Florida is blessed with unique geography and an abundance of protected natural areas that make it a perfect spot for ecotourism. A peninsula that stretches from the South’s coastal plains toward the Tropic of Cancer — with the Gulf of Mexico on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on another side and the Caribbean Sea to the south — Florida encompasses a variety of natural habitats from coastal dunes to limestone caverns, desert-like scrublands to prairie, saltwater marshes to subtropical forests. Its mild winter climate makes Florida a target for more northerly tourists during this time in particular, which is the best time to explore Florida.
Let’s Take a Look at Some Of The Natural Areas in Florida That You May Want To Explore:
Florida’s National Parks, Seashores, Forests, And Wildlife Refuges
- National parks and seashores
- National forests
- National wildlife refuges
Florida’s State Parks, Forests And Wildlife Management Areas
- State parks
- State forests
- Wildlife management areas
- County and regional natural areas
- Privately conserved natural areas
Florida’s National Parks, Seashores, Forests, and Wildlife Refuges
National Parks and Seashores
Perhaps the biggest ecotourism destination in Florida is Everglades National Park, with more than a million visitors each year from around the world. This expansive, wet grassland is unlike any other place in the world. The park is just a portion of the actual ‘Glades, and today’s ‘Glades is just a portion of what it used to be less than a century ago. Everglades National Park is home of the Ten Thousand Islands, several bird species (some endangered) and a place where you can see both alligators and crocodiles in the same environment — which is rare in the world.
North of Everglades National Park’s boundaries is Big Cypress National Preserve. Similar to some parts of Everglades National Park, Big Cypress is home to the endangered Florida panther. The beautiful subtropical landscape includes the cypress trees for which the preserve is named and 31 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail.
Farther west than Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is a small group of islands you can reach only by boat or plane. Popular with birdwatchers, the Dry Tortugas’ remote location in the ocean attracts birds you rarely see elsewhere, especially as birds migrate from North America to South America.
Biscayne National Park is a water wonderland; 95% of the park is water. This park’s best features may be the magnificent coral reef and miles of mangrove shoreline. Boating and fishing are popular here, as are diving and snorkeling, but camping is also available.
Canaveral National Seashore preserves barrier island habitat on the Atlantic Ocean. With beautiful public beaches, scrub habitat, dune hiking trails, and islands in Mosquito Lagoon, there’s a lot to explore.
Gulf Islands National Seashore is unique because it’s made up of 11 islands scattered in Mississippi and Florida. Known for its sugary-white sand, this Panhandle-area seashore is the ultimate place for beachcombers, campers and shorebird watchers.
Florida is proud to have 3 national forests: the Apalachicola near Tallahassee, the state capitol; the Osceola in north-central Florida; and the Ocala (located north of Orlando), which is the southernmost forest in the continental United States. All of these forests have numerous recreation areas for hiking, paddling, swimming, snorkeling or diving.
The Apalachicola National Forest is the largest of the 3 national forests in Florida. It is home to the world’s largest population of red-cockaded woodpeckers, a bird on the endangered species list. Miles of roads and trails enable you to explore this songbird-rich land.
Osceola National Forest, which is south of Okefenokee Swamp (the largest swamp in North America), continues the swampland south from Georgia into Florida with old-growth cypress trees. Osceola National Forest provides important habitat for the Florida black bear, and American robins come here by the thousands in the winter.
Ocala National Forest has many beautiful springs that look as though they are lit up from the underground. This forest contains the largest sand pine habitat — a very endangered habitat — in the world. Combined with rivers, streams and a border facing Lake George (the state’s second-largest lake after Okeechobee), the Ocala is a great place to take a canoe or kayak.
