Best state parks in Florida

When they hear “Florida,” most people immediately think of three things: Disney, Miami nightlife, and the beach. But did you know that Florida has 164 state parks to explore and enjoy? As a Florida girl, I have spent a lot of time exploring the nature and landscapes throughout the state. Here are 8 of my favorite state parks in Florida. Included are some great swimming spots, great historical discoveries – and even a park located in the ocean.

Editor’s note: These spots are all taken directly from travelstoke®, a new app from Matador that connects you with fellow travelers and locals, and helps you build trip itineraries with spots that integrate seamlessly into Google Maps and Uber. Download the app to add any of the spots below directly to your future trips.

1. Blue Spring State Park, Orange City

 Blue Spring State ParkOrange City, United StatesCome in the winter and you can see the manatee migration! You can even watch the manatees on their online webcam. #wildlife #watersports

With it’s proximity to Orlando, this state park is a perfect day-trip. The spring-fed river has 73-degree water year-round. Float down the river in the summer on a rented inner tube, or visit in the winter to watch the manatee migration, where dozens of manatees swim, feed and play in the cool water.

2. Amelia Island State Park, Jacksonville

Incoming! de Matus Foris en 500px.com

Photo: matusforis

This 200-acre park holds beaches, maritime forests and shallow salt marshes. Spend the day riding a horse along the shore or go shelling for unique shells and shark teeth. Be sure to be aware of bird and turtle nesting season and to avoid disturbing their habitats.

3. Suwannee River State Park, Live Oak

 Suwannee River State ParkLive Oak, United StatesHistory comes alive here. Explore one of the state’s oldest cemeteries and hike the trails around the river. #hiking

Located in North Florida, this state park is perfect for those who enjoy hiking and history. Spend the day exploring Florida’s oldest cemetery, and stop to look at the earthworks built during the Civil War to prevent harm from the Union Navy Gunboats. The park has a full-facility campground along with cabins to rent.

Suwannee River de Mikeal Beland en 500px.com

Photo: mikealbeland

4. San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve State Park, Islamorada

 Peacock Springs Conservation AreaMayo, United StatesBe sure to check out the Dive Outpost on the corner of 51 and 180th street for all of your diving equipment including tank refills, hardware, and maps. Don’t forget to grab one of Mrs. Kathy’s favorite cookies on your way out.

The only way to visit this park is by private boat, as this state park is in 18 feet of water. Located about 1.25 nautical miles south of Indian Key, plug in these coordinates into your GPS: (24 degrees 51.802’N, 80 degrees 40.795’W) and look for the diving buoys.

5. Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, Palm Coast

 Washington Oaks Gardens State ParkPalm Coast, United StatesTalk a walk along the shore and peek into the coquina rock formations for sea life. The best time to go is at low-tide, that way you can walk on all the rocks! #beach #explore

Photo: carlitos07

This park has the best of both worlds. Spend a few hours wandering through the gardens next to the Matanzas River, then explore the fascinating coquina rock formations located next to the Atlantic. The best time to visit the beach is a low tide, so you can climb and explore the coquina rock.

6. Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, White Springs

 Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State ParkWhite Springs, United StatesMake sure to visit during the holidays, the park sets up a Christmas light display for visitors.

Music lovers learn about the “Father of American Music” at this Florida State Park. Listen to some of Stephen Foster’s compositions such as “Oh, Susanna!” and “Beautiful Dreamer”, played on the Stephen Foster Memorial Carillon.

7. Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park, Live Oak

Over and Under In Peacock de Phil

Photo: phils1stpix

This state park is home to one of the largest underwater caves in the continental United States. It’s is a great place to learn how to cave dive from trained professionals.

8. Falling Waters State Park, Washington County

 Falling Waters State Recreation AreaChipley, United StatesGreat campground with large sites and beautiful showers. Make sure you visit after it rains for a bigger waterfall. #hiking #camping

Falling Waters is the perfect place to spend the weekend if you are into camping and hiking. Home of Florida’s largest waterfall, Falling Waters has multiple camp sites, and regular interpretive talks from park rangers.

Unique things to do in Miami

YOU WOULDN’T know it by looking in a guidebook, but Miami has a lot more to offer than sandy beaches and expensive cocktails. The city is a patchwork of cultures that come together to offer a wide array of amazing things to do. Here are six of the most unique local Miami experiences.

