National Parks in Florida

National Parks in Florida. Sun sets over water with yellow and blue hues, clouds in the background, and palm trees in the foreground.

Reading about National Parks in Florida can be educational, but experiencing them in-person is what they're truly about.

Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Summer 2019

Introduction

Orange, purple, and blue colors fade into the clouds as the sun sets over a lake.

You can find national parks all around the country, but Florida has a different and diverse ecosystem due to its proximity to the water and the equator. For example, while waterfalls and mountains are beautiful, you can find them in nearly any national park throughout the United States, but you will never find the unique combination of mangroves, alligators, tropical birds, panthers, scores of water activities, and barrier islands that Florida has to offer outside of the state.

What might surprise you is that if you look at reviews for Everglades National Park, you will find that many reviewers who have been to several national parks believe that Everglades National Park is the best of them all. That’s subjective, but it does indicate that looking at pictures and living it are two different things.

Not many people are going to choose Everglades National Park over Yellowstone National Park, but most people don’t give Everglades National Park a chance. What’s even more intriguing is that there is another park inland of Everglades National Park that many visitors say is even better, but it’s not a well-known park outside of Florida. Don’t worry, we'll cover that below. For now, let’s begin with Everglades National Park and see what it has to offer.

Bright orange colors permeate as the sun sets over a swamp in Everglades National Park.

This national treasure is only one hour west of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, and it’s home to endangered species like manatees and Florida panthers. When you visit, you might also see alligators, crocodiles, dolphins, vultures, grass lizards, cottonmouth snakes, flamingos, pelicans, osprey, and much more. You might not want to see some of the aforementioned creatures, but don’t fret, it will be done from a distance.

To give you an idea of the park’s enormity, there are 1.5 million acres of wetland in the park as well as three entrances. Inside the park, you will have the opportunity to see the wild from a canoe, a kayak, a boat tour, or while hiking or biking. For a view from above, go to the Shark Valley observation tower. It’s only 65 feet high, but when everything around you is flat, that’s relatively high. If it’s a clear day, you will enjoy 360-degree views of the park.

The following are some tips for your Everglades National Park adventure. If you would like to take a short walk where you can see wildlife, go for a walk on the Anhinga Trail. For the best sunsets, go to Flamingo, which is the southern-most point in mainland Florida. If you want to bike or paddle-boat, visit Nine-Mile Pond. And if you’re feeling really adventurous, consider the one-week canoe trip along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway. You will most definitely have some stories to tell.

Visitors shuffle to shore along deck with abandoned lighthouse in background and turquoise water in foreground at Dry Tortugas National Park.

This park is 100 square miles and 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s in the Gulf of Mexico and mostly open water. This is why it’s only accessible by boat or seaplane. More specifically, your options to get here are a ferry, a private boat, a charter boat, or a seaplane. All are worth the effort.

Dry Tortugas has seven islands and is home to protected coral reefs and marine life. That marine life includes large sea turtles, 300 species of birds, 30 species of corals, nurse sharks (they’re very lazy and like to nap often), and reef fish.

If you visit Loggerhead Key, you can visit the lighthouse (sea turtles nearby), boat, hike, swim, snorkel, and paddle-board. If you visit Loggerhead Reef, you can dive the Windjammer Wreck, which is a dive site from an 1875 shipwreck. Other dive sites in the park include Little Africa, Texas Rock, Pulaski Shoals Area, and Long Reef Key. Additionally, you can snorkel the Moat Wall at night.

Dry Tortugas National Park is also home to Fort Jefferson and Bush Key. The former is the third-largest fortress in the United States. The fort is 16 acres and contains 16 million bricks, yet it's still deemed incomplete. The latter is 16 acres and only accessible by a land bridge or kayak/canoe depending on the time of year and sand shifts. At Bush Key, you will find birds that will not be found anywhere else in the United States. To see Bush Key by foot, there is a one-mile round trip trail.

If you want the true full experience at Dry Tortugas National Park, look into camping options. You will have an opportunity to enjoy stargazing, snorkeling, sunsets, and more.

Boat rounds corner with house house on shore near Biscayne National Park.

Biscayne National Park is only accessible by boat. The park is 95% water but is also part of the barrier islands in the Florida Keys that protect the Florida coast. The park is south of Key Biscayne and across from the Biscayne Bay mainland.

When you’re here, you might find mangrove forests, dolphins, turtles, pelicans, and the underwater Maritime Heritage Trail. This underwater trail links dive sites, most of which are shipwrecks. If you would prefer to stay above water, visit Boca Chita Key for the coastal views from the Boca Chita Key lighthouse.

You can take advantage of guided eco-adventures at the park, including a trip to Jones Lagoon, cruising to the Boca Chita Key lighthouse, and sailing on Biscayne Bay. Other adventures offered at the park include seaplane tours, bowfish charters, speedboat tours, and guided fishing trips.

