Outdoors and Adventure

Best Places to See Wildlife in Florida

Filed Under: Florida

For all its mass development, Florida remains a supremely wild place. Alligators roam golf courses and plunge into neighborhood swimming pools. Bald eagles patrol urban streets. And wherever there’s a power plant near ocean access, hundreds of manatees snuggle up for warmth during the winter months. But the best places to spot the state’s awesome wildlife bounty remain its wildest corners -- and they aren’t too far from reach. Follow our lead to Florida’s top places for spotting some very wild life.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
This refuge near Cape Canaveral owes its pristine natural state to the fact that it has been protected for decades thanks to the sensitive space program operations happening nearby at Kennedy Space Center. Manatees graze within a few yards of rocket launch pads and sea turtles heave their massive bodies onshore to lay eggs within a short distance of the space shuttle’s massive vehicle assembly building.

Within the refuge’s 220 square miles you’ll find 500 species of wildlife including American alligators, bald eagles, roseate spoonbills, manatees and some 15 endangered species, including the Florida scrub jay. For the most accessible wildlife spotting, drive along Black Point Wildlife Drive. The 7-mile route winds through marshes and flatwood environments. Hop out at your leisure for a closer look at critters most folks only ever get to see in a zoo.
Manatee Springs State Park
Even the most brilliant oil paints couldn’t reproduce the deep turquoise water that bubbles up from the headspring of this fresh water river 2 1/2 hours northwest of Orlando. During the winter, the waters (a year-round 72 degrees) entice West Indian manatees to swim upriver from the cooler Gulf of Mexico into the headspring, where some 100 million gallons of water effervesce up every day.

Sometimes the creatures congregate so thickly it looks like a log jam. Scuba divers come from around the world to explore the crystal waters, but you can also snorkel with the chance of spotting manatees within a few feet of your mask (also look for longnose gar fish, speckled perch, turtles and flounder swimming through the waving grasses on the sandy river bottom).
Everglades National Park
It’s hard to believe that a place as wild as the Everglades could border a frenetic metropolis like Miami. But head just a short drive south of the city and anything even remotely urban feels a universe away. This park covers 2,500 square miles -- most of it a swampy, buggy, alligator and snake-infested world that only the heartiest of adventurers could handle.

But the Anhinga Trail -- a nearly mile-long journey over boardwalks and paved trails through a typical section of Everglades sawgrass marsh -- gets you up close and personal with some of the Glades’ most famous denizens, including cormorants, alligators and wading birds such as great blue herons and egrets. For serious adventure, back country outfitters such as Backcountry Cowboys offer paddling trips and overnight camping in the Everglades.
Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge
Florida’s east coast, just south of Melbourne Beach, holds significant environmental importance. The beaches here are the Western Hemisphere’s most important area for nesting loggerhead sea turtles and North America’s most vital nesting grounds for green sea turtles. From May through October, roughly 18,000 of these prehistoric creatures lug their heavy bodies onto the sand to lay hundreds of eggs.

The refuge stretches more than 20 miles along an undeveloped patch of coastline. The best time to see the turtles nesting is June and July. Take part in a Guided Sea Turtle Watch program -- a 3-hour beach walk led by a park ranger or naturalist during which you’ll likely spot a nesting loggerhead or 2.
Gatorland
To see Florida’s wildlife in a more controlled and entertainment-oriented setting, visitors head to Gatorland, the ‘alligator capital of the world’—a true old school Sunshine State attraction founded in 1949 that’s located a short drive from Orlando’s theme park corridor. Hundreds of alligators dwell on the park’s 110 tropical acres.

Alligator feeding demonstrations take place throughout the day, but for something different, plan to visit after dark when you can walk along wooden boardwalks through a breeding marsh and listen to the splashing, grunting and rustling of feathers (birds on the wing to escape become an easy feed) that surround you. There’s alligator wrestling and you trainer-for-a-day programs here, too.

You’ve done the theme parks and beaches—now get out and get in touch with the Sunshine State’s truly wild side!

Terry Ward, a freelance travel writer based in Cocoa Beach, FL, has seen sea turtles hatch in front of her condo and alligators hunker down in drainage ditches along the interstate.

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