Just north of Orlando, Ocala National Forest is home to the world’s largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest. It’s also a great place to escape theme parks, if only for a day. Hike along a section of the 1,300-mile Florida National Scenic Trail that meanders through Ocala National Forest. Then cool down in one of the crystal-clear freshwater springs, like Juniper Springs or Alexander Springs, both of which allow swimming and snorkeling. Bring a bike — or a horse — and make use of the hundreds of miles of forest roads and equestrian trails.
Washington Oaks Gardens State Park
Tucked between the Atlantic Ocean and the Matanzas River in Northeast Florida, Washington Oaks Gardens State Park is well-known for both its delightful botanical garden and its rugged coastline of coquina rock formations that set this cinnamon-colored beach apart from every other beach in the state. Scramble around porous coquina rocks that become tide pools filled with curious sea creatures and shells at low tide. Then head back to the formal gardens to walk amongst towering oak, hickory and magnolia trees.
St. Andrews State Park
Just three miles east of Panama City Beach, St. Andrews State Park is a gem known for emerald green waters and sugar white beaches thanks to its location on the Gulf of Mexico. Stroll along 1.5 miles of breathtaking coastline or hike the interpretive Heron Pond Trail through a flatwood pine forest. Kayak or take a boat shuttle to Shell Island which, as you can imagine, has more than its share of colorful shells. Snorkel or swim in the calm gulf waters and be rewarded by the brightly colored marine life not far below the surface.
Three Sisters Springs
In Citrus County, on the west side of the state, a variety of crystal-clear springs are the primary draw, including Three Sisters Springs on the Crystal River. These warm freshwater springs serve as a manatee refuge in the winter thanks to their constant temperature of 72 degrees. Take in the wildlife from above by way of a quarter-mile boardwalk or get in the water on a kayak or stand-up paddleboard. During manatee season, from mid-November through March, visitors can only enter Three Sisters Springs by swimming. Stay nearby at Plantation on Crystal River.
Florida Caverns State Park
Just an hour west of Tallahassee, plan to pay a visit to Florida Caverns State Park to ooh and aah over limestone stalagmites and stalactites. Take a 45-minute guided tour of the caverns where you’ll weave your way through multiple chambers in search of dramatic rock formations. Make a day of your visit to Florida Caverns State Park by hiking or biking several miles of trails. There’s also the spring-fed Blue Hole that’s just right for swimming and picnicking to enjoy the views. Canoe along the pristine Chipola River, then pitch a tent at the on-site campground.
The City of Coral Gables in South Florida is home to the largest freshwater pool in the United States called Venetian Pool. More than 800,000 gallons of fresh spring water is pumped into this swimming pool every day. Opened in 1924, Venetian Pool was built from a coral rock quarry and features two Mediterranean-inspired lookout towers, grottos, waterfalls, porticos and a signature bridge, which all come together to make this pool look as though it’s set in Venice, Italy. Of note, Venetian Pool is the only swimming pool listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Blue Spring State Park
Near Daytona Beach, on the east side of the state, Blue Spring State Park is a haven for those eager to laze the day away in water that’s 73 degrees all day, every day. The largest spring on the St. Johns River, Blue Spring is home to hundreds of West Indian Manatees, but visitors can only enjoy the views from designated overlooks. Snorkeling and swimming is permitted in the off-season from April through mid-November. Enjoy the views as you cruise along the St. Johns River aboard or riverboat. Plan to overnight right on the beach at The Shores Resort & Spa.
"Shelling is beach therapy," according to Pam Rambo of ILoveShelling.com, and the therapeutic benefits don’t get much better than they do at Bowman’s Beach in Sanibel. For those who like to collect colorful seashells, Bowman’s Beach is one of the very best spots for shelling in the entire state. They are everywhere, so get there early and bring a shelling net and bucket. Come back in the evening for an incredible sunset before turning in for the day at the nearby Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Located in Key Largo, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the nation’s first underwater state park. It’s also the third largest barrier reef in the world, making it a must to see the colorful marine life that make the Great Florida Reef their home. Wade into the water to snorkel at Cannon Beach or take a short ride on a snorkel boat to one of the shallow reefs, like Banana Reef or White Banks Dry Rocks. Another popular option is a 2.5 hour glass-bottom boat tour aboard a high-speed catamaran, like the Spirit of Pennekamp.
Torreya State Park
Torreya State Park, located on Florida’s Panhandle, is one of Florida’s most scenic parks thanks in large part to high bluffs that overlook the Apalachicola River. It’s also home to an incredibly rare species of tree — the Florida Torreya — that only grows on these bluffs. More than 100 different species of birds also call Torreya State Park their home, making this state park one of the most popular with birdwatchers. Plan to go hiking, fishing, and kayaking, as well as camping at one of multiple camp sites. There’s even a yurt, so book early.