Get Outdoors in Natural Orlando

Even with all the development in Orlando, you don’t have to venture far from the theme parks and shopping malls to find wild Florida. This part of the state is rich with lakes and wetlands, natural springs and tropical wildlife. Start with a light introduction to the flora and fauna of the region with a visit to Orlando’s Harry P. Leu Gardens or a walk around Lake Eola, but then go a bit deeper with a paddle through the forests and riverways of Wekiwa Springs State Park or a bike ride on the Cross Seminole Trail, or a snorkel with the manatees at Blue Spring State Park.

274 Cranes Roost Blvd, Altamonte Springs, FL 32701, USA
In Uptown Altamonte, a one-mile walkway zigzags above the water of Cranes Roost Lake. It’s an ideal locale for a walk or an evening jog. Located near the Atlamonte Mall and restaurants, families flock here for outdoor events like the Fourth of July Red Hot and Boom. A free summer jazz concert series presents monthly performances on the floating stage of the Eddie Rose Amphitheater. Tip: Don’t forget to bring bread to feed the ducks and turtles.
1920 N Forest Ave, Orlando, FL 32803, USA
While Orlando typically inspires images of amusement parks, the city is also home to sites that are completely separate from the manufactured worlds of Disney and Universal—such as the Harry P. Leu Gardens. The urban oasis teems with tropical plants like azaleas and palms, and includes an historic home once inhabited by the Leu family. With more than 2,000 camellia plants and 230-plus cultivars, its impressive collection ranks among the largest in the United States.
512 E Washington St, Orlando, FL 32801, USA
Orlando’s centerpiece lake sits right in the middle of downtown, close to the pretty neighborhood and dining district of Thornton Park. A pedestrian-only path fringing the water stretches for nearly a mile, offering visitors a great place to stroll or jog. Along the lake you’ll also find an amphitheater for concerts and festivals, a picturesque pagoda overlook, and a kiosk where you can rent pedal boats shaped like swans. Bring the kids to feed the ducks and swans, or visit the farmers’ market, which takes place on the lake’s southeast corner every Saturday morning.
12087 Southwest, US-27, Fort White, FL 32038, USA
The six-mile-long river at the heart of this beautiful state park in Central Florida looks like it’s cut from malachite—all striking shades of deep green and blue, crystal clear and loaded with fish and turtles. And the most fun you can have on a hot Florida day is to rent an inner tube for a few dollars and make the two-to-three-hour float down the lazy winding river. The spring-fed waters are a constant 72 degrees year round, and alligators are almost never spotted in the park since they prefer warmer waters (though the park has warning signs as you put in, just to cover the bases). During the scorching summer months, from May to late September, plan your visit for a weekday morning to avoid the crowds.
2100 West French Avenue
In the winter months, manatees seek the warmer, shallow waters of Blue Springs State Park. An observation deck allows for viewing of the manatees. It’s quite a sight—seeing the gentle, endangered species. I was invited to canoe with a manatee researcher for Save the Manatees. Massive manatees came up to and swam under our canoe, while the baby manatees stayed shyly close to their mothers. Paved paths, hiking trails, and canoe and kayak rentals are available.
Cross Seminole Trail, Florida, USA
Lake Mary is as bike-friendly as a city can be. Throughout the day—especially on the weekends—locals and bikers from neighboring cities can be found out and about getting exercise or enjoying a leisurely and scenic ride. Alongside the bikers on the path are rollerbladers and walkers. The Lake Mary stretch of the Cross Seminole Trail is about four miles, and runs parallel to the residential Rinehart Road. Tip: A good place to park your bike and take a break is behind Panera or Peach Valley Cafe on International Parkway and Lake Mary Boulevard. This is also the prettiest portion of the trail, with pastoral scenery away from traffic.
37 Dirksen Drive
Locals, travelers, and dogs alike love Gemini Springs for a quick romp outdoors. Take your pick from recreation amenities and activities: a nature trail, a bike trail, a boardwalk, canoeing, and a dog park. It’s quiet and peaceful—still kind of a best-kept secret, but it’s very popular with the dogs.
1800 Wekiwa Cir, Apopka, FL 32712, USA
With all of Orlando’s man-made attractions, it’s refreshing to get deep into nature at this wonderful state park, located north of downtown and the theme-park corridor. Spread across 7,000 acres of pristine central Florida forest, the park centers around the headwaters of the Wekiwa River, a beautiful, blue-and-green-hued spring with a roped-off area that’s safe for swimming (alligators do dwell in the main river). Rent a kayak or canoe at the park and paddle from the spring into the river, where you can spot turtles and alligators sitting on the banks. If you’re seeking a more primitive experience, you can also book one of the park’s spacious campsites, some of which come with hookups for electricity and water.
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Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
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