A Guide to the National Parks of Florida
Here are some of our favorite ways to explore the Sunshine State.
Bill Reynolds has been with the national parks service for a decade, and has visited a ton of them—particularly in Florida. It’s fair to say the spokesman is a super-fan. Of the famed Everglades, he crows, “If the National Parks are America’s crown jewels, the Everglades are some of the shiniest!” But it's not the only gem in the Sunshine State.
Florida's national parks aren't just vast stretches of wilderness. Some of the best sites guarded by the National Park Service include national monuments, memorials, and trails.
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In addition to the usual precautions—plenty of water, salty snacks, layers, sunscreen, bug spray, and maps—keep in mind that “these are wild places,” says Reynolds. As is true of bears in the Smoky Mountains, alligators and rattlesnakes are a real part of Florida. So be aware of your surroundings at all times, keep children and pets close, check the NPS website to make sure your park of choice is open, and get ready to explore the great state of Florida.
The unique thing about these parks, says Reynolds, is that each features both outdoorsy as well as historic options. Take the Fort Caroline and the Timucuan Preserve, for example, a national memorial in Jacksonville. There are incredible wetlands and waterways for kayaking, but there are also artifacts from the Timucuan tribe (the now-extinct people who settled in that area). Fort Caroline was also the site of battles between French and Spanish settlers. Spoiler alert: France lost.
Driving down the coast to St. Augustine, stop by to see Castillo de San Marcos, the national monument Reynolds calls “an absolute treasure trove of Spanish colonial history.” The oldest masonry fortress in America has a star-shaped structure and is a unique example of the “bastion system” of fortification. And if you’re interested in that sort of history, says Reynolds, it’s a good idea to also visit nearby Fort Matanzas—once the site of a massive slaughter of French soldiers, and the place where Spain guarded against British invasions in the 18th-century. You can easily visit both in the same day.
“Very, very unspoiled seashores” are among the features of Canaveral National Seashore, adjacent to the Merritt Island wildlife refuge. There are plenty of beaches, exceptional hikes, and great fishing.
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Snorkeling fans should make note of the stunning reefs of Biscayne. Scuba divers, fishing fans, boaters, and those who love the aquatic life gather here. It’s not far from Miami, so once you get your Deco architecture and deep house club fix in the city, this is the place to go admire marine life, lighthouses, and everything seafaring.
Then there are the Everglades on the Southern tip of Florida, about which Reynolds says “you can’t say enough.” There are many rare, endangered species here, including the Florida panther and the manatee, and birders come here in droves for the great blue herons, ospreys, roseate spoonbills, pelicans, wood storks, and black skimmers. Reynolds is particularly partial to the Anhinga walking trail, where one can watch the eponymous anhinga birds dive straight from the sky into the water to pluck fish for dinner. And there are gators here—plenty of ‘em—if you’re in the mood.
Just next door is Big Cypress, a massive freshwater swamp and park “roughly the size of Rhode Island,” says Reynolds. It’s very popular, with 1.2 million visitors stopping by in 2014 for activities such as biking, bird-watching, canoeing, kayaking, hunting, and camping. Rangers lead swamp tours, nature walks, bike rides, and canoe trips for the curious, and there are eight campgrounds to choose from—including some very rustic options indeed, if that’s your speed.
The Tampa Bay-area De Soto National Memorial commemorates the tale of Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto, who would eventually become the first European to cross the Mississippi River. Here you’ll find ranger-led kayak tours, costumed historic reenactments, plenty of hiking, and a ton of educational information—including details about the American Indians who lived here before the Spanish arrived.
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Wrap your tour of Florida’s national parks in Hemingway country. If you’re down in the Keys checking out the writer’s onetime home, arrange a boat ride to see Fort Jefferson, a massive 19th-century fortification that’s part of the Dry Tortugas national park—a series of seven small islands. The views en route are knockout, and you’ll be see the prison of Dr. Samuel Mudd—the physician who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth.
And there’s nothing wrong with taking a break from all the information you’ve been ingesting to go and lie on the beach. “That’s good mental health activity, right there!” says Reynolds. The aquamarine waters of Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola—“and some of the most beautiful beaches in the entire world”—entice plenty of tourists to do just that.