Florida Outdoors Adventures

As appealing as Florida's 663 miles of sandy coastline may be, there's more to the state than the view from a beach towel.
By: LoAnn Halden

As appealing as Florida's 663 miles of sandy coastline may be, there's more to the state than the view from a beach towel.

From the coral reefs dotting the turquoise waters offshore to the waving saw grass plains of its swampy interior, the Sunshine State offers a bounty of natural beauty to explore.

Take advantage of the balmy year-round climate, and add an active element to your next Florida getaway. These adventures are easy day trips from major urban base camps, yet still off the well-worn tourist path. Mouse ears definitely not included.

Bike Through the Everglades
Cars aren't allowed beyond the visitor center at the Shark Valley entrance to Everglades National Park, 38 miles west of downtown Miami. A two-hour tram tour covers the 15-mile paved loop that penetrates the park's interior, but hitting the trail with a rental bike from the gateway kiosk allows for quiet contemplation of this swampy plain the Miccosukee called Kaa-ha-yat-le, where alligators languish in the saw grass and wood storks, ibis and great white herons probe the brackish water for fish. A 65-foot observation tower at the halfway mark provides panoramic views up to 18 miles across the subtropical wilderness, the largest in the U.S.

Tip: Paired with an airboat concession and gift shop, the ramshackle Coopertown Restaurant outside the park has served fresh-from-the-marsh meals of catfish, frog legs and gator tail since 1967.

Swim With Manatees
From October through March, up to 400 endangered West Indian manatees congregate 70 miles northwest of Tampa at Crystal River, where a confluence of spring-fed waters provide a constant 72-degree comfort zone.

Book two months in advance during peak season to join one of Birds Underwater early-morning trips to swim with these easygoing aquatic mammals, which reach nearly 10 feet in length and weigh up to 1,200 pounds. (Surprisingly, early sailors mistook them for mermaids!) Tours are offered year-round, but the local manatee population drops to 30-40 in summer and clear-water sightings aren't guaranteed.

Tip: Drive 10 minutes south to learn more about these gentle creatures at the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, home to an underwater manatee observatory, rehab center, and three-times-a-day ranger talks.

Paddle With Alligators
One of Florida's few officially designated "Wild and Scenic Rivers" runs through Myakka River State Park, about 20 miles east of downtown Sarasota. Rent a canoe or kayak on site and paddle the 14-mile section that flows within the park boundaries. The marshes along the route provide fertile feeding ground for sandhill cranes, bald eagles, ospreys and a legendarily large alligator population. The park is also a wonderland of family-friendly activities, from camping and airboat rides to bicycling, fishing and junior ranger programs.

Tip: For a bird's-eye view on this tropical ecosystem, follow the Boylston Nature Trail to the park's canopy walkway and 74-foot observation tower.

Horseback Riding Along the Coast
Amelia Island, 33 miles northeast of Jacksonville, boasts America's only state park with horseback riding on the beach. Within the 200-plus acres of Amelia Island State Park, at the isle's southern tip, Kelly Seahorse Ranch runs one-hour rides four times a day on a private trail through hardwood forest and along the shoreline. The pace never exceeds a trot, but views of salt marshes, the Atlantic surf and the occasional bottlenose dolphin make for an invigorating five-mile ride.

Tip: Set the stage for romance by booking into the Amelia Island Williams House, a 10-room B&B housed in an 1856 antebellum mansion in downtown Fernandina Beach.

Snorkel/Scuba on Unspoiled Reefs
Even Miami natives have trouble pinpointing Biscayne National Park on a map. The tucked-away locale in Homestead (an hour's drive south of downtown Miami) and the strict limits on boat traffic yield the healthiest coral reefs in South Florida, home to midnight parrotfish, angel fish, schools of sergeant majors and sizable barracuda. A single snorkeling boat visits the reefs Wednesday through Sunday; scuba trips launch on Saturday and Sunday -- often accompanied by dolphins jumping in their wake.

Tip: Before heading back to Miami, make a beeline to El Toro Taco, a family-run BYOB Mexican joint in Homestead that's low on cost and high on spicy authenticity.

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