friend Krista and I heard Weeki Wachee had a small herd of manatees at the springs. Manatees during the winter months swim inland into the waterways here in Florida. They’re seeking sanctuary in the warmer waters of the springs to survive the colder winter months. The springs are the perfect place because the water stays about 72 degrees all year round.

Paddle Boarding For The First Time Photo:Angie V

I do not own a paddle board but the park rents them and this was my first time. I launched my board into the river and the only thing I could think was, “What the heck am I doing?” I’m not the best at balancing and knew it would be challenging but I am always up to try something new. 

Paddling down the river it took me a while to figure it all out. It was a beautiful day with lots of others both kayaking and paddle boarding. The spring was ice blue and you could see directly down to the white sand below. After falling off the board and crashing into the river bank a few times, I decided to sit and paddle the remainder of the way. I was so grateful the springs do not have any alligators.

Along the river, there are places to pull off and swim. There’s even a food boat to grab a snack or water. The highlight of this adventure for me is when we saw a small family of manatees swim right underneath our paddle boards. It was the most surreal experience ever! I did have to yell at a few unthoughtful humans for chasing behind the herd but other than that it was a perfect day at the springs to connect with the world around me.

Planning Ahead

No matter what type of exploring you choose to do, try to be prepared. Research before visiting to check for any important information you may need to know such as the indigenous wildlife or history. Make a list of the things you will need on your adventure.

  • Carry Plenty of water
  • Snacks
  • Sunscreen
  • Map or GPS
  • First Aid Kit
  • Hat and Sunglasses
  • Poncho
  • Bear spray
  • Walking stick or Trekking poles
  • Binocular
  • Camera or Cell Phone

If you are traveling solo always be sure to let someone know your plans. I also pin my parking to use as breadcrumbs back to my van. Pack out what you pack in and be responsible by applying the leave no trace guidelines. Exploring the amazing spaces in the outdoors can be a life changing experience.  Are you ready to embrace nature? If you are in Florida or planning to visit, I hope you add one or more of my favorite spots to your adventures to do list. Happy Exploring!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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