Where the wild things are: 8 amazing experiences in southern Florida

May 17, 2016                 6m read time
Elizabeth Alberts


Come check out what the Florida gators are all about—and no, we don't mean college sports. We're talking about the wildlife. From spotting alligators to snorkeling with manatees, plenty of sunny adventures await in southern Florida.

When people think of the Sunshine State, they often picture skyscraper hotels in Fort Lauderdale, glitzy cocktail lounges in Miami, and the behemoth of all theme parks, Walt Disney World. But for nature lovers and adventure seekers, Florida’s wild* places are the real allure (*when I say “wild,” I don’t mean a crazy night of clubbing at Cameo). Besides, who wants to stand in a two-hour line for Splash Mountain when there are 160 state parks and trails spanning mangrove forests, coastal ecosystems and thick woodlands to be found? From kayaking to hiking, swimming to manatee watching, here are eight amazing spots to get immersed in Florida’s wildest terrain.

1. Manatees. Need we say more?

Manatees from Visit Citrus Visit Citrus

Manatees from Visit Citrus

Visit Citrus

 

There’s only one place in the world where you can swim, snorkel, kayak or SUP near West Indian Manatees. If that’s not reason enough to visit the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge a few hours north of Tampa, we don’t know what is. Sweet-natured and docile, these languid floating potatoes inhabit the brackish waters of this azure oasis year round, so chances of encountering one (or many!) of these plant-munching bovines of the sea are pretty dang solid. But know before you go: The Endangered Species Act forbids touching a manatee unless it touches you first. Manatees, however, don’t need to follow any rules. They’re very social and will oftentimes come to you for a belly rub. Just refrain from touching one of these inquisitive critters with more than one hand at a time—two-hand touch is illegal.

2. See plenty of (reptilian) teeth in Shark Valley

Alligator in Florida Dennis Church

Alligator in Florida

Dennis Church

 

Alligators are a thing in Florida, like Spam in Hawaii or plaid flannel shirts in Alaska. While touristy spots including “Gatorland” tout up-close sightings of 15-footers with names like “Bonecrusher II,” equally thrilling encounters await in the wild—sans kitsch and kids. Lay all “Swamp Wars”-fueled preconceptions aside with a visit to the misleadingly-named Shark Valley in Everglades National Park, where clear, shallow waters, lush mangrove forests and a river of grass characterize one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. A bike or tram ride through the valley’s 15-mile paved loop guarantees up-close glimpses of sunbathing alligators, essentially the equivalent of pigeons around these parts (ubiquitous and generally apathetic to ogling visitors). Just don’t try and feed them—unlike pigeons, these guys will actually take your hand off.

3. Experience a true Florida waterway

Loxahatchee River in Florida William Silver

Loxahatchee River in Florida

William Silver

 

Next stop on our wild Florida ride is the Loxahatchee River—one of the state’s two designated National Wild and Scenic rivers. Rent a canoe or kayak from Riverbend Park’s Canoe Outfitters, then drift and daydream down an 8.5-mile “paddle trail” flowing through twisting mangrove sanctuaries and bright green marshes, eventually arriving at Jonathan Dickinson State Park. As you wind past osprey nests, turtles sunning themselves on logs, curious manatees and still-as-a-statue gators, gain a sense of what a truly unchanged Florida waterway looks like—and why this protected area is touted as one of the state’s most unique treasures.

4. Sea turtles, snorkeling and scenery for days

John U Lloyd State Park in Florida FloridaStock

John U Lloyd State Park in Florida

FloridaStock

 

Most beaches around Fort Lauderdale are heavily developed, packed to the gills with boardwalks, skyscraper hotels and strip malls. But shift the coordinates a smidge south (a half-hour drive, to be exact) and suddenly...we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. The beaches of John U. Lloyd State Park remain au-naturale, its winding shorelines fringed with undulating dune grasses and world-class, snorkeler-friendly waters rich with marine life. Besides being a peaceful place to sprawl out on the sand with a copy of [insert your favorite summer read here], the recreational outlets in this park are as limitless as our enthusiasm for TURTLES. Reserve your spot for a guided evening tour like this one for a chance to witness a mamma loggerhead digging her nest and laying eggs. During the day, be sure to snag a kayak or paddleboard and explore the local gem that is Whiskey Creek. A former arterial for Prohibition-era rum runners, this scenic waterway holds its share of secrets and history.

