Florida Parks are treasured Florida natural resources.
The Old Florida that is rapidly disappearing from the state is being preserved in local, state, and national parks.
It is because of these parks that some parts of natural Florida are still alive and well despite the proliferation of condos, theme parks, subdivisions and shopping malls that have obliterated much of the Florida landscape in the past half century or so.
Many Florida state parks have camping sites carved out of the surrounding pine woods and palmettos. The campsites are separated from each other by this natural vegetation. The privacy is much greater than in the average private campground. Each campsite usually has an electric outlet, a water faucet, a charcoal grill and a fire ring for campfires.
Fruit and Spice Park, Miami-Dade County
DAY TRIP 1
Biscayne National Park
Headquarters & Dante Fascell Visitor Center at Convoy Point
9700 Southwest 328th Street, Sir Lancelot Jones Way, Homestead, Florida 33033. Tel: 305-230-33033
This is a national park that is 95 percent water. I have enjoyed sailing in Biscayne Bay more than anywhere else in Florida. Even though it is in the heart of Miami and the rest of urbanized South Florida, it has some of the clearest waters in the state. This is because much of the bay is within Biscayne National Park. The park is nearly 173,000 acres and most of it is underwater except for Elliott Key, the first of the long string of Florida Keys. It’s a thrill to be boating within sight of the massive skyscrapers of downtown Miami, but still feel worlds away. If you love the outdoors, you will enjoy yourself in this park. You can snorkel, camp, boat, watch wildlife, fish, take guided eco-adventures, or just relax. Several private concessioners offer full day tours in the park that include snorkeling, hiking, paddling, and sailing from park headquarters. Mainland access to the park is from park headquarters at Convoy Point. Local parks and marinas also provide access to the park. The park protects Stiltsville, once a 27-home community of houses perched on stilts. Only a few survived Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and they are all unoccupied. The park has a few mooring buoys near Fowey Rocks lighthouse for private boaters. Personal watercraft like jet skis are prohibited.
DAY TRIP 2
Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park
4732 Millhopper Rd, Gainesville, FL 32652. Tel: 352-955-2008
I have lived in Florida most of my life, and this park is very unlike the rest of the state. It will give you the feeling of being in another world. You walk down a 232-step wooden staircase into the bottom of a geological formation that has been attracting visitors for well over a century. You are really entering a sinkhole that is 120 feet deep and has a diameter of 500 feet. The geology here has created a miniature rain forest in the middle of North Central Florida. You will see gentle streams of clear water trickling down the limestone walls. These miniature waterfalls and the coolness of the place make it a refreshing escape from the busy Florida that surrounds it. Sometimes volunteer guides are on duty and will give you inside stories about the park. As I write this in 2018, the boardwalk steps down to the bottom are being repaired from damage done by Hurricane Irma. Make sure to call the park to see if the walk is open.
DAY TRIP 3
Dry Tortugas National Park
Mailing Address: 40001 State Road 9556, Homestead, Florida 33034. Tel: 305-242-7700
You can take a long day trip or enjoy a camping adventure by visiting Dry Tortugas National Park about 70 miles west of Key West. This 100-square mile park is made up of 7 small islands surrounded by open water. You can only get to this park by boat or seaplane. The park is famous for its centerpiece attraction, the imposing Fort Jefferson. This is the place where Dr. Mudd was imprisoned after President Lincoln’s assassination for treating John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg. The islands are surrounded by magnificent clear blue waters, beautiful coral reefs teeming with marine life, and a large bird population. There are several popular ways to make the trip to this park. You can bring your own boat, charter a boat or seaplane in Key West, or take a passenger ferry. The way I prefer is to take the Yankee Freedom III, a high-speed catamaran ferry out of Key West that takes about 2 hours 15 minutes to make the trip. It stays at the park for about 4 hours, giving you plenty of time to explore.
