The rapid development of Florida has been a double-edged sword.
On the negative side, this growth has too often been rampant and careless and done a lot of environmental damage.
Native habitat has been lost forever and what remains continues to be erased or damaged by development.
On a more positive note, the financial resources generated by this growth have provided the funds for government and private organizations to buy sensitive lands and put them into preservation forever.
These preserves, along with nature centers and science museums, continue to educate the public about environmental issues and help them become good stewards of the land.
DAY TRIP 1
Blowing Rocks Preserve
574 S Beach Rd, Hobe Sound, FL 33455.
You will enjoy the amazing breaking waves at this environmental preserve on Jupiter Island.
The limestone outcroppings here are unusual in that they project into the Atlantic Ocean. When the surf is heavy, the waves force themselves through holes in the limestone and can blow ocean spray as high as 50 feet in the air.
The preserve also has marine hammocks with species like sea grapes, gumbo limbo, and Sabal palms. On days when the surf is just right you will be amazed and entertained. On calmer days you will simply be amazed.
DAY TRIP 2
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
375 Sanctuary Rd West, Naples, FL 34120.
Bring your binoculars when you visit Corkscrew.
In the early days of Florida’s development, cypress trees were abundant in the swamps of Florida. Extensive logging operations destroyed most of these trees for lumber by the middle of the twentieth century.
This sanctuary has preserved the last remaining large stands of bald cypress and pond cypress in North America.
You will stroll along a 2.5-mile long boardwalk through native pine flatwoods, wet prairies, stands of both bald and pond cypress, and learn about the wetland ecosystems.
The sanctuary is the beginning of the Great Florida Birding Trail. The endangered wood stork and many other wetland birds breed here.
Among species you might see are night herons, tricolored herons, great egret, snowy egret, limpkin, barred owl, and swallow-tailed kites. You may also see otters, deer, turtles, and cottonmouth snakes.
You can do your own self-guided tour or enjoy one of many guided tours offered by the sanctuary staff.
DAY TRIP 3
Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
35 East Quay Road, Key West, FL 33040.
The casual environment of this small free nature center is just right for laid back Key West.
The center teaches you about the native plants, animals, and ecosystems of the Florida Keys. There are several exhibits including an interactive satellite map of the Florida Keys.
There is also a replica of the Aquarius Reef Base underwater ocean laboratory near Key Largo, and an underwater video camera that is used to monitor the health of coral reefs.
The Mote Marine Laboratory Living Reef exhibit contains a 2,500-gallon salt water tank inhabited by tropical fish and living coral.
DAY TRIP 4
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center
1801 N Ocean Blvd, Boca Raton, FL 33432.
This nature center packs a lot of interesting exhibits in its 20 acres of protected barrier island.
Although it has no direct Atlantic Ocean beachfront, it has a shoreline along the Intracoastal Waterway. Its name comes from the Gumbo Limbo tree, of which there are many in this park.
There are also many other trees such as strangler fig and cabbage palms.
The center has an indoor museum with exhibits and aquariums, and several outdoor aquariums displaying ecosystems for fish, turtles, and sea life.
You can enjoy a boardwalk trail and climb an observation tower for an overall look of the park. You can also experience a small butterfly garden and a Seminole Chiki hut.
Gumbo Limbo is well known for its sea turtle rehabilitation facility, and you can see some of the turtles under their care.
There is an onsite welcome desk where you can get answers to any of your questions.
DAY TRIP 5
Harbor Branch Ocean Discovery Center
5600 N US Highway 1, Fort Pierce, FL 34946.
When you step through the doors here, you will be entering a large functioning oceanographic research institution with a storied history.
The visitor's center contains a video theater, aquariums, interactive exhibits, and other displays designed to show you the institute’s exploration of the marine environment and current research.
Exhibits change frequently to reflect current research and conservation efforts.
The facility is managed by Florida Atlantic University and is located on a 146-acre site fronting the Indian River Lagoon north of Fort Pierce. The research staff at any given time includes as many as 200 ocean scientists and students.
Research is directed toward innovation in marine science and engineering, conservation of coral reefs, and the study of marine mammals and fisheries.
Many other ocean sciences research projects are also conducted here.
There is no charge for individuals or families.
DAY TRIP 6
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
Visitor Information Center
1987 Scrub Jay Way, Titusville, FL 32782.
It always amazes me to visit this huge refuge in the shadow of Kennedy Space Center. The space center and the refuge exist side by side on Merritt Island.
