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Photo by Rose Marie Cromwell
You’ll need to hop a seaplane or boat to visit the quiet, lonely beaches of Dry Tortugas National Park.
With its vast tracts of wetlands, dense old-growth forests, remote barrier islands, and impressive historic forts, there are far more protected places in the Sunshine State than you might think.
Florida is a state of contrasts: Where else does the urban jungle butt up against some of the most impenetrable places in the country? But for most people, the only Florida national park that springs to mind is Everglades—that alligator-tracked, largest subtropical wilderness in the United States.
From coast t0 coast, the state is loaded with other must-see national parks, preserves, seashores, and monuments where the call of the wild is more of a roar. Here are some of its best.
The largest subtropical wilderness in the United States is home to wildlife galore.
The Everglades is a 1.5-million-acre wilderness of coastal marshes, cypress swamps, closed-canopy hardwood forests, and pinelands filled with alligators and a variety of wading birds. The park has four visitor centers across south Florida, and admission at any entrance is good for a seven-day pass.
At the Shark Valley Visitor Center, west of Fort Lauderdale, rent one of the park’s bikes, ride the open-air tram to an observation tower for panoramic views, or head out on a free ranger-led tour through the sawgrass prairies and shallow wetlands (“sloughs”) from December until March (the most pleasant months for visiting).
Southwest of Miami, the Ernest F. Coe and Flamingo visitor centers bookend a 38-mile driving route through the park’s many ecosystems, including freshwater swamps and saltwater habitats fringed with mangroves; stop to stroll along the Anhinga Trail boardwalk, where alligators, turtles, otters, and all manner of birdlife are often spotted. On Florida’s Gulf Coast, near the remote outpost of Everglades City, head to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center to cruise mangrove islands and look for dolphins and manatees with Everglades National Park Boat Tours.
If you’re interested in the adrenaline of an airboat ride, there are several operators outside the park along the road to Everglades City. (Everglades City Airboat Tours is a good option and offers several hour-long tours daily.)
The snorkeling tends to be better here than in the Florida Keys, and you can arrive by seaplane.
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Key West marks the end of U.S. Route 1, the road that leads through the Florida Keys. But there’s more beyond its shores: Some 70 miles further west is Dry Tortugas, a 100-square-mile national park composed of mostly open water and seven small islands. There are no roads to Dry Tortugas. You’ll have to arrive by boat or seaplane (it’s about 40 minutes by plane and two hours by boat from Key West, the usual departure point). Tour Fort Jefferson—the largest 19th-century fort in the United States features an impressive moat wall—then strap on your snorkel and fins for underwater views of vibrant coral reefs. Ranger-led tours might include ecological moat walks at the fort or, for visitors who choose to camp overnight instead of returning to Key West, night sky programs.
It may be within view of Miami, but this park feels a world away.
About 35 miles south of Miami, the Dante Fascell Visitor Center is the departure point for eco-adventures in Biscayne National Park. Boating, snorkeling, and camping are favorite pastimes along the shore of Biscayne Bay or in its mangrove-fringed shallows, but even enjoying the views of Miami’s distant skyline east across the water feels like a vacation from the urban grind.
Guided eco-tours leave from the visitor center and might include snorkeling along the park’s Maritime Heritage Trail to spot several small shipwrecks (including the Mandalay, a steel-hulled schooner that sank in 1966) or cruising to Boca Chita Key to see its ornamental lighthouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Or simply rent a canoe or kayak and explore on your own.
Ogle bottlenose dolphins and a 19th-century fort along one of the country’s most beautiful stretches of coast.
Almost any Florida beach is a good one. But the long stretches of coastline protected as national seashores stand above the rest. Spread across western Florida and part of Mississippi and lined with barrier islands and dreamy beaches, Gulf Islands National Seashore is the largest federally protected seashore in the country.
Start your explorations in Perdido Key, where you can swim in crystal clear waters. Then head east to Fort Pickens via Pensacola Beach; the 19th-century fort is particularly Instagrammable at sunset. Bottlenose dolphins frequent the shallow waters along most of the national seashore, which is also home to some 300 bird species.
Take in sea views from the country’s oldest fort in its oldest city.
A pilgrimage to the oldest city in the United States (St. Augustine) isn’t complete without a visit to the oldest masonry fort in the country, which was finished by the Spanish in 1565 and used during the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Most visitors spend their time walking along the now-dry moat at Castillo de San Marcos or gazing seaward from one of the turrets.
Kids particularly love the canon-firing demonstrations scheduled for Fridays through Sundays, and the engineers in your entourage may marvel at the fortress’s coquina shell walls—some 16 feet thick—which were able to deflect British cannonball assaults. If history isn’t your thing, a visit to the fort offers lovely views of the sparkling Matanzas Inlet.
Swamplands, alligators, and (if you’re very lucky) the Florida panther await in this mini version of the Everglades.
Located 45 minutes southeast of Naples, Big Cypress National Preserve was created to protect the natural flow of water from Big Cypress Swamp into the Everglades, so the environments of the two areas are very similar. The 700,000 acres of swampland are home to the Florida panther and other elusive native animals and can be a more manageable visit than the Everglades if you’re short on time. The best way to experience the park without pulling on waders is to stroll along the elevated Kirby Storter Boardwalk. The half-mile trail at the heart of the preserve starts in a grass prairie and makes its way to a swampier area of towering cypress trees.
You’ll likely spot slider turtles and, in the winter season, lots of wading birds. Keep an eye out for American alligators at Gator Hole, a spot at end of the boardwalk. There are several camping areas within the park, too, all of which are best experienced during the cooler winter months of November through March.
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