Florida's Best Parks and Beaches for $6 Fun
For little more than the price of a theme-park ice pop, Florida travelers can spend a day on sandy beaches, along natural springs or in the forests of state parks and wildlife refuges. Most parks run $6 to $8 for admission, but all are worth a detour and a chance to relax and enjoy nature.
Photo By: Arpad Benedek
Photo By: Lisa McClintick
Photo By: Shutterstock/Gadzius
Photo By: Lisa McClintick
Photo By: Carla Kappmeyer-Sherwin
Photo By: Joe Sills
Photo By: The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel
Photo By: Lisa McClintick
Photo By: Lisa Meyers McClintick
Photo By: Lisa McClintick
Photo By: Shutterstock/Jaimie Tuchman
Photo By: Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, St. Marks
Late October and early November can be the ideal time to visit this refuge less than an hour south of Tallahassee to see its annual spectacle of migrating monarch butterflies. "It’s one of the last places they stop before going to Mexico," said Sandra Friend, creator of FloridaHikes.com and author of dozens of Florida guidebooks and trail guides. "You will see hundreds and thousands of monarch cling to the Florida saltbush with its puffy white blossoms."
In addition to migrating wildlife, the refuge offers an escape from developments, towns and traffic with its 70,000-acres, 45 miles of coastline, 50-mile stretch of the Florida National Scenic Trail (about half of it winding through wooded areas), stops along the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, and seven rivers as it curves around Apalachee Bay. Climb up observation towers and check out St. Marks 1842 lighthouse for great photos and views of birds, wildlife and the scenic coastline. "You get vast, wide-open Gulf panoramas you just don’t see anywhere else," Friend said. $5/vehicle.
Blue Spring State Park, Orange City
Florida boasts hundreds of freshwater springs gushing upward from deep aquifers. About 30 miles from either Orlando or Daytona, Blue Spring State Park boasts one of the biggest springs, pouring about 100 million gallons of water a day into the St. John’s River and keeping it a chilly 72 degrees. Go early on peak days to score a parking spot before they fill up — especially when winter weather lures more than 400 manatees up the river and inland to warmer waters between November and March. Look for fish such as gar in the crystal-clear water along the spring trail or opt to snorkel or scuba dive for a closer look. Hikers can also tackle the Pine Island Trail. $6/vehicle.
Anastasia State Park, St. Augustine
Myakka State Park, Sarasota
At 37,000 acres, Myakka State Park ranks among the largest state parks and it packs in a thrill factor with a chance to glide past dozens of alligators on guided boat rides. There are also opportunities for paddling up to 14 miles along the Myakka Wild and Scenic River, climbing a tower high above the tree line for sweeping vistas, birdwatching, or hiking and biking among wetlands, prairie, oaks and pinelands. Families can camp or rent a 1930s log cabin. $6/vehicle.
Highlands Hammock State Park, Sebring
As one of Florida’s first state parks, this 9,000-acre gem about 88 miles from Orlando encompasses jungle-like hammocks with twisting, winding paths and narrow boardwalks tucked beneath trees and traversing cypress swamps. It’s part of The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail where warblers and scrub-jays or sandhill cranes and pileated woodpeckers can be spotted among the rich variety of landscapes, including marshes, a fern garden and pine flatwoods.
Visitors can cruise a three-mile paved loop ride through the hammock with bike and helmet rentals. To cool off and enjoy a treat, stop at the State of Florida Civilian Conservation Corps Museum and Hammock Inn, both located in the picnic area. The latter is known for its wild-orange ice cream and pie. Look, too, for park tram tours or guided tours of the museum. $6/vehicle.
Bahia Honda State Park, Big Pine Key
At Mile Marker 37 on famed Highway 1, Bahia Honda State Park features spectacular views, coastal camping, cabins on stilts, snorkeling, diving, fishing and the largest natural sand beach in the Keys, and the option to swim in both the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. The park’s biggest, coolest quirk: the chance to stroll atop a section of abandoned railway bridge high above the water. $8/vehicle.
Lovers Key State Park, Ft. Myers Beach
Less than 25 miles from Southwest Florida’s International Airport, Lover’s Key State Park beckons visitors across inland waterway bridges and across boardwalks to a sugary 2.5-mile beach that’s great for shelling, birding, dolphin watching and checking out gnarly skeletons of old trees. Pack a picnic supper and stay for stellar sunsets over the Gulf. A bait shop also sells snacks and rents kayaks and canoes for paddling the mangrove-protected estuary. $8/vehicle.
For a less-crowded alternative a few miles south of this state park, FloridaHikes.com creator Sandra Friend suggests Barefoot Beach County Preserve. It includes one of the last undeveloped barrier islands on the southwest coast and is home to the protected gopher tortoise and a nesting site for sea turtles in the summer months.
De Leon Springs State Park, De Leon Springs
Less than an hour from Orlando, the star of this park is not your typical state park feature. It’s the sweet, seductive scent of syrupy pancakes that brings weekend crowds to the Old Spanish Sugar Mill restaurant at the park. The staff delivers pitchers of buckwheat batter and diners pour it on tableside griddles. After or before brunch, there's plenty to do and see like the 50-minute eco/history boat tour, the Wild Persimmon hiking trail, kayaking or canoeing, taking a dip in the natural spring’s pop-bottle blue pool or learning about the park’s first inhabitants 6,000 years ago. $6/vehicle.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Homosassa Springs
The best place to see manatees during the cool months of November through March is in this park’s Fish Bowl underwater observatory, which lets visitors get face-to-face with the gentle sea cows that swim up the Homosassa River when the ocean cools. Look for scheduled manatee programs when kids might get lucky and have the chance to toss a head of romaine lettuce to the appreciative creatures. Boat tours also take visitors along the Pepper Creek to a longtime wildlife park with flamingoes, whooping cranes, black bears, red wolf and the oldest hippopotamus in captivity. Homosassa Springs once doubled as the jungle for Hollywood’s Tarzan movies. $13/ages 13 and up; $5, children 6-12.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Naples
Check out National Audubon Society’s state-of-the-art visitor center and cafe, then follow the 2.5-mile boardwalk for a scenic sample of the 13,000 acres that are part of the Everglades ecosystem. Watch for deer, otters, red-bellied turtles, painted bunting birds, roseate spoonbills, a wood stork rookery and the sanctuary’s super ghost orchid, which blooms roughly mid-summer to early fall. Don’t miss Lettuce Lake and the otherworldly atmosphere of America’s largest old-growth bald cypress forest. For a different experience, look for monthly "Corkscrew After Hours" events between October and March when visitors are allowed on the boardwalk after dark. $14/adult; $4 for students, free for children under 6.
J. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island
This refuge on Sanibel Island has long been a national hot spot for birders who come for the four-mile Wildlife Drive (closed on Fridays) and short hikes to mangroves and shallow pools where flocks of wading birds such as ibis, spoonbills, herons and egrets gather to hunt for dinner during low tide. Get the day’s updates and maps at the visitor center or check out the Discover Ding App to play trivia and get tips along the Wildlife Drive. The eBirds app keeps visitors in the loop on recent bird sightings here and elsewhere. Rarer sightings include otters and bobcats. $5/vehicle.
Tip: Nature lovers should leave time for Sanibel Island’s famed shelling beaches and Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum.