Florida's miles of coastline and famous man-made attractions are such a great warm weather destination for vacationers looking to escape winter that most people may not realize just how much natural wilderness exists in the state, both on land and in the sea. If you love the outdoors and enjoy being in/on or near water, Florida is the place to be... There's plenty of unique opportunities for kayaking/canoeing, snorkeling, diving, hiking, cycling and fishing that are just too good to pass up.
This is part one of a three part series exploring some of our favorite outdoor adventures in the “sunshine state”, which may actually be more aptly called “Water-Wonder-Land”…
Dry Tortugas National Park
Translated from Spanish, Las Tortugas means ‘the land of The Turtles’, and while this area remains a hot-spot for the sea-dwelling reptiles, this is also a great place for watersports such as kayaking, snorkeling and diving. Located 70 miles (113 km) west of Key West, the 100-square mile park is composed of seven small islands and their surrounding coral reefs. Accessible only by public ferry, private boat or seaplane, the Park’s major landmark is Fort Jefferson, a 19th-century military base that also once served as a civil war prison. That said, the real attraction is the local marine life, and the vast assortment of bird species that frequent the area.
While currents in the Tortugas can sometimes be swift, snorkelers can experience a world of tropical fish, as well as barracuda, moray eels and one of the largest concentrations of nurse sharks in Florida within the park's boundaries. Under the surface of the water, you'll find everything from 17th century Spanish galleons to World War II-era freighters to explore. There are seven official dive sites around the park.
One of the larger islands in the Tortugas chain, Loggerhead Key is located roughly 3 miles (5km) west of Fort Jefferson. This is a popular day-trip destination for wildlife researchers who appreciate its natural habitat. The north side of the island is known as Little Africa and is a great place to snorkel - The key is protected and the waters are shallow. You should be able to see Juvenile barracuda, lobsters, a variety of corals as well as tropical fish. The most popular dive site in the area is the shipwreck known as the Windjammer. The three-mast, iron-hulled sailing ship’s real name was the Avanti. It was built in 1875 and wrecked on Loggerhead Reef in 1901. This artificial reef is a veritable aquarium of fish and corals.
North of the main island (Garden Key) is another popular site called Texas Rock. This large isolated mound of coral emerges from and is surrounded by sand and is a magnet for marine life. If you’re fortunate, you’ll be able to swim through walls of fish and a forest of sea fans.
For more information visit https://www.nps.gov/drto/index.htm
Ocala National Forest
The Ocala National Forest located north of Orlando is home to the world's largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest, hundreds of small lakes, rivers and a few amazing freshwater springs. Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs, Silver Glen Springs and Salt Springs are incredible places to enjoy the natural crystal-clear waters and surrounding areas. Take a cool refreshing dip, or even try snorkeling to see fish, vegetation and underwater caverns.
When you visit, you can “Stay a while”, as there are cabins for rent, along with campgrounds for tents and RVs. Hike or backpack the Florida Trail (Florida National Scenic Trail) for 67 miles (108km) through the Forest and enjoy rolling hills in an open longleaf pine forest, hardwood hammocks, the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, and travel across wooden boardwalks through swamps. The Ocala National Forest also offers opportunities to learn about Timucuan Indian culture, and experience adventurous mountain biking, horseback riding as well as canoeing / kayaking down a palm-lined twisting stream. Quieter lake fishing can also be enjoyed.
For more information, check out https://www.fs.usda.gov/ocala and https://www.nationalforests.org/our-forests/find-a-forest/florida-forests
Experience Florida Kayaking
South of Miami in the Palmetto Bay area, commercial tours of Chicken Key and Deering Estate are available. These day tours are led by biologists with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, so your curiosity will be met with knowledgeable responses. The tour departs Deering Point and journey’s through a maze of exotic mangrove tunnels that lead to Chicken Key, a seven-acre mangrove island and bird nesting area surrounded by sand bars, tidal flats, and seagrass beds. This is a great place for bird watching and snorkeling. A variety of bird species can be observed, including brown pelicans, ospreys, cormorants, and great blue herons. In the waters you may find bottlenose dolphins, manatees, loggerhead sea turtles, seahorses, juvenile blacktip sharks, sting rays, spotted eagle rays, and a variety tropical fish!
Those who prefer quieter waters and enjoy kayaking at their own pace can find plenty of paddling near Tampa. Caladesi Island State Park just north-west of Clearwater, is one of the last remaining natural islands on the Gulf coast. You can hike the park as well - and while you’re there, also check out the park's long white sand beach for some solitude and relaxation. St. Petersburg's Weedon Island Preserve, offers kayaking “trails” through quiet mangroves. Tarpon Springs’ Fred Howard Park has a protected lake to kayak around, although the real adventure is to paddle the 3 miles (5km) out to Anclote Key Preserve State Park to explore its lighthouse, wildlife refuge and long white sandy beach.
For many, many more kayak and canoe destinations in Florida, visit http://www.paddleflorida.org/
As you can see... There is so much more to Florida than beaches and world famous Orlando and Cape Canaveral attractions. Get outside and experience natural wilderness and the adventures that Florida has to offer...
... and when you’re outside enjoying your day in the sun, please remember to protect yourself from UV rays – Beat the heat with an Urban Canairie hat that is made for people who enjoy the outdoors!
Our next look at Florida's outdoor playground will highlight some of the state's Caverns and Reefs that are yours to explore - Stay tuned for Part 2