5. Soak in the Fountain of Youth(-ish)

Wekiwa Springs State Park in Florida Maegan

Wekiwa Springs State Park in Florida

Maegan

 

People flocked to Wekiwa Springs State Park in the early 1900s, believing its soothing waters possessed healing properties for a variety of ailments. While the remedial powers of this emerald Eden have never been scientifically proven, its natural pools continue to be a popular spot for both Floridians and tourists, thanks in part to its 20-minute proximity to Orlando. Also, who doesn’t love a good soak in year-round 72-degree water surrounded by moss-draped trees and grassy lawns perfect for afternoon catnaps? While the spring itself tends to be the main attraction, consider making a day of it: With 13 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails, opportunities abound to get immersed in 7,000 acres of untouched Florida ecology.

6. Where John Muir would hang out, if he lived in Florida

Apalachicola National Forest in Florida Leighton Photography & Imaging

Apalachicola National Forest in Florida

Leighton Photography & Imaging

 

We’ll bet a dollar you can’t pronounce “Apalachicola” on the first try, and we’ll bet $100 that a leisurely stroll along this national forest’s freshwater streams—which meander amid cypress swamps shaded by longleaf pines—will leave you perfectly refreshed. Sitting at the southern edge of Tallahassee and encompassing 500,000 acres, the state’s largest national forest teems with enough rare flora to make botanists go bananas. Keep an eye out for Florida skullcaps, white birds-in-a-nest and (the mildly horrifying) carnivorous “pitcher plants” that bloom along its western edge. The forest is also home to a number of endangered animals, including the red-cockaded woodpecker. This rich ecosystem is visitor-friendly, beckoning nature enthusiasts with scenic driving roads, a hiking trail system and peaceful waterways for canoeing.

7. Take a walk on the wild side in bear territory

Black Bear Wilderness Area in Florida Rain0975

Black Bear Wilderness Area in Florida

Rain0975

 

When you’re done scouring the scrub for endangered species, it’s time to get wild—“Jungle Book"-style—in a patch of Florida just a half hour north of central Orlando. True to its name, the 1,600-acre Black Bear Wilderness Area is prime real estate for black bear sightings, with the shy omnivores roaming among cypress swamps along the St. Johns River. Try your luck on the seven-mile Black Bear Wilderness Loop Trail, a rugged yet stunning route with boardwalks traversing marshes and swamps through shaded glens. Even if the bears don’t feel like making an appearance, chances of spotting other critters in this wildlife-rich wetland habitat—including river otters and American alligators—are promising. If seven miles is too long, consider the two-mile Black Bear Wilderness Walk.

8. Explore sunken vessels and artificial reefs

Biscayne National Park in Florida Greg Grimes

Biscayne National Park in Florida

Greg Grimes

 

Talk about a water wonderland: A whopping 95 percent of Biscayne National Park’s 172,000 acres is submerged, making it the largest marine park in the entire National Parks system. The Maritime Heritage Trail is basically H20 heaven for divers: Head here to explore a string of sunken vessels and artificial reefs informally known as “Shipwreck Trail”, the final resting place for nine wrecks including a 1733 Spanish steamship that once carried fancy-pants cargo like silks, silverware and pianos. Even if scuba isn’t your thing, there’s plenty of magical snorkeling at shallower sites like the Mandalay, a 128-foot cruise schooner from the 1960s that rests only 10 feet deep.

No matter your cup of tea—be it alligator encounters, a soak in healing springs or getting lost in an underwater ship graveyard—these adventures will put you in the mystical wetlands, the bluest waters and the sunniest shores of Florida’s wildest places. Pack your snorkel and sunblock: The sunshine state is calling.

Elizabeth Alberts

Elizabeth Alberts is a creative writer and journalist whose work has appeared in publications like Audubon, Earth Island Journal, Alternatives Journal, Afar, Wild, and The Dodo. Follow her at @ECAlberts.

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