These 12 state parks will make you fall in love with Florida
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Florida’s siren song calls to visitors from around the globe with its seashell-strewn beaches, wildlife preserves, iconic cultural hubs like Miami, historic forts and, of course, the theme parks of Central Florida. Add to that plenty of points-friendly accommodations and airports like Jacksonville (JAX), Orlando (MCO), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Miami (MIA), Tampa (TPA) and others that are served by America’s legacy airlines, as well as low-cost carriers, so it’s easy to put together a very affordable vacation.
As the world hopefully emerges from the threat of coronavirus later this year and into 2021, you may decide that Florida is the destination for your next vacation. If that’s the case, TPG wants to introduce you to our favorite state parks in the Sunshine State. There are 175 state parks that showcase Florida’s best beaches, freshwater springs, cave systems, mangroves, maritime hammocks and historic lighthouses and forts.
Admission is usually just a few dollars so visiting one or two during your vacation is a welcome break for your wallet compared to theme park or waterpark tickets. If you’re planning an extended vacation and think you may hit a few of these parks, check out the Florida State Parks Annual Pass, which is just $60 annually. That’s an individual pass but anyone traveling with you can enter each park for just $2. Or, buy a family pass, good for up to eight people, for $120 per year.
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Anastasia State Park
I live on one of the islands along Florida’s First Coast so I’m partial to this part of the state’s Atlantic coastline. It’s home to St. Augustine, known as one of the oldest continuously inhabited European settlements in America. And that’s where you’ll find Anastasia State Park — a gem in St. Johns County that draws residents and visitors alike to its white-sand beaches, dunes, hammock forests and tidal marshes.
The park stretches across 1,600 acres and although many come here for a blissful beach day, there is so much more. Hike the Ancient Dunes Nature Trail (four miles one-way), kayak along the coast or set up shop at one of the park’s 139 campsites. If you’re a birder, you can spy 195 species here, from osprey and egrets to Wilson’s plovers and black skimmers. Stop at the ranger station to pick up a birding checklist. Guided birding walks are also offered monthly.
There’s a restaurant on site as well as a shop where you can rent chairs and umbrellas, surfboards, stand-up paddle boards, boogie boards and bikes. There are four miles of beach break here so it’s a popular spot for surfers when conditions are right. Lifeguards are on duty from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
If you’ve got a history buff in your group, check out the Coquina (limestone made of broken shells) Quarries at the park entrance. Dating from the 1700s, this spot is on the National Register of Historic Places. When the nearby Castillos de San Marcos was built, its coquina likely came from this spot.
Admission is $4 per car for a single occupant and $8 for a vehicle with two to eight visitors. Campsites cost $28 plus tax per night. (Half-price for seniors 65 years of age or older.)
Fort Mose Historic State Park
If you’re spending time in St. Augustine, make it a point to visit Fort Mose Historic State Park. It played a pivotal role in our nation’s history as the first legally sanctioned, free African settlement in what would eventually become the United States. The king of Spain had decreed that any African-born enslaved individual living under British rule who could get to St. Augustine would be declared a free person — after converting to Catholicism. Established in 1738, the fort was a defensive position against invading British soldiers.
There’s a very good interactive museum at the park that tells the story of Fort Mose and its significance as a precursor to the Underground Railroad. Admission to the museum is $2 per person (children under 6 are free) but you can explore the park grounds for free.
Washington Oaks Gardens State Park
For travelers who appreciate gardens and stately 200-year-old live oaks draped in Spanish moss, set your compass for Washington Oaks Gardens State Park along Flagler County’s Palm Coast. The park is situated on a barrier island with the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Matanzas River on the west. The seawall on the Matanzas River side of the park is especially popular for picnics and there is a shady playground for kids. At the center of the island lies a maritime hammock forest.
The three-quarter-mile beach is accented with coquina rock formations and the 20 acres of formal gardens are planted with roses, camellias, birds of paradise and azaleas. Gazebos and benches dot the property’s scenic footpaths and are excellent spots for family photo sessions.
