My Florida map is stretched out on the table along with a list of state and national parks. I’m planning another authentic Florida staycation, my favorite getaway.
A staycation is a special trip where you get away, but remain close to home. Why not stay in Florida and take advantage of our glorious natural resources? Florida’s state and national parks are my go-to destinations for fun and relaxation. Most of our parks remain undiscovered and underutilized yet filled with tremendous beauty, adventures and new discoveries. And if you are looking for serenity and relaxation, I promise you’ll find it. You just have to know what you want to do and how far you want to travel. When I feel the need for a Caribbean vacation, I just head to the turquoise waters, blue skies and colorful coral reefs of the Florida Keys for the underwater marine sanctuaries and tropical parks. When I need to cool down and pack in some family fun, I head to Florida’s natural water parks – our refreshing springs and rivers. When I want a romantic beach vacation, I find lesser-known island hideaways. When I want a more vigorous natural getaway, I look for the parks that offer adventurous hiking, biking and kayaking fun - and anything in between.
Did I mention affordable? Entrance to most Florida State and national parks will cost you less than $10 – and that’s usually per carload, not an individual ticket price. How many places can you go for that price?
For accommodations, you can choose to stay in a park or find lodging nearby or outside the park. I have been amazed with the offerings within the parks that feature anything from campsites to ultra-deluxe cabins and even a few lodges.
So, where to go? Well, it depends on where you live and where you want to travel. There are around 11 National Parks and 160 State Parks in Florida, plus a number of preservation and recreation areas, so you might want to do a little advance planning. The State of Florida has divided its parks into five Districts – there’s the northwest, northeast, central, southwest and southeast regions – and they all feature a unique part of Florida.
Beginning with northwest Florida, I am huge fan of the parks south of Tallahassee. If you haven’t been to Wakulla Springs State Park, don’t miss its translucent blue spring and the wild Wakulla River with its Tarzan-like riverboat cruise. Farther south, try the St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, with spectacular views from the crystal white sand dunes. Add to that the pristine St. George Island State Park near Apalachicola. Plus two of my all-time favorite destinations are the St. Vincent and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges, both of which are on Authentic Florida’s “bucket” list.
Some northeast favorites are the Suwannee River State Park or the Ichetucknee Springs State Park, a legendary tubing river and University of Florida “rite of passage.” One of the sweetest and best state parks is Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s historical home where the famed author wrote The Yearling. If you haven’t been to Florida’s Nature Coast, don’t miss the Crystal River Preserve and the Homosassa Springs State Park.
The Central Florida region is my personal favorite for family fun. The Ocala National Forest is hard to beat and there is no better kayak trip than a ride down the Juniper Springs Run. On the eastern edge of the forest, is the scenic Blue Spring State Park. (It’s always worth a stop but if you’re there during the winter, you’ll see a huge concentration of manatees.) Going south from there, stop at the Wekiva Springs, the Lower Wekiva River and Rock Springs River Preserve State Parks, and you’ll have covered some of our state’s finest. Head toward the east coast and you will find another authentic Florida reader favorite, Tomoka State Park at Ormond Beach.
Crossing back to the Gulf side and heading south, where I live, there are plenty of parks from which to choose. If you want authentic beaches, head to the Caladesi State Park, north of Clearwater, or Don Pedro and Stump Pass Beach State Parks south of Sarasota. For one of my all time favorites, head to Cayo Costa State Park near Sanibel Island – accessible only by boat, it is a real Florida island with a pristine beach. If you are ready to get cool on a river, try unplugging on the scenic Hillsborough River near Tampa (Sargeant Memorial Park is a good starting point), or the Estero River (while taking in the Koreshan State Park) near Ft. Myers. The aptly named Peace River flows through four counties as it meanders to Charlotte Harbor. Arcadia is a good place to gain access to the Peace River.
Be sure that Everglades National Park is on your list, but plan a fall or winter trip for maximum wildlife viewing, not to mention more comfortable temperatures. Nearby, check out the Fakahatchee Strand State Park (where I saw my first Florida panther in the wild), and take in a swamp walk at the Big Cypress Preserve with famed photographer Clyde Butcher who has a unique gallery near Ochopee.
Summer is the best time to visit Florida’s east coast to see the nesting turtles between New Smyrna Beach and Boca Raton. Book a Florida Sea Turtle Walk (soon) at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Preserve, Canaveral National Seashore, Sebastian Inlet State Park or John Lloyd and John D. MacArthur State Parks. Or if you need tropical island time, head to the Florida Keys and take in the John Pennekamp State Park to explore the underwater reef, or enjoy the outstanding island parks of Indian, Lignumvitae and Long Keys, or one of the best, Bahia Honda State Park.
Authentic Florida staycations are both easy and affordable. No airport travel, no lines, and no fuss. You don’t need a lot of planning, just a desire to seek authentic Florida at it’s best. Isn't it time to get away?