All 50 states have their own state parks, but only Florida has the National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in the management of state park systems three times. Since 1935, Florida has been dedicated to protecting the beautiful, historic and calming places that reflect the natural essence of the state. With its diverse ecosystems an army of managers, rangers, volunteers, and support staff dedicated to preserving our waters, woods, springs, prairies, barrier islands, and historic sites, Florida parks are a notch above the rest. We’ve put together the top 10 national and state parks in Florida where you’ll find hiking, white beaches, migrating birds, horseback riding, and more. Travel across the state and find some great Florida vacation rentals as unique as the parks you’re about to visit.
1. Dry Tortugas National Park
Located off the coast of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is made up of seven small islands and is one of the world’s most unique eco-attractions. The most popular attraction here is historic Fort Jefferson. It was once used as a prison during the Civil War. You can also spend your day snorkeling and skin diving, or visit the best beach in the Florida Keys. If you’d rather stay dry, the seven islands of Dry Tortugas are a vital layover for migratory birds making it a perfect destination for bird watching.
2. Biscayne National Park
This snorkeler’s paradise is the largest marine park in the national park system. In fact, it’s an underwater park with 95% of the park covered by water. Biscayne National Park protects Biscayne Bay from Key Biscayne south to Key Largo as well as s a portion of the Florida Reef to the east, and an unbroken stretch of Miamis mangrove shoreline to the west. Most visitors come to see the marine life, but Biscayne National Park also has a fascinating history.
3. The Everglades National Park
The Everglades is one of the more miraculous natural wonders in Florida, and the Everglades National Park covers a million and a half acres. Yes, you read that right, a million! It’s the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. The park was established in 1947 for its biological diversity. It’s also recognized globally as a World Heritage Site, a Wetland of International Importance and an International Biosphere Reserve. See flocks of roseate spoonbills, alligators, and winding mangrove forests. Hike, bike, kayak, and spend the night in one of the three campgrounds.
4. Gulf Islands National Seashore
Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola gives you a rare chance to see the migration of monarch butterflies from Mexico. It’s also one of the most scenic places in Florida to visit. The 12 units of the park protect a series of barrier islands off the Gulf Coast and offer snorkeling, fishing, bicycling, and more. Hike the bayous and coastal forests on the Mississippi side and explore several impressive brick forts on the Florida side, including historic Civil War forts and a Spanish colonial structure dating back to 1797. Or, just relax on the sparkling white sands.
5. Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve
They call the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve “Jacksonville’s Central Park,” but at 46,000 acres, it’s more than five times the size of New York’s Central Park. Visit the reconstructed Fort Caroline or the restored Kingsley Plantation, the oldest still standing plantation home. At the north end of Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve is Little Talbot Island State Park where Nassau Sound scours the shoreline. On the other nearby islands, you can kayak, fish off the pier, or go horseback riding. There’s something for everyone!
6. The St. Johns River
The St. Johns River flows towards the north, but because its descent barely exceeds an inch a mile, making it one of the “laziest” rivers in the world. Sometimes the river even flows backward! At 310 miles, it’s the longest river in Florida, and it seasonally fills Lake George a hundred miles upstream with shrimp attracting netters from everywhere. There are also plenty of opportunities for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and boating, plus some unusual houseboat vacation rentals.
7. Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park
The 54,000 acre Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park protects the largest remaining stretch of Florida dry prairie. Enjoy the sweeping vistas of grasslands as you take the five-mile-long drive into the preserve. Once you get there, the preserve offers excellent seasonal birding opportunities, and more than 100 miles of dirt roads for hikers, bicyclists and equestrians. Visit between November and March to take a ranger-led prairie buggy tour allowing you to see remote areas of the preserve.
8. Lake Okeechobee
Lake Okeechobee is often referred to as Florida’s inland sea and is well-known for superior fishing, boating, and trails. On the lake’s southern shore, Clewiston offers the most for vacationers looking to catch some of the lake’s legendary largemouth bass and speckled perch. It’s also known as “America’s Sweetest Town,” so be sure to do the Sugarland Express tour of a local farm and mill, and a three-hour boat cruise that explains the lake’s historic and natural heritage.
9. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is one of 15 marine protected areas that make up the National Marine Sanctuary System. The Sanctuary protects 2,900 square nautical miles of waters surrounding the Florida Keys. Here, you can experience the worlds third largest barrier reef, extensive seagrass beds, mangrove-fringed islands, and more than 6,000 species of marine life. You can also take advantage of world-class diving, swimming, snorkeling, and fishing.
10. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
Head off the beaten path to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. It covers more than 140,000 acres of land, water, and marshes adjacent to Cape Canaveral. In 1062, this land was acquired by NASA to establish the John F. Kennedy Space Center, but the development of most of the area was not necessary. A year later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement to establish the refuge, and today, visitors from all over come for hiking, boating, and more.
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