Originally a Spanish land grant, the park now offers short hiking and biking trails along with its beach and gardens. Fishing and birding are also popular pastimes here. Admission is $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists; $4 for single-occupant vehicles, and $5 per carload of two to eight people.
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park
If you don’t hail from Florida, you might not be aware of the incredible lure of the state’s freshwater springs. Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park near Tallahassee in the Panhandle is home to one of the deepest and largest freshwater springs in the world. The water is 70 degrees year-round so it’s always refreshing to take a dip. And, an ancient cypress swamp encircles the springs, giving the park a decidedly prehistoric vibe. Movie producers filmed the 1954 “Creature from the Black Lagoon” here and, even more impressive, a complete mastodon skeleton was discovered in the springs.
Visitors flock here to swim in the springs, take a guided riverboat tour to see manatees and other wildlife, and hike along some gorgeous easy-to-moderate nature trails. There are two picnic shelters, picnic tables and a nearby playground.
Certified cave divers can explore Emerald Sink and Clearcut Sink but scuba diving is not permitted in Wakulla Springs. And, if you’re not afraid of heights, you can dive into the springs from the 22-foot-high observation deck. Locals have been daring each other to do it for generations.
For anyone who wishes to stay on site, there’s a 27-room lodge with a restaurant and gift shop. The lodge was built in the 1930s and is worth a look for the impressive Tennessee marble and cypress wood throughout.
Admission is $2 per pedestrian or bicyclist; $4 per vehicle with a single occupant, and $6 per vehicle with two to eight occupants. Riverboat tours are $8 for ages 13 and up; $5 for 3–12-year-olds, and free for children under 3.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
People have been visiting Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Spring Hill on Florida’s Gulf Coast — about an hour’s drive north of Tampa — for decades. And although the 72-degree freshwater springs and gorgeous natural setting are certainly a draw, most come here specifically to see the park’s famous mermaids.
A 400-seat theater submerged in the springs was designed in 1947 and for more than 70 years, mermaids have performed here to the delight of crowds from around the world. It sounds kitschy — and it is — but this is one of Old Florida’s most beloved attractions and shouldn’t be missed. It’s a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.” The show is very well done but parts of it can be scary for little kids.
The park is also notable for its first-magnitude spring. That means it’s one of the largest types of springs, discharging at least 2,800 liters of water per second. The spring also feeds Buccaneer Bay waterpark, with its swimming area, lazy river and four waterslides. There are covered picnic pavilions and a seasonal restaurant.
You can also take a riverboat ride here, snorkel in the springs, participate in a wildlife-spotting program or kayak the Weeki Wachi River. Cave divers will know Weeki Wachi as it’s the deepest freshwater cave system in America.
Admission is $13 for adults; $8 for kids 6–12, and kids 5 and under are free.
Silver Springs State Park
You’ll find the 4,800-acre Silver Springs State Park in Marion County just east of downtown Ocala in Central Florida. It’s one of America’s largest freshwater springs and visitors come to check out the underwater sights via glass-bottom boat, tour the surrounding gardens, explore the historic buildings that are part of the park, paddle along the Silver River, visit Mammoth Spring at the river’s mouth and hike through a primeval forest. There’s an on-site restaurant and sweet shop.
If you want to mix in some education on your visit, head to the Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center at the park’s campground entrance. The main part of the museum details Florida geology, paleontology, archaeology and natural history while the second section focuses on exhibits of interest to Marion County and Florida history. Across from the museum, you can explore Cracker Village, a replica of a 19th-century pioneer settlement.
Admission is $2 per pedestrian or bicyclist; $4 per single-occupant vehicle, or $8 per vehicle with two to eight people. Museum admission is $2 per person. Kids under 6 are free. Thirty-minute glass-bottom boat tours cost $12 for adults, and $11 for seniors 55+ and kids 6–12. Children 5 and under are free. Campsites are $24 per night and cabins cost $110 to rent per night.
