Florida’s backcountry is largely unique throughout the whole United States. On three sides it’s encompassed by water, from the warming currents of the Mexican Gulf in the west, to the crashing surf swells of the Atlantic in the east. At its heart, sprawling wetlands span out over miles and miles, to create one of the most unique bird, reptile and mammal ecosystems in North America, while the great Florida Keys of the south represent one of the only two living coral reefs on the continent.
It’s perhaps no wonder then, that Florida is also home to some seriously magnificent State Parks, where a plethora of sunny beaches, surfing spots, fauna-riddled waterways, mangrove forests and unbeatable underwater corals are just waiting to be explored. Here are five of the best; the ones that represent the cream of natural wonders and outdoors activities in the state.
Around 70 square miles of turquoise-blue waters and coral-filled seabed make up the bulk of this state park that sits at the tip of the Florida peninsula, home to some of the rarest and most intriguing underwater life species in all of North America. This has made it a favorite among scuba divers and snorkelers making their way through Florida State, and there are now plenty of on-site tour operators offering excursions under the sea. Further inland, the park’s borders extend to encompass vast tracts of coastal mangrove forests, where the winding waterways are perfect for exploration by canoe or catamaran.
Clusters of verdant islets dot the offshore waters, while crashing Atlantic swells pound the seaboard jetties of Sebastian Inlet State Park, making it a spot at once enticing in its natural beauty and alive with recreational activity. Perhaps most famously, it’s hailed as one of the best saltwater fishing spots in Florida, while the on-site Sebastian Fishing Museum does well to chronicle the growth of the industry here. Along the three-mile beachfront, there are also ample opportunities for surfers, beachcombers and sunbathers, while wildlife lovers should be sure not to miss the seasonal turtle spotting opportunities or curious birdlife of the coast.
Occupying great swathes of Florida’s iconic inland floodplains just south of Tampa, The Myakka River State Park is one of the undisputed wildlife hotspots in the state. From the decked viewing areas around the shores of Myakka Lake itself, visitors can spot hundreds of alligators clustering around the water’s edge, while flocks of some of Florida’s rarest bird species – like the startling pink spoonbill – are common enough sights. More energetic guests can also opt for a spot of horse riding or hiking through the hammock forests, or even stay overnight in one of the remote campsites of the Myakka basin.
Located just a stone’s throw from the metropolitan bay area of the city of Miami, this picturesque little enclave of quietude is a favourite weekend getaway for city slickers looking for a spot of Atlantic action close to home. With a one-mile long stretch of pearly white sand (which has helped them rank among the top 10 beaches in America), a classic white-washed lighthouse dating from the mid-19th century, and an array of quirky Cuban cafés and diners, there’s always plenty do here both day and night.
This plethora of tropical island beaches, palm tree groves and pristine coral reefs is connected to the Florida mainland by the industrial-chic rail bridge of the great Henry Flagler. It’s hailed as one of the state’s most romantic getaways, home to a curious Caribbean vibe, some chart-topping sunsets, and some of the best sand stretches on the whole Atlantic seaboard. For families there’s also plenty to do, and local tour operators now provide regular scuba diving, snorkelling, kayaking and cycling excursions around the park.