Florida is a beautiful country, graced with year-round sunny skies, ocean breezes, subtropical foliage, and abundant wildlife. This southernmost continental state offers a whole host of natural adventures on both land and water. There is certainly more to Florida than oranges and Walt Disney World, including luxurious Florida RV camping hotels and cute Florida campgrounds to make your road trip a great success.
The northwest corner of the Sunshine State is our first stop, where the Gulf of Mexico glistens, dolphins play, and sandy beaches prevail. The Gulf Islands National Seashore in Gulf Breeze stretches some 150 miles across the Gulf of Mexico’s coastline, from Pensacola, at Florida’s northwest edge, to Davis Bayou and the barrier islands in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. This national saltwater treasure is a kaleidoscope of turquoise water, glowing white sand dunes, seaside marshes, wooded nature trails, historic fortresses and archaeological sites which tell the long-ago stories of Native American inhabitants. Visitors are free to camp, hike, fish and swim on the gulf or Santa Rosa Sound. Birders who explore the Gulf Islands are rewarded with sightings of blue herons, ospreys, egrets and brown pelicans. Beach-goers also have been known to talk about the park’s sandy terrain with these”locals” as diamondback terrapins, armadillos and sea turtles.
Florida’s huge, outdoor playground is open for all seasons and so are many Florida campgrounds which makes this state a snowbird paradise.
The Emerald Coast Beaches in Navarre, Fort Walton, Destin, and Santa Rosa are shining examples of Northwest Florida’s gulf shore. These family-friendly recreation areas boast crystal-clear water, gentle surf, generous stretches of sugar-white sand and rolling dunes, complete with shorebirds and nesting sea turtles galore. Do not miss’em if you’re in the area.
Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, the site of Florida’s only lighted tour cavern, is a Natural National Landmark. The highlight in this park is surely the ranger-guided tour of Florida Caverns and the explanations of its diverse calcite formations – stalagmites, stalactites, columns and brimstones. But don’t fret about the geological terminology, there won’t be a test afterwards. Of course, there are cave creatures to reckon with, such as several species of (gasp!) bats. However, the park also shelters some surprising species such as 200-pound alligators, snapping turtles, barred owls and beavers. The budding geologists on your team should enjoy the marine fossils embedded in the cave’s ceilings and walls that tell a fascinating tale of Florida Caverns’ ancient submerged beyond. When it is time to ascend to the park’s ground level, the selection of actions is delightfully well-rounded. Swimming, fishing, camping, hiking, biking, horseback riding and canoeing are readily available. The scenery consists of atypical plant life such as orchids, flame azalea, columbine and various wildflowers, adding a dash of color to the excursion.
In north central Florida, travelers enter a world of winding rivers, cold, freshwater springs, and refreshing, green woods. The Ichetucknee River in Fort White is a popular place for tubing; a laid-back, solo alternative to whitewater rafting. Grab an inner tube, recline, and shove off into a leisurely current (about 1 mph). In Ichetucknee Springs, the crystal-clear river is fed with multiple springs that supply an awesome daily influx of 233 million gallons of water. And tubers can not help but”chill out” as the river registers a bracing, yearlong temperature of 72? F. Tubing excursions at Ichetucknee are almost effortless because there are shuttle buses between authorized launching and take-out points. In addition to the wonders of gliding past hardwood hammocks and cypress swamps, Ichetucknee Springs offers opportunities for swimming, canoeing, and snorkeling, plus underwater cavern dives for certified divers.
The highlight of Devil’s Millhopper State Geological Site in Gainesville is its enormous 120-foot deep sinkhole, created by the collapsed ceiling of a subterranean cavern.
Small streams tumble down the steep slopes of the sinkhole, disappearing through cracks in the bottom. Alas, the sinkhole’s contents, in the kind of seashells, sharks’ teeth, and fossilized animal relics, have contributed geologists invaluable clues to Florida’s natural history. Visitors are afforded views of the sinkhole from boardwalks, stairways, or from a nature trail on the top rim. The inside of Devil’s Millhopper features little streams rushing down its sheer walls and lush plant growth, like ferns and orchids, that resemble Appalachian mountain foliage.
Head east on your Florida journey, and you’ll be rewarded by a region that offers lovely Atlantic beaches, quiet salt marshes and scores of graceful shorebirds. Take Little Talbot and Big Talbot Islands in Fort George, for example, just 17 miles from Jacksonville via a series of bridges. As close as they are into the”big city,” those isles offer a refreshing sense of escape from civilization. Even better, they offer convenient oceanside parking for your RV and effortless boardwalk access to five miles of unspoiled Atlantic beaches. Besides researching sandy shores, flowering deserts, marshes, and maritime forests, Talbot’s visitors quickly take to such activities as swimming, shelling, saltwater fishing, boating, biking, or horseback riding. The Talbots shelter almost 200 species of birds and coastal critters; gopher tortoises, river otters, and occasional bobcats are but a few of these.
Anastasia State Recreation Area, a barrier island east of St. Augustine, is one of Florida’s finest and busiest coastal parks, so we urge when staying at a Florida campground nearby you make reservations beforehand. It offers all of the beach blanket basics – a sandy coastline, rolling waves, scenic dunes, a lagoon, tidal marshes and sea meadows. It also provides opportunities to swim, kayak, fish, or learn the graceful art of windsurfing. For people who simply want a little R&R, visit the designated picnic area shaded by ancient, and somewhat unusual, oak trees gradually bleached and twisted by the salty sea winds. Don’t overlook the wildflowers, nature paths, magnolia trees and interesting creatures to behold: red-shouldered hawks, swallowtail butterflies, sea turtles, screech owls and Anastasia’s own beach mouse – that make this place unique.