Sun sets into distance with bright blue sky and large clouds overhead at Big Cypress National Preserve..

The freshwater of Big Cyprus National Preserve is 45 minutes west of Miami. With 729,000 acres, the preserve is bigger than Rhode Island. While this preserve doesn’t receive nearly as much attention or the same amount of visitors per year as Everglades National Park, many people who visit find it to be an even better experience. They refer to being able to see more wildlife as the reason.

This preserve is a freshwater swamp ecosystem. You will find pines, hardwoods, prairies, mangrove forests, cypress swamps, many alligators, and a boardwalk for ease of viewing. If you’re very lucky, you might see a Florida panther. You can also fish, canoe, and hunt. In regards to the latter, this pertains to whitetail deer in the fall, turkey in the spring, and feral hogs year-round.

Brick arches line hallway at Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Gulf Islands National Seashore is south of Pensacola on the Gulf Coast. It’s not to be confused with Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi, although they are connected. Gulf Islands National Seashore runs along 160 miles of the Gulf of Mexico. Along those 160 miles, you will find barrier islands, maritime forests, historic forts, bayous, and marine habitats. You will also find more than 300 species of birds, making it a top destination for serious birdwatchers.

Activities at Gulf Islands National Seashore include bicycling, kayaking, boating, paddle-boarding, camping, fishing, waterfowl hunting, snorkeling, diving, swimming, and hiking. There are also Ranger programs, two tour boat services for sailing, and historic sites to visit.

Flag in green grass with decaying stone castle in background at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.

This is the oldest masonry in the continental United States. It’s located on the western shore of Matanzas Bay. It’s where you will find the 20.5-acre St. Augustine City Gate. Many people wonder if the St. Augustine City Gate is a fort or a castle. That’s something you can decide when you visit.

Visitors take photo of live reenactment at Fort Matanzas National Monument.

Fort Matanzas National Monument is a 1740s Spanish fort that is 100 acres of salt marsh and barrier islands along the Matanzas River on the northern Atlantic Coast of Florida. The purpose of the fort was to guard St. Augustine’s southern river approach.

Rocket is prepared for launch with beautiful sun-setting sky in the background near Cape Canaveral National Seashore.

This park was created in 1975 and is located between New Smyrna Beach and Titusville. It’s 58,000 acres of barrier islands, open lagoon, coastal hammock, and pine flatwoods. It's also home to many threatened species. The park is best known for its 24 miles of undeveloped shoreline, which is the largest stretch of undeveloped shoreline on the east coast of Florida. The park is also known for the sea turtles that like to nest on the shore. This can make for some great photo opportunities. Mosquito Lagoon takes up two-thirds of the park and is used by commercial and recreational fishermen for clams, oysters, blue crabs, and shrimp. The majority of the park is owned by NASA.

This 26-acre park is located five miles west of Bradenton. It's specifically located where the Manatee River joins Tampa Bay and is somewhat of a tribute to Hernando de Soto, the Spanish explorer and conquistador. He was the first European to organize an exploration of the land, which was after hiring mercenaries to search for gold. His four-year and 4,000-mile expedition led to many deaths while also leading to the discovery of what is now the southern United States.

If you want to explore the park, you can do so via free kayak tours, hiking along the short nature trail, or walking along the boardwalk, which offers beautiful viewing spots. Unlike many other national and state parks, you’re allowed to bring your dog here.

Sun fades into distance over clear body of water at Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

This Jacksonville-based preserve is 46,000 acres of wetlands and waterways. It’s one of the last remaining unspoiled coastal wetlands on the Atlantic coast. When you visit, you will find salt marshes, coastal dunes, and hardwood hammocks. You will also find Kingsley Plantation (enslavement and freedom), Fort Caroline National Memorial (tale of a lost colony), American Beach (founded during segregation to give African Americans beach use), Cedar Point (nature trails), and Theodore Roosevelt Area (600 acres of hardwood forest, wetlands, and scrub vegetation).

Fort Caroline National Memorial
Fort Caroline National Memorial memorializes the presence of the French in the 1600s. When you visit, you will hear stories of exploration, religious disputes, territorial disputes, as well as European and Native American altercations. While here, you can also hike along beaches, rivers, and salt marshes.

Colorful fish floats in deep blue water at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Located on Key Largo, this park is 70 nautical square miles as well as the first underwater park in the United States. The park offers swimming, picnicking, short trails, snorkeling tours, canoeing, scuba diving, kayak rentals, and glass-bottom boat tours. The visitor center also has a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium. This park is part of the Florida State Park System; it is not run by the National Park Service.

Final Thoughts on National Parks in Florida

Star-studded night with sweeping clouds and palm tree overhead.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

— John Muir

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Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Summer 2019

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