The Sunshine State’s immaculate weather and picturesque backdrops make it an ideal destination for lovers of the great outdoors
For many, 2020 was a year in which too much time was spent cooped up indoors.
And while the COVID-19 pandemic still looms large, many would-be travelers are feeling a growing need to get out and stretch their legs in a picturesque and socially distanced setting.
In other words, a trip to Florida is in order. With three national parks, 175 state parks, 663 miles of beaches and vast stretches of coastline, Florida’s outdoor activity options are unparalleled. And with an average of 237 sunny days per year, any sojourn to Florida will most likely involve ideal weather conditions.
Here are a few outdoor locales across the Sunshine State where you can burn calories and soak in the sun’s rays while savoring miles of scenic tranquility.
Florida’s legions of trails pass through a multitude of diverse landscapes, making it a cyclist’s paradise. The Lake Trail in Palm Beach is a five-mile paved path that provides excellent views of the waterfront along with looks at historic buildings and massive mansions. For more advanced riders, the Withlacoochee State Trail in Dunnellon is a huge 46-mile trail that features miles of natural lands on a wide asphalt-paved path. The Everglades are an unexpectedly great place to bike as it is home to a network of trails that bring you close to flamingoes, herons and pelicans. One of the Everglades’ most popular trails is Shark Valley Trail, a paved loop spanning 15 miles enabling riders to bike near birds, turtles and even alligators.
Often called the Fishing Capital of the World, Florida is home to more than 900 world records and 7,700 lakes, making it a desirable place for anglers to gather. Lake Okeechobee, known as Florida’s inland sea, features 730 square miles of trophy-winning Bass fishing. Nicknamed the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” because of its ample fishing options, Destin, in northwest Florida, has earned a reputation as one of the best fishing spots in the state. Destin has been labeled the Billfish Capital of the Northern Gulf and is a favorite among anglers because of its white sands and emerald green waters. The Florida Keys, a 100-mile stretch of islands at the state’s southern end, is home to several famous fishing towns, including Key West, Marathon, Islamorada and Big Pine Key. Deep sea fishing is a favorite activity in the Keys as fishermen engage in a battle of wills with some of the world’s most robust fish: marlin, tuna and sailfish.
When Golf.com ranked the best states to golf, not surprisingly, Florida finished No. 1. With more courses than any other state (1,250) and a slew of immaculate courses (including the legendary Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach), golfers come from far and wide to hone their skills and have a good time. Some of the best courses in the state include Red Course at Streamsong Resort in Fort Meade (featuring dramatic and unique land forms that are pleasing to the eye), Commander Course at Lakewood National in Lakewood Ranch (stretches 7,184 yards and was designed by Arnold Palmer Design), Pine Barrens at World Woods Golf Club in Brooksville (pristine forestry and ample vegetation are a natural setting for this course) and PLAYERS Stadium at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach (Home of The Players Championship, golfers can play 36 challenging and memorable holes created by noted architect Pete Dye).
Florida is home to a variety of habitats, making it one of the best places to hike in the country. In Blackwater River State Forest, located in the state’s western panhandle, huge red clay bluffs reside along Juniper Creek, giving hikers some of the best views on the Florida National Scenic Trail. Etoniah Creek State Forest, northeast of Gainesville, sports the Longleaf Pine Trail Loop, which is roughly five miles in length and is a favorite place to spot black bears. Ocala National Forest covers 360,000 acres including a 75-mile section of the 1,300-mile Florida Trail, which weaves from the Gulf Island National Seashore to Big Cypress National Preserve. Outdoor enthusiasts will appreciate its more than 600 lakes, rivers and springs, including three first-magnitude springs where visitors can swim, snorkel and dive in sparkling rivers year-round.
Florida’s diverse ecosystems and clean waters make it a must-visit destination for paddlers across the world. Walton County in Northwest Florida is home to unique natural features that are rare on this planet: Coastal dune lakes, which are bodies of freshwater that exist alongside the ocean. This county has 15 named dune lakes, where paddlers can immerse themselves in the tranquil waters and gorgeous scenery that accompanies these lakes. Juniper Run, in Ocala National Forest, offers narrow and winding waterways that wend through a landscape of palms and cypress along with the diverse wildlife that lives in the forest. Those seeking a memorable outing can head out after dark in Florida’s Space Coast, where they will see an incredible phenomenon: bioluminescent algae transform dark waters into a vibrant blue color. Bioluminescence has been described as nature’s glow sticks and most commonly takes place during the summer months.
SCUBA DIVING AND SNORKELING
With so much water in and around the state, Florida is a favorite destination for snorkelers and scuba divers. One top spot to visit is Biscayne National Park near Miami, where offshore outings bring snorkelers close to coral reefs, shipwrecks and beautiful underwater habitats. Dry Tortugas National Park resides 70 miles west of Key West and is made up of a remote group of islands that are only accessible by boat or seaplane. Snorkelers and scuba divers flock to this location because of its amazingly clear underwater views of marine life and colorful corals that call the Tortugas home. Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, near Big Pine Key, is home to a majestic array of coral and more than 150 marine animals including eels, barracuda and angelfish.
Those seeking an immersive swimming experience can travel to Crystal River in Citrus County, where between November and April, they can snorkel with the gentle giants of the sea, manatee. During these months, hundreds of manatee head to this region to escape colder temperatures. Along those lines, guests can visit West Palm Beach where they can dive in the area’s clear warm waters and swim with wild sea turtles. More than 60,000 turtles come ashore during the summer months and divers can swim alongside these affable creatures.
by Jason Paha