Save gas and money without sacrificing fun by taking your upcoming vacation close to home. These seven state parks are hidden gems, the kind of places your family should remember for years to come. You don’t even have to tell them how much money you’re gonna save.
Florida’s state parks never seem to get their due. When planning a vacation, most people gravitate toward the fancy resorts, the theme parks, or the chain hotels. Nothing wrong with that, but why not try something different this summer? Visit one of Florida’s 160 state parks instead.
Someone has figured out this not-so-little secret. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, 20 million people visited them last year, an eight percent increase from the previous year. In all, state parks generate $900 million for Florida’s economy and total more than 700,000 acres.
The best part? They’re close to home.
Over the past few years, my family has made a concerted effort to visit as many as we can. And we’ve found some real gems. Our favorites—minus Ocala’s Silver River State Park because most people want to leave town on vacation—are included in the pages that follow. A few we’ve even returned to more than once.
So, give our state parks a try. Maybe you’ll discover what we did—that getting away doesn’t necessarily mean crossing the state line.
Photo Courtesy of Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council / visitflorida.org.
The Perfect Beach
Grayton Beach, west of Panama City, is an upscale and off-the-beaten-path delight.
Suburbanites from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia (especially ever-crowded Atlanta) have been flocking to Florida’s panhandle for decades. It’s easy to see why—hundreds of miles of white beaches, charming seaside towns, and lots of space to spread out. And once visitors figure out they need to avoid the congestion of Panama City’s beaches, the options become instantly more appealing.
Grayton Beach is the Panhandle’s best-kept secret.
Located just a few miles east of the upscale planned communities of Seaside and Watercolor, places with an abundance of nice restaurants and high-end shopping, Grayton Beach State Park offers a retreat from the busier communities surrounding it. The 30 cabins feature full kitchens, two bedrooms each, and are just a short walk to the Gulf of Mexico.
After daytime adventures of swimming, canoeing, and bicycling the park trail or the more adventurous 30A scenic loop, visitors should check out Criolla’s and Fish Out Of Water for an outstanding dinner to remember.
“Many have discovered our award-winning beaches, campgrounds, and cabins,” says Park Manager Dale Shingler. “Grayton Beach is the ideal place to bring your family and experience the ‘real’ Florida.”
Photo by Dean Blinkhorn.
The Biggest State Spring
Wakulla Springs, in Florida’s Big Bend region, is like returning to a bygone era before the theme parks took over the state’s tourism business.
Only 14 miles south of Tallahassee, Wakulla Springs State Park is a 6,000-acre wildlife sanctuary quietly hidden underneath a canopy of Spanish moss. Be sure to stay at the on-site lodge, which offers modest guestrooms, a dining hall that overlooks the spring, and—best of all—a short walk to the sandy beach and the diving platform. Let the lodge be a convenient base for the myriad daytime activities nearby.
Wakulla Springs has been a preferred home to manatees the last few years, so guests should spend the extra time trying to spot their distinctive gray shapes in the water. The park employees usually know their daily migration patterns, too, if asked.
After hours spent diving into the spring, swimming to the nearby lounging docks, or lying in the sun, visitors to this beautiful park should opt for the glass-bottom boat tour down the river and over the spring. If the water is clear, guests can see into the spring head to view the many mastodon bones that have settled to the bottom. Even if a recent storm has made the water cloudy, though, the tour is still worth the effort. Many of the guides have been with the park for years, even decades, so their banter is often a highlight. Expect to see dozens of gators and hundreds of birds on the 45-minute trip.
For nighttime dining and entertainment, Tallahassee offers many options in exchange for the short drive from the lodge—if the natural guests don’t provide enough entertainment.
“Manatees have been seen during the summer months since 1997,” explains Park Manager Sandy Cook. “No one knows how long they will grace us with their presence, so plan a visit.”
Home To Gentle Giants
Speaking of these graceful animals, Manatee Springs offers an up-close look at Florida’s misunderstood mammal.
Just six miles west of Chiefland, Manatee Springs is the perfect place to escape from the modern world. Because of the unique geographic features of the area, cell phones and satellite dishes have limited reception at the park. While some may view this as a problem, the savvy guest will see an opportunity.
Options are endless and the activities can easily fill several days.
The generous camping area, oversized playground, and on-site canoe rentals will provide hours of family fun. The nearby boat dock on the Suwannee River means excellent fishing is just minutes away. And the spring is ideal for snorkeling or scuba diving.
Of course, the main attraction is the manatee. Because Manatee Springs is warmer than the Suwannee River, many of the gentle creatures are drawn to its relative warmth. A very popular local spot during the summer months, an attractive option is spending a couple of weekdays at the park in near seclusion.
“Quiet relaxation can be found in this beautiful park throughout the week,” says Park Manager Sally Lieb. “Relax. Renew. Recreate yourself.”
Photo by Dean Blinkhorn.
In The Shadow Of The Mouse
Lake Louisa State Park south of Clermont offers no thrill rides, fireworks displays, or overly positive parades. It’s still an awful lot of fun.
This state park in the heart of Central Florida is the ideal spot for someone who wants to hit the trail. There are 15 miles of horse trails available for equestrians and over 20 miles of hiking trails with excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing. Guests on these excursions might get to see the numerous deer, gopher tortoises, and birds that call the park home.