National Wildlife Refuges
The very first national wildlife refuge named is Florida’s own Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, near Sebastian on the central Atlantic coast. There are 28 national wildlife refuges in Florida, most offering ecotourists something different to explore. (Some refugees aren’t open to the public.) Of Florida’s many national wildlife refuges, we think the following provides the best opportunities to explore nature:
Lake Woodruff: Explore this wildlife corridor area in St. Johns River country with its gators, wading birds and swallow-tailed kites
Pelican Island: View birds like brown pelicans and endangered wood storks from the mainland or from a boat
Hobe Sound: Visit where sea turtles lay their eggs on the beach and where osprey hunt for fish
Loxahatchee: Explore this northern section of the Everglades that many Everglades visitors never see
Merritt Island: Hike, bike or drive through brackish marshland rich in wildlife of all kinds
Key Deer: Watch rare Key deer browsing on plants along the roads and look for a variety of birds
J.N. “Ding” Darling: Hike, bike or drive past mudflats and mangroves full of birds, manatees, gators, and crocs
Crystal River & Chassahowitzka: See river otters, dolphins and large numbers of manatees in and around these islands and springs
Lower Suwannee & Cedar Keys: Paddle in 36,000 acres of wetlands and hike through pine forests near the historic Suwannee River to see bald eagles and migratory birds
St. Marks: Get lost in 68,000 acres of marshes, islands, and forests to find deer, bear, birds of prey — and migrating butterflies by the hundreds
St. Vincent: Take a boat to this island to see the rare red wolf and indigo snake, as well as numerous wading birds
Florida’s State Parks, Forests and Wildlife Management Areas
Florida State Parks
There are more than 150 state parks in Florida. Some of these are memorials and historic or cultural sites, but whether they’re named recreation areas, preserves, monuments or parks, these areas preserve what the Department of Environmental Protection likes to call “the Real Florida.”
About 12 million people visit Florida state parks each year, with the largest number to any one state park going to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Islamorada in the Florida Keys. Florida state parks give you places to snorkel, dive, swim, paddle, fish, boat, waterski, cave, camp, hike, bike, skate … and probably more in nearly every corner of Florida, at a bargain price.
Florida State Forests
With about 30 state forests, Florida is preserving undeveloped areas that total more than 830,000 acres — and it’s not about just trees. Many Florida state forests host sections of the Florida National Scenic Trail for hiking. But you can also go biking, boating, fishing, paddling, horseback riding, camping, and off-roading.
The largest is Blackwater River State Forest in the Panhandle, and it is known for its pure sand-bottom streams. Withlacoochee State Forest is the next largest and is one of the World Wildlife Fund’s 10 Coolest Places in North America. Its Croom Motorcycle Area is a unique feature.
Wildlife Management Areas
Many natural areas in Florida are set aside for hunting, and these areas are as wonderful for hunters as they are for ecotourists — in certain seasons, of course. If you love hunting than always select the best hunting tools for your game.
The Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area in central Florida south of Kissimmee is one of the best places to see bald eagles in the continental United States, along with whooping cranes and several other species.
As part of the Everglades north of Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area is full of pine flatwoods, ponds, swamps — and wildlife. Raised dirt roads take you through some of the watery areas, while the Florida National Scenic Trail winds through the uplands.
Between the Tolomato River and the Atlantic Ocean north of St. Augustine lies a barrier island good for waterfowl watching: Guana River Wildlife Management Area and State Park. This site is also good for seeing wading birds and raptors — especially peregrine falcons.
Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area south of Punta Gorda is good woodland habitat so you can look out for woodpeckers, rabbits, deer, and various songbirds.
Suwannee River country is what you’ll find at Andrews Wildlife Management Area near Chiefland. This forested area provides several hiking trails and dirt roads from which you may see deer, owls and gopher tortoises.
County and regional natural areas
As if all of the above didn’t already provide more natural areas than you may ever visit, there are smaller parks at the local level. There are 5 water management districts in the state that offer some lands for public recreation:
- South Florida Water Management District recreation
- Suwannee River Water Management District recreation
- St. Johns River Water Management District recreation
- Northwest Florida Water Management District recreation
- Southwest Florida Water Management District recreation
Also, many counties in Florida manage ecologically significant parks. For more information on them, try a Web search for “(name of county) parks” for detailed information.
Privately conserve natural areas
Private non-profit organizations are doing a wonderful job of preserving even more Florida natural areas. The Nature Conservancy is one such organization, having preserved 938,100 acres of land within the state, and many of these areas are open to the public, like Blowing Rocks Preserve in Jupiter, Disney Wilderness Preserve in Kissimmee and Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve near Tallahassee.
Getting to know Florida
The more you know about Florida’s natural areas, the more you’ll be able to distinguish them. And as you travel and explore them, you’ll find that many natural areas are adjacent to each other.
For example, in southwestern Florida, Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Park, Fakahatchee Strand State Forest, and Picayune Strand State Forest all come together to make up one huge protected area — and that Collier-Seminole SP and the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Marine Research Area aren’t far away, adding even more to the preservation.