Heading south you’ll find Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville. It was established almost four decades ago through a cooperative effort between NASA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Mosquito Lagoon and Indian River to the west, this subtropical locale provides a pleasing mix of ancient oak hammocks, sandy dunes, salt marshes, mangroves, ocean shores and piney woods. Merritt and its immediate neighbors, Canaveral National Seashore and Kennedy Space Center, are positioned on the Atlantic Flyway. The refuge is a significant winter home not just for legions of migrating birds, but native sandpipers, ibises, and wood storks. For visitors who would prefer to catch their own dinner, shrimping, crabbing, clamming, freshwater or surf-fishing and/or controlled waterfowl hunting are allowed at Merritt Island.
Scores of endangered native and migratory birds call the area home. The island has since been named a National Historic Landmark, National Wilderness Area, and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors who arrive by kayak, canoe, or boat tour visit jet-black anhingas and assorted kinds of herons, egrets, ibises and terns. The lucky people might catch a glimpse of any one of four types of sea turtles and endangered manatees, which sometimes linger at Pelican’s peaceful refuge. The 1903 introduction of the island’s protected status signaled the momentous start of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System.
When tourists proceed west to the heart of Florida, they enter a property of freshwater lakes, dense woodlands, and bubbling springs. Ocala National Forest is the southernmost national forest in the continental U.S. and the earliest such forest established east of the Mississippi River. This lively destination has much to offer, such as hundreds of sparkling lakes, springs and two important rivers – the Ocklawaha and the St. Johns – with each offering ample opportunities for swimming, boating and angling. Snorkeling enthusiasts surely can’t resist the transparent waters and incredible aquatic viewpoints in Ocala’s chilly springs, can they? Paddling on horseback trails, horseback riding, and hiking on Florida’s National Scenic Trail are also popular pastimes. After all, there is over 430,000 acres to cover, so you may want to leave yourself a little time to explore. When you do, you may happen upon black bears, bald eagles and other rare species rarely seen outside the borders of Ocala National Forest.
Paddling canoe trails, horseback riding, and hiking on Florida’s National Scenic Trail are also popular pastimes and many Florida RV camping hotels provide resort packages that include these activities and more with your stay in their campground.
The wooded terrain around Lake Kissimmee in Lake Wales was once the homeland of Native Americans that were attracted to the area because of its bounty of fish, plants and animals. Today’s travelers seem equally smitten, especially those who prefer to hike, ride horse, ship about or fish Florida’s third largest lake. Trophy bass are plentiful in its own waters. Keen observers spot whooping cranes, bobcats, fox squirrels, deer and wild turkeys along Lake Kissimmee’s shore.
Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park invites visitors to learn first-hand about Florida’s native creatures in a natural setting. The park’s centerpiece, Homosassa Springs, is a 45-foot deep, 72? F headspring pumping millions of gallons of water per hour to the scenic Homosassa River. The spring itself is home to over 30 species of fish. The adjacent wildlife park presents interactive animal displays, an indoor nursery for baby alligators and crocodiles, and special ranger programs designed to introduce participants to Florida’s population of reptiles, birds and manatees. Visitors can practically rub elbows with gentle manatees in the underwater observatory.
The Myakka River near Sarasota offers natural adventures on one of Florida’s finest”wild and scenic” waterways. And for guests who prefer a guided tour, Myakka’s splendor could be viewed from narrated tram and airboat tours.
Florida’s southwest region provides world-renowned shelling, island getaways and shining Gulf coast sunsets. J.N.”Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island is the most obvious example of enduring local conservation efforts. Founded in 1945, the 6,000-acre refuge was formally dedicated in 1978 to Jay Norwood”Ding” Darling, a political cartoonist and staunch environmentalist who fought to preserve Sanibel’s fragile ecosystem. Based on the season of arrival, refuge guests might see a colorful songbird, splashing otter or lounging crocodile. The informative, self-guided Wildlife Drive tour may be completed on foot, by bike or vehicle. Suggested stops are marked with wooden signs and volunteer interpreters are on hand to answer questions.
The Everglades National Park, North America’s only subtropical preserve, is a 1.5 million-acre”sea of grass” in the southern tip of mainland Florida. It is a place where Caribbean plants and animals coexist in a curious mixture of swamps filled with cypress and mangroves, saw grass prairies, pine and hardwood trees. One third of the park’s acreage is actually underwater, including Florida Bay which borders the park, much to the delight of canoeists. Drier park pursuits include biking; ranger-led trail walks or tram tours; and wildlife-watching for manatees, alligators, crocodiles, evasive Florida panthers, more than 300 varieties of birds, as well as the Everglades’ most prolific species, mosquitoes.
For the marine species that reside there, the park showcases and protects the only living coral reef in the continental United States. For all those smart enough to stop over, there are dazzling saltwater spectacles to behold – gliding rainbows of tropical fish, spiny lobsters, vibrant coral formations and bobbing loggerhead turtles. A high-speed, glass-bottom catamaran is the best way to see the sights (narrated, too). Otherwise, grab a snorkel and a few fins. Scuba dive or paddle a”spyak” (a customized kayak with a large, transparent viewing floor) for an even closer look.
Bahia Honda State Park, at Big Pine Key’s mile marker 37, is an eye-appealing island gem with sandy beaches, waving palms, and bright blue waters that ripple onshore from the Atlantic Ocean to Florida Bay. Besides boasting some of the Key’s best swimming, snorkeling and fishing beaches, Bahia Honda has rolling dunescapes, mangrove forests and tropical hardwood hammocks.