Lake Louisa features 20 modern cabins (each complete with two bedrooms, a full kitchen, and a fireplace) that overlook picturesque Lake Dixie. Giant balloon tours will often use the nearby open fields as landing spots in the early morning hours on most weekends. Note that the on-site camping facility offers little shade and is probably best suited for RVs.
Nearby Clermont has lots of dining and entertainment options, but a trip to the grocery store for cook-out provisions before entering the park would also be a good option. Grills are numerous in the camping area and one is supplied for each cabin.
Lake Louisa is a great excuse to enjoy the Florida sun.
“On foot or on top of a bicycle, our trails give an opportunity to unwind,” says Park Manager Charles McIntire. “There’s always something to do for someone who loves nature.”
A ‘Ferry’ Good Time Awaits
Hontoon Island State Park near DeLand is just a short ride away from civilization.
This small island getaway is magical. Once onshore, it’s easy to imagine what Native Americans experienced hundreds of years ago on its shores.
History is plentiful on the island, so be sure to check out the visitor’s center to know what to look for. There’s even a scavenger hunt for young adventurers.
The park features many campsites and since RVs can’t board the ferry, the sites are reserved for tents only, fostering a communal spirit among the overnighters. Guests should pack plenty of marshmallows, cookout items, and non-alcoholic beverages since the on-site store has a limited selection.
Biking is a must since Hontoon offers over five miles of hard-packed dirt roads. An impromptu “baseball” game with fallen sticks and pine cones would also be a welcome diversion for the afternoon.
Campers who don’t want the hassle of packing a tent can reserve one of the primitive (i.e., no heat or AC) cabins for only $30 a night. They’re situated on the fringe of the camping area, so guests should still feel like they’re part of the neighborhood.
Nearby DeLand, especially its charming historic district, offers numerous shopping and dining opportunities, although Sunrise Fishing Club on the short drive into the park is also worth the detour. The fresh seafood, cold beer, eclectic jukebox, and friendly service were an unexpected bonus for such an out-of-the-way location.
But, of course, once guests cross the ferry to get to the island, they probably won’t want to leave at all.
“Go for a self-guided tour,” offers Park Manager Mike Hayes, “or you can stay the night and enjoy a campfire and the sounds of wildlife on the island.”
Photo by Dean Blinkhorn.
The ‘Pancake Park’
Not only is DeLeon Springs one of the best parks in the state, but Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant, which specializes in make-them-at-your-table pancakes, sits right on the shoreline. Either one alone is worth a day trip. Together, they should top the to-do list.
This park is truly a discovery. Native Americans found the springs more than 6,000 years ago and by the 1880s, DeLeon had become a trendy winter resort, a place that enticed northern visitors with its claims to the “fountain of youth.” Unfortunately, the magnificent lodge that once housed these tourists no longer stands, falling to fire years ago.
No matter. There’s still plenty to see.
Spend an afternoon canoeing, kayaking, or snorkeling in the deep spring. With a generous swimming area and an even more spacious grassy shore, DeLeon can handle a large crowd. Guests should consider booking one of the boat tours, but should only rent a paddleboat to get a good workout or for a very brief excursion, especially with the kids.
The park also includes a nice children’s playground, several covered patios, and numerous benches that make supervising smaller swimmers relaxing.
But now to the pancakes.
Anyone wishing to eat at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant should make a reservation upon arrival. Wait times of up to two hours are not uncommon during peak times. It’s worth the wait, though.
Kids will love this place, as they get to cook their own pancakes on the large griddle in the center of the table. Extra toppings are available, as well as hearty sides. Diners should order the bacon, thickly sliced and lean. The smoked ham would also be a good choice.
What if the restaurant’s booked? Order BLTs and fountain drinks from the take-out window instead.
Or come back again.
Photo Courtesy of www.visitflorida.org.
A Lasting Literary Excursion
Fans of Florida classics Cross Creek and The Yearling simply must visit the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, just north of Ocala. Lovingly restored and maintained, the author’s home looks just like she left it, her typewriter still in place for the next chapter.
Rawlings called her little farm on Cross Creek a “place of enchantment” and, even today, it’s easy to see why. The cozy plot features the main house, the barn, and the newly restored tenant house where her famous author friends like Zora Neale Hurston, Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Mitchell, and Robert Frost would stay when visiting Rawlings at her curious Florida farm.
Guests should take a short tour of the house and peer into the barn and tenant house before wandering the surrounding trails. There are a couple of things to consider, though.
“Your pet is welcome to the park on a hand-held leash, but if you take the tour of the house, you need to be able to carry it,” explains Park Manager Valerie Rivers. “And, remember, it’s the 1930s and we are not air-conditioned or heated, so dress for the weather.”
This is a short trip, however, so a visit to the nearby Yearling Restaurant is highly recommended. Order the fried gator tail or another delicious specialty from the decidedly Southern menu. A live performance by local bluesman Willie Greene would be an added bonus.
“Come back into the past and visit us at Cross Creek,” Rivers adds. “We look forward to seeing you.”
Your Passport, Please
With helpful tips on each of the parks, pictures, activity listings, and driving directions, the official Florida Park Service Passport is a must. It has a spot for notes and—best of all—passport holders get a unique stamp at each of the parks they visit. “Once visitors acquire the first stamp, filling the passport often becomes a life goal for individuals and their families,” says Florida State Parks Director Mike Bullock. “Visiting a Florida state park creates memories to last a lifetime.” Only $8 at most on-site gift shops.