From the panhandle to the Keys, the imposing centuries-old ramparts of the Spanish forts on St. Augustine to the snow-white sand shores of South Beach, there is very little Florida doesn’t have to offer.
Visitors to The Sunshine State can sip a cocktail in Hemingway’s favorite bar, walk in the footsteps of some of the very earliest non-indigenous settlers, fan boat through the Everglades, or simply take a long, leisurely drive down the Gulf on 30A Highway. There is quite literally something for everyone!
What may surprise some is the incredible range of natural and historical options that are a little bit off the beaten path — “the real Florida,” as the locals say. This sunny vacation state’s history stretches back to the Spanish settling of St. Augustine in 1565.
Between the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters and the crashing foam of the Atlantic, there is a treasure trove of attractions to experience. Thankfully, the National and State Parks systems preserve these gems.
Below are a few must-visit state parks the next time it gets a little too chilly, and a sunscreen-soaked getaway is just what the doctor ordered:
Amelia Island State Park: This site should rank right at the top of the list for unique, can’t-miss vacation spots in the Southeast. It’s a perfect example of the “real Florida,” far from Disney’s well-trafficked, commercialized theme parks and the glistening highrises of downtown Miami. This park preserves some 200 acres of untouched wilderness at the tip of Amelia Island, just a short drive from Jacksonville. The unspoiled beaches and salt marshes leading into magical maritime forests draw thousands of visitors yearly to commune with untouched nature. Visitors can stroll the beaches in search of shark teeth or gorgeous seashells, wet a fishing line along the coast, or wander the nearby forests in search of wildlife. A bonus is that Amelia Island is the only Florida State Park where horseback riding is allowed. So come on down, saddle up, and experience all this jewel has to offer!
Big Lagoon State Park: Another in the “real Florida” category, this destination offers an experience unlike any other in the state. Sure, visitors to Big Lagoon near Pensacola can hike, swim, boat, camp, or fish, but the most adventurous can put in a kayak for a more than 1,500-mile journey on the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail that carries paddlers around the entire state. As if that weren’t enough, this site is also the start of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. It offers nature lovers the chance to see 23 species of wood-warbler and a cornucopia of ducks, sandpipers, and local black-bellied plovers, so don’t forget those binoculars.
Highlands Hammock State Park: This hidden gem, far from the sandy beaches that bless the three coastal sides of the Florida Peninsula, offers more rare and endemic species of wildlife and plant life than anywhere else in the state. This park allows visitors to hike under the canopy of towering oaks and hydric hammock trees in the footsteps of black bears, Florida panthers, deer, and even alligators while preserving an incredible and fragile ecosystem. One can also traverse the elevated trails through the beautiful cypress swamps. When it’s time for a break from the hike, stop into the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum and learn all about the incredible people who had a hand in building and preserving this amazing state park.