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With diverse aquatic life, wildlife and natural landscapes ranging from colorful coral reefs to magical waterfalls, thick jungles to marshy wetlands, Florida is one of the best states in the nation to experience all of Mother Nature’s best work. Whether you’re looking to spend more time outside or you're curious to experience an untouched side of nature, here's a handy guide to help you discover the very best of the Sunshine State.
Ocala National Forest
The word Ocala is said to be a Timucuan term meaning “fair land” or “big hammock.” Though tempting to think hammock refers to a comfy chair, in this part of the world hammock refers to stands of trees (typically hardwood) that form an ecological island in a contrasting ecosystem. From densely wooded oak hammocks to colorful palm-shaded sub-tropical oases, sand pine flatlands to cypress-studded wetlands, exploring Ocala National Forest will give wanderers a taste of the natural utopia that is Florida.
Though there are literally dozens of ways to explore the area, we'd like to point you toward its freshwater swimming holes. The forest is home to more than 600 lakes, rivers and natural springs, like Alexander Springs (great for SCUBA diving) and Salt Springs (perfect for paddling). Natural pools and first-magnitude springs allow visitors to swim or canoe through crystalline wasters, and with a near-constant temperature of 72 degrees year-round, the springs are perfect for swimming and canoeing and make for a great hideout amidst lush vegetation.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park is easy to spot on a map — it’s the largest tropical wilderness area, effectively preserving 1.5 million acres of wetlands on the southern tip of the state. Consisting of sawgrass marshes, pine flatwoods, and grassy, slow-moving rivers, the Everglades are home to a landscape unlike any other, and it's literally brimming with wildlife encounters, including numerous rare and endangered species like the leatherback turtle, West Indian manatee and even the elusive Florida panther.
You'll want to give yourself a few hours to fully embrace the spectacle of this national park as each experience will allow you to see a different side of it. Boating tours will help you learn about the unique plants and animals in the area, while kayaking will bring you deep into the depths of the wetlands, and hiking will allow you to get up close and personal to the area's signature hardwood hammocks, pinelands, and freshwater sloughs. No matter what floats your boat, this national park is definitely one for the bucket list.
Crystal River Preserve
One of the most preserved natural areas, Crystal River Preserve is known for its unparalleled beauty and is a cherished destination for nature lovers. The area borders 20 miles of the northern part of the Gulf Coast and boasts undisturbed islands, inlets, backwaters and forests — and even a few mermaids. Manatees, the gentle giants that have inspired countless myths, love the Crystal River so much that they're in the waterways nearly year-round. Better still, aide from helping to conserve and protect these lovable creatures, visitors can even swim with them!
The underwater world of Florida is just as impressive as the one on land. Located within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Molasses Reef is a coral reef nicknamed “the aquarium.” It won't take you long to figure out why. Located deeper and a farther away from the main reef, its location allows SCUBA divers some of the most unique sightings of Loggerhead turtles and reef sharks and near-perfect visibility thanks to the current. The site boasts eels, parrot fish, turtles, rays, colorful sponges, a range of reefs, and sea cave, providing the most thoroughly spectacular setting for one of the best dive and snorkel adventures you'll ever have.
Falling Waters State Park
Consisting of an extensive ecosystem featuring underwater caves, sinkholes and springs, Falling Waters State Park allows visitors to experience a unique and serene side of Florida. The park’s most notable feature — and inspiration for the park’s name — is Falling Waters Falls. Sometimes known as Falling Waters Sink, this site is home to a 100-foot deep and 20-foot wide pit where rushing waters pour 73 feet down. The best part? Rumor has it where the water goes is still unknown.
Dry Tortugas National Park
If every history lesson involved stunning ocean views and white, sandy beaches, there'd be a lot more school kids into the subject. Located in the Gulf of Mexico just west of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is virtually a living museum. The park consists of seven islands, protected reefs, beaches, and a 19th century castle. It’s only accessible by boat or seaplane, and the area’s coral reefs are the least disturbed of the Florida Keys reefs. Because of the abundant sea life, tropical birds, colorful reefs, and saltwater fish, the area is excellent for snorkeling, birdwatching, scuba diving, fishing and kayaking, too.
Cape Florida Bill Baggs State Park
Home to Cape Florida Light, the oldest standing lighthouse structure in Greater Miami, Cape Florida Bill Baggs State Park is a must see not only for its azure beaches but for its historical past. In addition to lighthouse tours, more than a mile of sandy beachfront on the Atlantic provides a scenic space for visitors to splash around in the water and laze in the sun. In fact, it's so great, it's been ranked as the 8th best beach in the country. Anglers will be excited to know that nearby Biscayne Bay boasts some of the best shoreline fishing in the region, too. With reviews like that, what are you waiting for?