Visiting Florida on Your Next Road Trip

Florida is a beautiful state, 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’s certainly more to Florida than oranges and Walt Disney World, including luxurious Florida RV camping resorts 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 shores prevail. The Gulf Islands National Seashore in Gulf Breeze stretches some 150 miles along the Gulf of Mexico’s coastline, from Pensacola, at Florida’s northwest edge, to Davis Bayou and the barrier islands at Ocean Springs, Mississippi. This national saltwater treasure is a kaleidoscope of turquoise water, bright white sand dunes, seaside marshes, wooded nature trails, historic fortresses and archaeological sites that tell the long-ago stories of Native American inhabitants. Visitors are free to camp, hike, swim and fish 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 have also been known to share the park’s sandy terrain with such “locals” as diamondback terrapins, armadillos and sea turtles.

Florida’s huge, outdoor playground is open for all seasons and so are most Florida campgrounds which makes this state a snowbird paradise.

The Emerald Coast Beaches at Navarre, Fort Walton, Destin, and Santa Rosa are shining examples of Northwest Florida’s gulf coastline. 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. Don’t 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 at this park is certainly the ranger-guided tour of Florida Caverns and the explanations of its diverse calcite formations – stalagmites, stalactites, columns and brimstones. But don’t worry about the geological terminology, there won’t be a test later.  Of course, there are cave critters to reckon with, including several species of (gasp!) bats. However, the park also shelters some surprising species like 200-pound alligators, snapping turtles, barred owls and beavers. The budding geologists in your crew should enjoy the marine fossils embedded in the cave’s ceilings and walls that tell a fascinating tale of Florida Caverns’ ancient underwater past. When it’s time to ascend to the park’s ground level, the choice of activities is delightfully well-rounded. Swimming, fishing, camping, hiking, biking, horseback riding and canoeing are readily available. The scenery includes atypical plant life such as orchids, flame azalea, columbine and assorted wildflowers, adding a dash of color to the trip.  

In north central Florida, travelers enter a world of winding rivers, chilly, freshwater springs, and refreshing, green forests. The Ichetucknee River at Fort White is a hot spot 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). At Ichetucknee Springs, the crystal-clear river is fed by multiple springs that supply an awesome daily influx of 233 million gallons of water. And tubers can’t help but “chill out” as the river registers a bracing, year-round temperature of 72?F. Tubing excursions at Ichetucknee are nearly effortless since there are shuttle buses between approved launch 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 crevices at the bottom. Alas, the sinkhole’s contents, in the form of seashells, sharks’ teeth, and fossilized animal relics, have given 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 upper rim. The inside of Devil’s Millhopper features small streams rushing down its sheer walls and verdant plant growth, such as 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 to the “big city,” these isles provide a refreshing sense of escape from civilization. Better yet, they offer convenient oceanside parking for your RV and easy boardwalk access to five miles of unspoiled Atlantic beaches. Besides exploring sandy shores, flowering dunes, 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 them.    

Anastasia State Recreation Area, a barrier island east of St. Augustine, is one of Florida’s best and busiest coastal parks, and so we recommend when staying at a Florida campground nearby you make reservations in advance. It offers all the beach blanket basics – a sandy coastline, rolling waves, scenic dunes, a lagoon, tidal marshes and sea meadows. It also offers chances to swim, fish, kayak, or learn the graceful art of windsurfing. For those who simply want a little R&R, head to 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 trails, magnolia trees and fascinating 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 offers a pleasing mix of ancient oak hammocks, sandy dunes, salt marshes, mangroves, ocean beaches 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 major winter home not only for legions of migrating birds, but native sandpipers, ibises, and wood storks. Green turtles, whales, alligators and diamondback rattlesnakes (FYI, avoid these) may be seen from area beaches while hiking or paddling canoe trails, or on the refuge’s scenic, seven-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive. For visitors who’d like to catch their own dinner, shrimping, crabbing, clamming, freshwater or surf-fishing and/or regulated waterfowl hunting are permitted at Merritt Island.

Established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge near Sebastian on the Indian River Lagoon was America’s very first wildlife refuge. Scores of threatened 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 see jet-black anhingas and assorted varieties 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 sanctuary. The 1903 introduction of the island’s protected status signaled the momentous start of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System.

When tourists proceed west into the heart of Florida, they enter a land of freshwater lakes, dense woodlands, and bubbling springs. Ocala National Forest is the southernmost national forest in the continental U.S. and the first such forest established east of the Mississippi River. There are highlands, lowlands, swamps and a splendid abundance of pine, cypress, and palm trees. This dynamic destination has much to offer, including hundreds of sparkling lakes, springs and two major 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 views in Ocala’s chilly springs, can they? Paddling on canoe trails, horseback riding, and hiking on Florida’s National Scenic Trail are also popular pastimes. After all, there’s more than 430,000 acres to cover, so you might want to leave yourself a little time to explore. And when you do, you may happen upon black bears, bald eagles and other rare species seldom 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 resorts offer resort packages that include these activities and more with your stay at their campground.

The wooded terrain around Lake Kissimmee in Lake Wales was once the homeland of Native Americans who were drawn to the area because of its bounty of fish, plants and animals. Today’s travelers seem equally smitten, especially those who like to hike, ride horse, boat about or fish Florida’s third largest lake. Trophy bass are plentiful in its waters. Keen observers spot whooping cranes, bobcats, fox squirrels, deer and wild turkeys along Lake Kissimmee’s shoreline.

Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park invites visitors to learn first-hand about Florida’s native animals 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 into the scenic Homosassa River. The spring itself is home to more than 30 species of fish. The adjacent wildlife park presents interactive animal exhibits, 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 almost rub elbows with gentle manatees at the underwater observatory.

The Myakka River near Sarasota offers natural adventures on one of Florida’s finest “wild and scenic” waterways. This river meanders past wetlands, hammocks, prairies and pinelands, all prime locations for canoeing, angling, biking and wildlife viewing. Sightings of deer, alligators, hawks, bobcats and lunker bass are common. And for guests who prefer a guided tour, Myakka’s splendor can be viewed from narrated tram and airboat tours.

Florida’s southwest region offers world-renowned shelling, island getaways and glowing Gulf coast sunsets. J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island is the most prominent example of enduring local conservation efforts. Founded in 1945, the 6,000-acre sanctuary was formally dedicated in 1978 to Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, a political cartoonist and staunch environmentalist who fought to preserve Sanibel’s fragile ecosystem. Wildlife Drive, a one-way, five-mile road winding through the island’s bay side, grants visitors a potential glimpse of nearly 400 resident animal species. Depending 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” at the southern tip of mainland Florida. It’s a place where Caribbean plants and animals coexist in a curious mix 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, elusive Florida panthers, more than 300 varieties of birds, and the Everglades’ most prolific species, mosquitoes.

The Everglades National Park, North America’s only subtropical preserve, is a 1.5 million-acre “sea of grass.”

One of the best attractions in the Florida Keys is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, America’s first undersea preserve, located in Key Largo. For the marine species that live there, the park protects and showcases the only living coral reef in the continental United States. For 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 an ideal way to see the sights (narrated, too). Otherwise, grab a snorkel and some fins. Scuba dive or paddle a “spyak” (a customized kayak with a big, transparent viewing floor) for an even closer look. One of Pennekamp’s many masterpieces is a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium where tropical fish, sharks, snappers and groupers swim within inches of landlocked observers.

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. The birds of the Caribbean, such as brown pelicans, great white herons and deep pink roseate spoonbills, make Bahia Honda an engaging stop for avid birders.

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