Florida’s hidden gems for adventure seekers and outdoor lovers
Just a quick flight from Toronto,
discover the Sunshine State’s
lesser-known areas and enjoy
endless outdoor adventures
best experienced up-close
Only a few hours’ flight from Toronto, Florida makes a great destination for a quick getaway or an extended winter escape. While most travellers head there seeking sun and sand, devoting much of their trip to the beach, there’s another side to the Sunshine State—one best explored on foot, paddle board or kayak. Whether hunting for the freshwater springs and grottos that make inland Florida exotically enticing or trekking through forests so thick with palm trees and bromeliads they feel as wild as the jungle, there’s something to suit every kind of outdoor enthusiast. Explore all the springs, rivers, inland lakes, wetlands, caves and coral reefs that Florida has to offer and discover the adventurous playground beyond the beach.
Northern Florida and the Florida Panhandle
The Florida Panhandle is famous for the Gulf of Mexico’s white-sand beaches, rivalling those of any Caribbean destination. Beyond the coastline, this stretch of the state is dotted with picturesque hidden gems, from clear-water rivers and natural springs ideal for kayaking and paddling to parks with hiking trails weaving past caves, limestone cliffs and even waterfalls.
Biking, hiking and kayaking
One of the most unique sights is found at Grayton Beach State Park, located between Panama City Beach and Destin. Here, three freshwater coastal dune lakes create varying habitats for birds and other wildlife. The state park offers an easy one-mile walking trail to see the dunes or a nine-mile hiking and biking trail that leads through forest to one of the dune lakes. Kayak rentals are available through the Friends of Grayton Beach State Park organization. Regardless of which way you experience the area, keep your eyes peeled to spot the ample birdlife, including osprey, snowy plovers and red knots.
Camping and waterfalls
It’s hard to imagine that the flat state of Florida has waterfalls, but it does, at Torreya State Park, 50 miles west of Tallahassee. The 16 miles of hiking trail traverse riverside bluffs, high plateaus and deep ravines and lead to waterfalls. After hiking, choose to overnight at a campsite or even the park’s yurt, which sleeps five.
Caves and reservoirs
Nearby is the town of Marianna, home to Florida Caverns State Park, where tours, offered Thursday through Monday, give guests access to caves richly adorned with stalactites, flowstones and draperies—all highlighted by a colourful light display. Also worth a stop in Marianna is Merritt’s Mill Pond, a 202-acre springs reservoir perfect for a dip, snorkel or kayak trip, with rentals available through Coldwater Excursions.
To assume Central Florida is nothing more than theme parks is missing out on some of the state’s most memorable and wild outdoor experiences.
Diverse ecosystems and wildlife
One of the most beloved state parks for hiking is Wekiwa State Park, named for the river flowing through it. Experienced and novice hikers alike can enjoy discovering a variety of Florida’s diverse ecosystems, including hardwood hammock, river swamp and mesic flatwoods. With each change of habitat comes opportunities to see disparate wildlife—from the red feathered cap of the sandhill crane to the thick, scaly feet of the gopher tortoise. Be prepared, too, to spot wild boar that bolt when startled—and are likely to startle you, as well.
River exploration and monkey colonies
The Silver River, 97 miles north of Orlando in the Ocala National Forest area, is legendary among locals for its colony of rhesus macaques. The monkeys aren’t native to Florida but were brought as an attraction for a 1930s glass-bottom boat tour. To explore the river, rent a kayak or stand-up paddle board from Discovery Kayak and SUP and paddle one way on this river so clear you can see the white sand below. Along the way, you can also spy striped mullet, speckled perch and, closer to the head springs, the occasional alligator.
Wetlands, birdwatching and waterfront views
In South-central Florida, the Sebring area’s Highland Hammock State Park offers 11 trails through wetlands. Try the Cypress Swamp Trail to walk an elevated wooden boardwalk just above the waterline, bringing you closer to turtles, alligators and such birds as great herons and ibises. Come the day’s end, retire to the Inn on the Lakes hotel. Nestled between two lakes, you won’t be lacking in waterfront views, while the hotel’s pool and outdoor lounge areas offer serenity, as well as additional birdwatching opportunities.
Pontoons and manatees
While a rare cold snap may not sound like the ideal time to visit, it does set the stage for one of the most epic experiences in Florida. When temperatures dip, typically from December to February, leagues of West Indian manatees congregate inland at springs, including Blue Spring State Park (33 miles north of Orlando) and Three Sisters Springs in the town of Crystal River (85 miles north of Tampa and 100 miles northwest of Orlando). Local operators, such as Bird’s Underwater Dive Center, run pontoon boat tours to the springs where you can swim among the manatees.
If native habitats, flora and fauna, and geomorphological sites are your travel love languages, head south and you’ll find all three of the state’s impressive national parks.
See the Everglades National Park by boats and bikes
Everglades National Park is practically synonymous with airboat rides, letting visitors view alligators, herons and other wildlife lazing in the swamp. For something different, try a full- or half-day kayaking trip wherein a naturalist points out all the fauna, from green heron to osprey, that the untrained eye may have a hard time spotting among the thick mangrove mazes. Another fun way to experience the Everglades is by biking the 15-mile Shark Valley Tram Trail. Shark Valley Tram Tours makes it easy for travellers as the park’s official concessionaire for bike rentals. Just be sure to arrive early during the peak winter season.
Scuba and surf through Biscayne National Park
Choose Biscayne National Park, just outside greater Miami, for the chance to snorkel coral reefs, kayak the mangroves or join a tour detailing the rich history of this isle, dating back to the Tequesta Indians. A Maritime Heritage Trail, best experienced by scuba diving or snorkelling, includes six ships and a lighthouse, most dating back to the 1800s. Biscayne is also a playground for just about every water sport, with lessons in windsurfing and kitesurfing available, as well as sailing day trips.
Fly or ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park
Remote and exotic, Dry Tortugas National Park makes a perfect day trip or overnight getaway. Reachable by Key West Seaplane Adventure charters or the Yankee Freedom ferry departing from Key West, this tropical island is loved equally by history buffs and water babies. Fort Jefferson, one of the largest forts ever built, served as a prison and resupply station during the Civil War, but what’s most enthralling, perhaps, is the moat around the fort. There, among the rocks and rubble, explore to find Caribbean reef octopus, reef squid, sea anemones, lobsters and much more. Camping is allowed on Garden Key, the spit of land surrounding the fort, but make reservations for the ferry first, as camping is allowed on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s worth the trip, as it’s one of the best places to appreciate the night sky, the tropical island and all the wonders that belong to Florida.
Stroll with sea turtles in Martin County
On Jupiter Island in Martin County, every March through October, the beaches become the nesting grounds for loggerhead, green and leatherback sea turtles. You can walk the shoreline after sunset to try your luck for a view, illuminating your path with a red, not white, light so as not to disorient the turtles, which rely on the moon for navigation.
Excited to discover the path less travelled in Florida? Enter here for your chance to win our Florida Flyaway Contest for a vacation package for two to Sebring!
Learn more about Florida’s incredible hidden gems here, including the best places to eat, stay and play across the state.