DAY TRIP 4
Florida Caverns State Park
3345 Caverns Rd, Marianna, FL 32446. Tel: 850-482-1228
This is another natural attraction like Devil’s Millhopper that will make you feel like you are not in Florida. It is your chance to explore a network of underground caves created from limestone formations that have slowly dissolved over thousands of years. You will enjoy the cool air, the drip-drip-drip of trickling water, and breathtaking views of mysterious stalactites and stalagmites. You will move from cave to cave and see the many chisel marks made by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s. They were involved in enlarging the cave passageways by hand, so visitors could stand upright during guided tours. These workers also built the park’s spacious visitor’s center and a unique nine-hole golf course set in beautiful rolling terrain. Located next to the Chipola River and Blue Hole Spring, you can also enjoy boating, fishing, or hiking in this state park.
DAY TRIP 5
Fruit and Spice Park
24801 SW 187th Ave, Homestead, FL 33031. Tel: 305-247-5727
It was an eye opener to me when I realized that fruit and spices could be so much fun. Fruit and Spice Park in one of the most unusual parks in Florida. It is devoted to fruits and spices, just as its name says. The Redland is a large agricultural area near Homestead. The farms here raise tropical vegetables, plants, and palm trees. The area is named for the dominant clayey red soil. This land is a horticultural oddity; things grow in The Redland that won't grow elsewhere in Florida or America. The Redland grows things that are native to tropical areas of Asia or South America. This park is in the heart of this tropical agricultural wonder. More than 500 varieties of exotic fruits, herbs, spices and nuts from all over the world are found in this 40-acre park established in 1944 and operated by Miami-Dade County. The park collection includes plants and trees from Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Belize, Panama, Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, Singapore and Hong Kong. You will learn how to identify poisonous plants you shouldn't eat or touch. The park has a nice little store in the office building. Merchandise includes dried and canned fruit, juices, jams, jellies, teas, seeds, cold fruit juices. The friendly staff will let you sample some of the garden delights from a serving platter they keep on hand. Guided tours of Fruit and Spice Park are conducted daily at 11:00 am, 1:30 pm, and 3:00 pm.
DAY TRIP 6
Highlands Hammock State Park
5931 Hammock Rd, Sebring, FL 33872. Tel: 863-386-6094
I love driving through this beautiful park. If I have more time, I take a tram ride and let somebody else do the driving. You can also hike on its 9 separate trails or ride your bike on a 3-mile loop trail. It’s one of the oldest state parks, opening in 1931. It has 9,000 acres that encompass a thriving ecosystem. Highlands Hammock has one of Florida’s diverse collections of plant and animal life in Florida. The park is home to 1,000-year-old oaks, old growth hammock, and the Florida panther. Ferns and air plants are almost everywhere you look. You might even see a black bear or Florida panther. An elevated boardwalk crosses a cypress swamp, and from here you may see alligators, birds and other wildlife. Picnicking, bird-watching, and ranger-guided tours are other popular activities. The tram tour gives you the opportunity to view birds, alligators, turtles, deer and other wildlife relatively close-up, in areas of the park that are restricted to public access. Catch-and-release fishing and picnicking are available at the nearby Seven Lakes management unit. Highlands Hammock provides a full-facility campground.
DAY TRIP 7
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park
18700 S CR 325, Cross Creek, FL 32640. Tel: 352-466-3672
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Yearling. She also wrote a book titled Cross Creek about her years living here. She wrote both books here in her little house, and you will see her old typewriter and feel like she might pop back into the room at any minute. You will experience what 1930s farm life was like when she lived and worked here. Her Florida Cracker style home and farm has been restored and is preserved as it was when she lived here. The park is open every day and visitors may tour the house with a ranger in period costume from October through July on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 10 and 11 a.m. and at 1, 2, 3, and 4 p.m. An adjacent county park has picnic facilities, a boat ramp to Orange Lake, and a playground. You can explore her farmyard, grove, seasonal garden and trails.
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