The unspoiled nature of the refuge and the high-energy space age activity nearby make a dramatic contrast.
The refuge is 140,000 acres, and boasts over 1,000 species of plants, 117 fish species, 68 different kinds of amphibians and reptiles, 330 types of birds, and 31 mammal species.
It has miles of public hiking and driving trails. It is also a site on the Great Florida Birding Trail. It’s best, but not mandatory, to stop first at the Visitor’s Information Center to get your bearings.
A favorite place to see wildlife is the Black Point Wildlife Drive. This is a 7-mile drive along a dirt road through pine flatwoods and marshes.
I have made this drive several times and have seen wading birds, alligators, otters, bobcats, snakes, ducks, ospreys, and eagles.
You can pick up a brochure near the drive entrance that tells you what to look for. It usually takes a bit less than one hour to make this drive.
DAY TRIP 7
Ocala National Forest
Lake George Ranger District, 17147 East State Road 40
Silver Springs, Florida 34488.
There are many public roads that will take you into Central Florida’s Ocala National Forest.
You can wander around wherever you want, but it’s more fun to visit their website or stop at a visitor center to get brochures and maps to help plan your visit.
The forest covers 607 square miles (more than 26 million acres). It contains much of Florida’s remaining sand pine scrub ecosystem.
There are over 600 lakes and ponds, many wet prairies, and some spring fed rivers. The forest is home to black bears, alligators, deer, wild boar, coyotes, foxes, possums, raccoons, otters, bobcats, skunks, armadillo, and gopher tortoises.
There are numerous recreation areas, back road trails, campgrounds, hiking trails, equestrian trails, and scenic byways. The forest also contains four wilderness areas designated by Congress as places that are totally protected from humans.
Their ecosystems have completely natural unimproved processes and give adventurous people a place to test their wilderness skills, including surviving mosquitoes.
DAY TRIP 8
Orlando Science Center
777 E Princeton St, Orlando, FL 32803.
Kids love this center even though they are learning something.
The Orlando Science Center teaches science and makes sure kids have fun doing it.
It is a large facility with 4 floors of science exhibits, giant screen movie theaters, and live programming. There are several exhibit halls and science stations.
The exhibit halls feature many interactive experiences in the field of natural science where you can get to know a real reptile, learn about the dinosaur age, electricity, and gravity.
The science stations are also interactive with flight simulators and several experimental laboratories. Since everything in the center is indoors, it makes it a very good rainy-day experience.
The Crosby Observatory sits on top of the center and has Florida’s largest publicly accessible refractor telescope. This 10-inch telescope, and several smaller scopes, are available at selected times for viewing the sky.
DAY TRIP 9
Tampa Museum of Science & Industry
4801 E Fowler Ave, Tampa, FL 33617.
This museum is fun for people of all ages.
Among its features are a planetarium. and several exhibits that explain science, health and wellness, space, and weather. They call it a scientific playground, and it has more than 100 hands-on activities.
Among things visitors can do is build a robot, learn about optical illusions, try to solve hands-on brain puzzles and explore space in a NASA funded simulated lunar colony.
Adventurous visitors can even lie on a bed of nails.
You can try on a pair of “drunk driving goggles” to see how alcohol affects your vision and coordination. You will also learn a lot about 3D printing and how it is changing the world.
Since it’s Florida, you will also be able to experience hurricane force winds and touch a lightning bolt.
The planetarium uses a star projector to simulate the night sky at any place or time on Earth, past, present, or future.
DAY TRIP 10
Wildlife Sanctuary of Northwest Florida
105 North “S” St, Pensacola, FL 32505.
Your visit to this wildlife sanctuary will include seeing about 100 animals that cannot be released into the wild.
This sanctuary provides care each year to more than 3,000 injured or orphaned wild animals native to Florida. When they receive an animal, they provide immediate medical care and take care of the animal until it can be released.
They also educate people about how to care for an animal before and during transport to the sanctuary.
Animals they have helped and released include foxes, birds, rabbits, squirrels, possums, raccoons, and skunks. Among the ones they couldn’t release are many birds, including bald eagles, hawks, and owls.
The permanent residents of the sanctuary change over time. It is a non-profit organization that hopes you will make a small donation during your visit.
DAY TRIP 11
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
100 Savannah Blvd., Micanopy, FL 32667. Tel: 352-466-3397. A 22,000 acre savannah with a wide variety of wildlife including bison and horses in addition to hundreds of bird varieties.