Caladesi Island State Park
On a barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, Caladesi Island State Park — just west of Dunedin and a 15-minute drive northwest of Clearwater — is a slice of unspoiled beauty in Pinellas County. What keeps this place pristine is the fact that you need to take a private boat or a 20-minute ferry from Honeymoon Island to get there. (Round-trip ferry fares for a four-hour stay on the island are $16 for adults; $8 for kids 6–12, and free for children 5 and under.)
The pace here is slow and all about nature. The white-sand beach is spectacular, strewn with shells and sand dollars. You may even see gopher tortoises during your outing. (Beach chairs and umbrellas are available to rent.)
You can also hike the three-mile-long nature trail. Just watch your step for Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. Partway down the trail, you’ll happen upon the 1880s Scharrer Homestead. It’s just a foundation and chimney now but you can imagine what the home was like in its heyday.
People visit the island to go fishing or paddle along a marked trail through the bayside mangroves. Depending on the day, you should spy dolphins, roseate spoonbills, manatees or bald eagles. (Kayaks are for rent at $25 per person.) If you bring food, you can picnic under the palms, live oaks and 100-year-old slash pines. Or, buy a meal at Cafe Caladesi at the marina. If you’re traveling with children, there’s a playground near the picnic grounds.
Admission is $2 per pedestrian or bicyclist; $4 per single-occupant vehicle, or $8 per vehicle with two to eight people. If you arrive by boat, it’s $6 for up to eight people, and $2 for each additional person or $2 per kayaker. Floating docks for camping by boat at the marina go for $24 per night.
Lovers Key State Park
Many visitors head to Lee County on Florida’s Gulf Coast for the beaches, barrier islands, resorts and cottages. If you’ve flown into Southwest International Airport (RSW) — or have driven to the Fort Myers Beach area — check out Lovers Key State Park. The 712-acre park is comprised of Lovers Key plus three additional barrier isles: Black Island, Inner Key and Long Key.
The two-mile stretch of beach at Lovers Key is popular for day trips and wedding ceremonies; there’s a gazebo right on the beach with incredible sunset views. The shelling here is fantastic but always remember to check to make sure no one is “home.” It’s illegal to take a live shell from a Florida beach.
But, there’s more to this state park than just the beach. Due to the barrier islands and the canals between them and Florida’s mainland, the park is home to mangrove forests. Kayak or paddle board through the canals and lagoons in search of graceful West Indian manatees and bottle-nose dolphins. If you plan to fish, stop at Lovers Key Boat Ramp to pick up some bait and then fish from your kayak, any of the park’s bridges or even the beach.
There are also nature hikes through the maritime hammock forest to suit most fitness levels, including the five-mile multi-use Black Island Trail. Use foot power or a bike (you can rent one on site) to explore sights like a butterfly garden. Along the trail, you’ll also view backwater areas where herons, roseate spoonbills and egrets spend their days. And, yes, this is Florida, so American alligators make their home in the park’s freshwater ponds. You’ll see gopher tortoises here too.
A Welcome and Discovery Center — including an exhibit hall, community room, space for picnicking, outdoor exploration areas and new restrooms — will open in January 2021. Admission is $2 per pedestrian or bicyclist; $4 per single-occupant vehicle, or $8 per vehicle with two to eight people.
Gasparilla Island State Park
Fishermen from around the world visit Gasparilla Island State Park, a barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast. The fish camps were founded by the Spanish along these shores in the 1700s to source fish for Cuba. The fishing here has been superb year-round ever since, from the saltwater fishing spots adjacent to the park as well as along the deep waters of Boca Grande Pass, which connects Charlotte Harbor to the Gulf of Mexico. Grouper, tarpon and snook are the main catches here. You can also cast for whiting, sheepshead and redfish right from the beach. May and June are the most popular months for fishing.
If you have no desire to fish, Gasparilla is still a great park to visit for swimming and a beach walk, shelling (especially good in the winter months) or snorkeling. You may even see loggerhead or green turtles and gopher tortoises in the park.
There are two shaded areas with scenic water views for picnicking. And, you can also visit the 1890 Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and museum. Florida only has six lighthouses open to the public — and this is the only one on the state’s west coast — so you should make a point to check it out. The museum shares information about the Calusa Native Americans, tarpon fishing in Boca Grande Pass and the phosphate industry that grew up in this area in the 1900s.