Kayaking at Oleta River State Park.

At Oleta, you can rent kayaks to paddle through the picturesque mangrove trails of the park. The waterways are calm and peaceful and offer a great opportunity to see the local flora and fauna.

But the real draw for most people is that you can kayak to the Haulover Sandbar in Biscayne Bay. This area of the bay becomes very shallow during low tide, making the water less than waist-deep. Aside from other kayakers, you’ll find dozens of jet skis and small yachts congregating at the sandbar. This is where locals with boats come to party and hang out when they’re not at Miami Beach.

There’s almost no better Miami activity than packing a cooler full of beer and spending the day relaxing at the sandbar. And don’t worry, you won’t go hungry. You’ll find boat-vendors hanging out at the sandbar and selling everything from burgers to ceviche. Just remember to bring cash and lots of sun block. This is the best way to enjoy Miami’s clear blue waters and white sand while everyone else is crowding South Beach.

Eating great Cuban food.

Though Miami is well-known for its world-class eats, the best local food comes from the hot kitchens in Little Havana. At El Palacio de los Jugos, you can get an overflowing plate of Cuban food including rice and beans, pulled pork, fried sweet plantains (known as maduros) or fried salted plantains (tostones). And you can wash it down with fresh fruit juice or a shake.

Another treasured local Cuban restaurant is El Rey de las Fritas, home of the original Cuban burger. A frita is a burger, with a patty made of beef and chorizo to give it an added kick. It’s served on a Cuban bread bun and topped with onions, cheese, and shoestring potatoes. Skip the Coke and go for a Materva, which is a soft drink produced with herbs from South America.

When you want some coffee, opt for Latin American Cafe instead of a chain coffee shop. Be warned. Cuban espresso is no joke. It makes American coffee seem like flavored water. If you want something a little less intense, you may go with a café con leche, which is light on the coffee and heavy on the milk. It goes down especially well with buttered Cuban toast, known as a tostada.

Joining the local bikers for Critical Mass.

Critical Mass is Miami’s must-attend cycling event, mostly because if you’re not part of it, it ruins your life with all the traffic jams it causes all over the city. CM is held on the last Friday of every month. The event became popular when the Miami Heat’s star players began to join in several years ago. Now that this huge bike event has taken off, there’s no stopping the ride that takes riders up to 18 miles through several of Miami’s neighborhoods. Though the route varies, cyclists start at Government Center in Downtown Miami at 7:15 pm and travel through parts of Little Havana, Miami Beach, Allapattah, Brownsville, Overtown, Wynwood and Liberty City. At the end of the ride, you can fuel up at Omni Park with some of the city’s most beloved food trucks like Ms. Cheezious and Latin Burger and Taco. A lot of bikers also finish up their ride in Wynwood, where they can knock back a few cold ones at Wood Tavern or Brick.

Enjoying craft beers in Wynwood.

Wynwood is well-known for the street art craze that has swept through the area and parts of Little Haiti in the last couple of years. But what many people don’t know about Wynwood is that it’s the epicenter of Miami’s craft beer movement. The first brewery of its kind was Wynwood Brewing Company, where you can get their creative brews by the pint or the growler. But since then, other breweries like J. Wakefield Brewery and Concrete Breach Brewery have arrived to showcase their own unique beers. For a behind-the-scenes look at the brewing process, Concrete Beach has free tours in the evening on weekdays and all day on weekends. The best part is that they’re all within half a mile of each other, so you can come for one but stay for all three.

Watching a midnight movie in 35 mm.

Aside from having a stellar art culture, Miamians love good movies. A movement founded by Nayib Estefan (son of Gloria and Emilio Estefan) has sought to preserve the magic of film in Miami. They’re known as the Secret Celluloid Society, and they obtain original 35 mm copies of classic films such as Indiana Jones and Back to the Future to show at midnight every Saturday. The Society shows the flicks at different Miami movie houses, including Coral Gables Art Cinema and O Cinema Miami Beach.

The midnight movie-goers are an enthusiastic bunch. More than a few dress up for the screenings. And if you’re lucky, there may be prizes or special guests. But at the very least, you’ll get to feel the nostalgia of watching the original Star Wars on the big screen.

