A Nature Lover’s Guide to Florida: The 7 Best Hidden Gems, Parks & Springs!
Florida is well-known for its beautiful beaches, theme parks, and lively cities. But the Sunshine State also has a wild side that’s perfect for nature lovers looking to explore off the beaten path. We’ve uncovered 7 of Florida’s best kept secrets – the under-the-radar parks, springs, and hidden gems that offer spectacular scenery and serenity away from the crowds.
Located in the northern part of the Ocala National Forest, Salt Springs is one of the best attractions that this national forest has to offer. The area offers a rich, semi-tropical landscape and a natural spring known for its believed therapeutic properties due to the mineral content in the waters. Hence the name, Salt Springs! The mix of fresh and salty water creates a unique home for wildlife like turtles, fish, and birds. You can bring a snorkel mask to explore the underwater cave system or rent a kayak to casually paddle around, keeping an eye out for herons, wood storks, and maybe even manatees or river otters that hang out in this spring.
Wacissa River Springs
If you’re road tripping through North Florida or Tallahassee, put Wacissa River Springs on your list. This remote spring is one of North Florida’s best-kept secrets. Wacissa Spring is where the Wacissa River begins, with crystal clear water and lily pads surrounded by lush cypress forests. The locals love to go there to swim, boat, and fish. There are actually over a dozen other awesome springs in the area to explore too, including Aucilla Spring.
Morikami Museum and Gardens
The Morikami Museum and Gardens in Palm Beach County is a peaceful, colorful place to visit. The museum educates people about Japanese culture. The beautiful gardens also have an interesting history – a group of Japanese colonists called the Yamato colony lived there in the early 1900s and inspired the gardens. Inside the Yamato-Kan museum building, you can see exhibits of Japanese art and learn about the Yamato colony. There’s also a tea house and cafe where you can chill on the lakefront patio with traditional Japanese tea or food. The gardens themselves cover 16 acres with paths, tons of bonsai trees, and other Japanese plants. The Morikami is a must-see attraction if you’re in the area.
Faver-Dykes State Park
Located in St. Augustine, Faver-Dykes State Park is highlighted by Pellicer Creek – a shallow (2 to 6 feet deep) meandering stream that is one of the purest tidal marshes on the east coast of Florida. The park has an abundance of saltwater and freshwater fish, while also providing excellent opportunities to spot birds and other wildlife. Look for deer, turkeys, hawks, bobcats and river otters. With paddling trails on the creek and campsites, Faver-Dykes makes for a nice off-the-beaten-path weekend camping trip to get out into nature without big crowds.
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park just south of Gainesville is a gorgeous natural area with tons of wildlife. The park is known for its incredible wildlife, including a variety of birds, alligators, and wild horses, as well as its diverse range of recreational opportunities. Hiking is huge at Paynes Prairie, with over 30 miles of trails going from easy nature strolls to hardcore backcountry treks. The park also has boardwalks and lookouts so you can check out the scenery without disturbing the habitat. Beyond hiking, people come to Paynes Prairie to fish, go horseback riding, and camp – you can even camp with your horse if you want!
The Kampong Botanical Garden
The Kampong Botanical Garden is one of the most unique spots to experience nature in Florida. It’s a botanical garden located in the oldest part of Miami – Coconut Grove. This place is filled with tons of rare, exotic plants and fruits from South East Asia and the tropics. There’s plenty to love about strolling through the Kampong – you’ll find weird fruits you never knew about like cocoplums (which aren’t actually coconut-plum hybrids), egg fruits and even peanut butter fruits! Spending an afternoon wandering around these gardens is a nice escape into nature for a unique experience.
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
Over on the Atlantic coast near Vero Beach is Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge – a nature lover’s paradise. It’s got awesome mangrove and salt marsh habitats that you can check out on the two 3-mile hiking loops or from the 500-foot observation tower. Pelican Island was opened in 1903 as the very first national wildlife refuge in the whole country. Over 130 different bird species call this place home, like brown pelicans, yellow-crowned night herons, bald eagles.
Florida has no shortage of spectacular beaches and amusement parks, but we hope this guide steers you off the beaten path to experience the true wild heart of the Sunshine State. As you check out these hidden gem state parks, springs, gardens, and wildlife refuges, you’ll be able to really relax or find adventure; see fascinating creatures and environments; and go home with a new appreciation for Florida’s unique nature spots.