Admission is $2 per pedestrian or bicyclist, or $3 per vehicle up to eight occupants.
Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park
If you drive about 35 minutes south of Southwest International Airport, you’ll find Delnor Wiggins Pass State Park in the tourist-friendly city of Naples. Although some of the state parks on this list are more out of the way, Delnor-Wiggins Pass is very popular and parking can get tight. But, once in the park itself, there’s plenty of room for everyone. If you want to rent beach chairs and umbrellas, kayaks or stand-up paddle boards, head to the concessionaire at Parking Lot 4. Food and drinks also are sold there or bring a picnic.
While the park spans nearly 200 acres, 80% of it is submerged or mangrove swamp. That’s what makes it an incredible place to go birding or kayaking while you look for dolphins, manatees and sea turtles.
One of Florida’s prettiest, the beach at Delnor-Wiggins is about a mile long. Consisting of soft white quartz sand, its beach is nearly always strewn with seashells — so wear water shoes. It offers jaw-dropping views of the Gulf of Mexico, especially at sunset. Loggerhead sea turtles nest on this beach and it’s an impressive sight to see the 275-pound turtles sharing the beach with sunbathers.
Admission is $2 per pedestrian or bicyclist; $4 per single-occupant vehicle, or $6 per vehicle with two to eight people. The boat ramp fee is $5.
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park
If you want to experience amazing views of Biscayne Bay and Miami’s South Beach, climb 109 spiral steps to the top of the Cape Florida Lighthouse at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. This park mixes wildlife and Floridian history so you can walk away from a visit with some additional context about the early years in the state. The lighthouse and its keepers’ cottage are thought to be the oldest historic structures in Miami-Dade County. Erected in 1825, the lighthouse is a survivor. It’s kept the harbor safe despite almost 200 years of weather erosion, hurricanes, a lantern oil and gun power explosion and even an attack by Seminole Native Americans. Through it all, the lighthouse has remained.
There’s a gorgeous beach (you can rent chairs and umbrellas from the concessionaire) and fishing piers (though the best shoreline fishing is along the Biscayne Bay seawall). There are also nature trails, a 1.5-mile-long paved — and flat — bike path (bike rentals on site), paddling opportunities and a harbor for boat campers. There’s even a small playground in “Area A” with four swings, four slides and a climbing ladder.
Bring a picnic lunch — there are 18 covered picnic pavilions with views of the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay — or dine at the on-site Lighthouse Cafe.
If you’re staying in the Miami area for a few days, you’ll want to explore this park to the fullest. Admission is $2 per pedestrian or bicyclist; $4 per single-occupant vehicle, or $8 per vehicle with two to eight people. Boats can anchor overnight in No Name Harbor for $20.
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
Wild nature is at its best at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park in Key West, but you should visit to add a bit of context to your understanding of U.S. history. The fort predates the Civil War, having been built in 1845 — the same year Florida became a U.S. state. It served as a fortification during the Civil War and was named after President Zachary Taylor after his death in office in 1850. Later, the fort was used during the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Over time, the need for the fort waned and much of it, including its weaponry, was buried. In the late ’60s, there was a concerted effort to unearth the Civil War-era guns to preserve them for future generations. This National Historic Monument now houses the largest collection of seacoast guns in America. Rangers offer guided tours or you can explore on your own.
If you’re not interested in American History, the park is still worth a visit for its beautiful beach for sunbathing, swimming and snorkeling. Once underwater, you’ll see coral, yellowtail snapper, parrotfish and even lobster. There are also terrific saltwater fishing spots and plenty of shaded picnic areas with grills. There’s also an on-site cafe. Finally, there are nature trails for hiking and biking.
Admission to the southernmost state park in the United States is $2.50 per pedestrian or bicyclist; $4.50 per single-occupant vehicle, or $6 per vehicle with two to eight people (with an additional 50-cent-per-person Monroe County surcharge). The boat ramp fee is $5.
Featured image by Michael Warren/Getty Images
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