Visiting a Buddhist temple.

Wat Buddharangsi of Miami is technically outside the Miami city limits, in Homestead, FL. But if you’re up for a drive, you’ll see the rest of Miami-Dade County that Pitbull doesn’t sing about. Tucked away among the long stretches of farmland, is Wat Buddharangsi of Miami. The stunning Thai temple was built on five acres of land. You can feel both inside and outside the temple a state of peace and calm that is not easy to find anywhere else in Miami. In fact, you might forget you’re in Miami entirely. Many of the temple’s decorative accents and the large Buddha statue inside the religious hall were made in Bangkok and shipped here.

You can visit Wat Buddharangsi just to take in its splendid architecture, or you can take part in one of the meditation classes held by the monks every weekend. And if you’re all the way down in Homestead, you might as well get a milkshake and the most sought-after cinnamon rolls in town from Knaus Berry Farm. Even a massage at The Standard won’t leave you feeling this Zen.

Mistakes visitors make in Florida

TRAVELERS hate tourist traps and no one ever wants to spend more money than necessary when on vacation. Here are a few pieces of advice to experience Florida more like a local, and less like a tourist.

Eating only theme park food.

The quality of food in Florida theme parks has been improving, but there’s so much good food to be enjoyed outside the parks that it would be a shame not to. The Ravenous Pig is a James Beard Nominee in the city of Winter Park that uses Florida ingredients and presents them in a seasonal food and craft cocktail menu. If you are looking for something less formal, Kona Dog Food Truck offers almost endless combinations of savory meats and sweet bread. In Treehouse Truck you can find cooked-to-order burgers and deep-fried desserts. Don’t want or can’t leave the theme park area? Blaze Pizza in Disney’s Springs (no admission or parking fee required) offers artisanal pizzas at an excellent price.

Skipping Fort Lauderdale.

Florida

Photo: skeeze

Home of the Everglades National Park, Fort Lauderdale is not only the perfect place for an airboat ride. The city, just thirty minutes away from Miami, is home to several Blue Wave Beaches for those looking for a more tranquil beach experience without compromising quality. Deerfield Beach in North Fort Lauderdale is also the place where you can find one of the first (and affordable!) America’s Cable water ski resorts, Ski Rixen USA.

Not going for a wine tasting tour.

The number of Florida Wineries has been steadily growing and we couldn’t be happier. Our two favorite ones are the San Sebastian Winery in the city of St. Augustine, and Lakeridge Winery and Vineyards in Clermont. The two largest wineries in the state offer complimentary tours and tastings seven days a week. Enjoy a breath of fresh air at the Lakeridge Vineyards, or drinks and music at the San Sebastian Winery’s The Cellar Upstairs Wine and Jazz & Blues Bar.

Ignoring weather forecasts.

Florida’s nickname might be the “Sunshine State,” but this does not mean severe weather doesn’t happen often. During the summer, afternoon storms and rainy days are frequent. Have an indoor activity, such as a visit to the Kennedy Space Center as a backup, if traveling during the summer or early fall. Also, keep an umbrella or rain jacket at arm’s reach.

Disregarding Florida’s historic landmarks.

Bok Tower Gardens in Central Florida, with its picturesque 205-foot tower, is perfect for a picnic and a stroll. Located in one of Florida’s highest points the gardens are an excellent option for families, couples, and the solo traveler alike.

Missing out on a Florida’s Gulf Coast sunset.

Florida

Photo: Aaron
Burden

Sunsets through the Florida Gulf Coast are pretty spectacular. Take some towels and camera to Siesta Beach in Siesta Key and wait for the sun to go down. If your visit happens to be on a Sunday, join the Siesta Key Drum Circle, where locals and tourists join their musical talents, and dance moves an hour before sunset.

Denying yourself an Orange Creamsicle.

One of the best ways to enjoy an orange in Florida is by having an Orange Creamsicle. Drive fifteen minutes from the World Disney World Resort and visit The Showcase of Citrus in the city of Clermont. Nothing says ‘Florida’ more than eating vanilla soft serve ice cream with freshly squeezed orange juice, while overlooking the gator on the lake in this attraction.

Relying on public transportation.

Florida

Photo: Lance Asper

In a car-centered state, public transportation is not the most reliable method for you to move around. As a visitor, every minute counts and waiting at a bus stop is probably not how you want to spend your vacations. Rent a car, or utilize a ridesharing service such as Uber or Lyft.

Ignoring the street art scene.

of the largest collections of street art in the world can be found in Wynwood, a Miami neighborhood. The Wynwood Arts District houses not only 70 art galleries but an increasing number of eateries and bars. A popular choice is Wynwood Kitchen & Bar, which displays a Latin-influenced menu and artwork from leading graffiti artists. Gramps is also favored by the locals because of the live music and fun vibe.

Stressing out

Heat, humidity, thunderstorms and Florida’s Interstate Highways might take quite a toll on you and your vacations. Relax by visiting one of many Florida’s Springs, which are not “hot springs” but instead “cool springs” with water between 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is well-known for its sightings of West Indian manatees and otters while kayaking or tubing in its clear waters. If you liked the idea of seeing manatees, Blue Spring State Park is home to more than 400 West Indian manatees during the winter. Make sure to arrive early, because the number of people allowed in the springs is limited, and the parks close once they reach capacity.

Not taking in Florida’s diversity.

A visit to Tarpon Springs will take you to Greece with restaurants like Costas Restaurant where options are endless but locals rave about the gyros. In Kissimmee, the Puerto Rican community has also been bringing their flavors, with places as Melao Bakery where Tripletas (a sandwich with three different type of meats) and Puerto Rican coffee are some of the favorite items on the menu.

Trying to do everything in one trip.

There is nothing wrong about coming to Florida only to visit the theme parks or the beaches. But Florida has a lot more to offer: State and national parks, historic landmarks, great food, and even famous highways like The Overseas Highway which takes you from Miami to Key West in 113 miles over water and across islets. Focus on one region at a time, and then come back for more.

An angler’s guide to SW Florida

I CAME TO SOUTHWEST FLORIDA from New England for one reason: winter. It was one particularly brutal January that did me in — temperatures fluctuating from 50 above to below zero with three feet of snow. A week in Southwest Florida sounded about right. I booked my trip, grabbed my fishing gear, and off I went. Ultimately, off I stayed.

Over the years, I’ve grown very fond of the region. It’s relaxed and naturally remote, but with a good mix of creature comforts thrown in. And the fishing… Fishing in Southwest Florida is whatever you want it to be, practically wherever you want it to be. Anglers like myself can walk the beaches and sight fish, or work the inland waterways, flats, and mangroves. Whether you go by boat or go by boots, pick a spot from the list below, and the rest is up to you.

Spot #1: J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

This one is numero uno for a reason. Sanibel Island’s 7,600-acre J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is among the largest conservation areas in the country devoted to mangrove preservation. It’s a labyrinth of creeks, bayous, grass flats, and oyster bars, and its complexity and beauty is mirrored in the sport. We’re talking about a virtual baitfish factory — big fish eat little fish, and you’ll catch ’em both up here.

The Wulfert Flats zone near the northwest corner of Ding Darling doesn’t allow combustion engines. Only poling or trolling is permitted, and since no props or skegs dig up the bottom, the fishing is further improved. Set out from Blind Pass, where Captiva meets Sanibel — kayaks can be rented from the Beach Cottages of Sanibel to get you started.

Don’t just race to Wulfert Flats, though. Along the route are a number of flats, channels, and oyster beds, all of which hold fish. The species vary depending on the water temperatures and time of year, but you’ll find excellent numbers of snook and reds. Spotted sea trout, tarpon, jack crevalle, and tripletail are frequently mixed in as well.

Spot #2: Tarpon Bay

While you’re in the national wildlife refuge, head over to Tarpon Bay — where there’s more than one way to catch a fish. The easiest is to fish in the channels running along the road that cuts through the refuge. Here you’ll find sea trout, redfish, snook, and mangrove snapper. The beauty of this style of fishing is it’s so convenient, anglers have no excuse for not giving it a go. But its simplicity entails another fact: Pressure can be significant. If you don’t pull in a satisfactory catch here, coming home empty-handed feels all the more bleak. Luckily, that doesn’t happen too often.

If you need to get away from the crowds, rent a kayak. Tarpon Bay Explorers is conveniently located for an easy departure — launch your ‘yak and paddle away. Tarpon Bay came by its name honestly, and you’ll find plenty of tarpon cruising the channels and moving up onto the grass flats. Small-to-medium-sized fish are most common, but they’re the best, too. The fights aren’t epic two-hour deals like with giant tarpon, so you can walk the smaller fish through a bunch of jumps and runs and then hook another before the school pushes on. Check out the deep holes and grass flats for other fish like cobia, jacks, triple tail, and the occasional shark. The flats range from two to five feet in depth, and the flood tide fishes best. Occasionally you’ll find some Spanish mackerel running the channel edges, too.

Spot #3: Buck Key Preserve

The small, frequently overlooked Buck Key Preserve is across the channel from the ‘Tween Waters Inn Island Resort & Spa. An organized kayak trail runs through Buck Key’s mangrove tunnels, and while there are snook and baby tarpon in the roots, the tight canopy calls for conventional or spin tackle. The flat at the north end of the preserve hold reds and trout, and since it’s open it can be fished with any kind of tackle, including fly.

Channels on the east side of the key hold cobia, tarpon, and snook; look for reds as they move up onto the adjacent flats. The lagoon on the west-central side of Buck Key is good, too. Concentrate on the mouth on the dropping tide and move into the lagoon on the flood.

Spot #4: Cabbage Key

DIY-ers can rent 19-foot Palm Beach center consoles powered by 115 HP outboards from Beach Bums Boat Rentals. The fishing destination is Cabbage Key, an undeveloped 100-acre island. There are no roads, no cars, and no shops on Cabbage Key, but there’s one restaurant called the Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant. It’s the only game in town, and you might get hungry from wade fishing the pristine beaches for cruising snook, tarpon, and reds. Rising tides are good, but if the fish aren’t in, explore the surrounding mangroves, flats, and channels.

If you don’t want to rent a boat, there are multiple water taxis available to the island. Check out Captiva’s South Seas Island Resort, which offers water shuttles to Cabbage Key and provides an excellent base of operations for exploring — and fishing — the area.

Spot #5: Estero Bay

Any fishing trip to Southwest Florida should include this spot. The 15-square-mile Estero Bay runs from Naples to Fort Myers and is fed by 10 different river systems. Here you’ll find some of the best shallow-water fishing in the state. Sea trout and reds are on the flats; snook, drum, and trout scour the grass beds; and sheepshead and mangrove snapper are along the oyster beds. Look for jacks, tarpon, and barracuda in the channels. You’ll find fish to catch at just about any phase of the tide.

If you want to rent a boat or hire a guide, look out for Fishtale Marina — they have more guides than you can shake a pole at. If you’re on the north side, hit up Pink Shell Beach Resort and Marina. With their guidance, you can spend more time fishing and less time motoring. If you didn’t bring gear but want to get in a quick fish, rent tackle from Salty Sam’s Marina or Estero River Outfitters. When you find yourself on or near Periwinkle Way on Sanibel, Whitney’s Bait & Tackle or the Bait Box are good options, too. Fly rodders can try Norm Ziegler’s Fly Shop on the same street.

Spot #6: Sanibel Lighthouse

Last but certainly not least, head to the fishing pier by the Sanibel Lighthouse. This area is best for spin and bait fishing, and you’re bound to catch something here. That said, it can get crowded. The best thing to do — and it’s ideal if you’re a fly rodder — is to hit the sand.

Start at the light and work your way along the beach down to the Sanibel Moorings Condominium Resort. Along the beaches, you’ll find good to great snook fishing, particularly in low-light conditions. These snook run tight to the beach, making them perfect for fly rodders or spin fishermen. East winds break up the surface just enough so the fish are less spooky. Bright sun makes snook skittish, so daytime isn’t as productive as early or late light.

It’s all sight fishing on the beaches, and sometimes you’ll find Spanish mackerel, pompano, ladyfish, and the occasional tarpon or redfish. Know that vacationers make their way out onto the sand between breakfast and cocktail hours, but you’ll have miles to walk before they arrive or after they depart. And there’s plenty of sand and lots of fish west of the condos where you can have the beach practically to yourself.

 

Lee County
This post is produced in partnership with The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.

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