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Wild Florida, Get back to nature in the Sunshine State
Wild Florida, Get back to nature in the Sunshine State The southernmost state’s numerous parks and recreation areas offer visitors an accurate vision of Florida’s wilderness as it once was.

Please let me introduce you to my favorite part of the world. The natural side of Florida encompasses the quieter, less-traveled parts of the Sunshine State. Most tourists haven’t heard much about Florida’s most bountiful treasures - public lands that are well preserved and protected by state and national agencies. The southernmost state’s numerous parks and recreation areas offer visitors an accurate vision of Florida’s wilderness as it once was – long before the days when Mickey Mouse’s kingdom, high-rise hotels, look-alike shopping malls, and throngs of tourists made their marks.

The next time you decide to visit America’s Southeast, consider making a great escape to one (or more) of six public recreation areas that contain natural Florida’s wildest and most inviting wonders…

Gulf Islands National Seashore, with headquarters in Gulf Breeze, hugs 150 miles of the Gulf of Mexico’s coastline. The park stretches from Pensacola at the northwestern tip of Florida’s panhandle to Davis Bayou and the barrier islands at Ocean Springs, Mississippi. The seashore is a saltwater preserve on the blue-green Gulf. Its playgrounds are wide, unspoiled beaches with wavy, white sand dunes. Swimming and fishing are popular pastimes in Gulf waters and the Santa Rosa Sound.

Winding nature trails and seaside marshes are top spots for visiting hikers. Bird watchers who flock to the area are likely to catch sightings of diving brown pelicans and gliding osprey as well as wading egrets and blue heron. Other local critters include leathery alligators, hard-shelled armadillos, loggerhead sea turtles, and diamondback terrapins.

For history buffs, there are rugged remnants of old fortresses and archaeological sites that tell the tales of Native Americans who once inhabited the islands.

A good system of roads and bridges makes most sections of Gulf Islands National seashore accessible by car. Those who want to sleep at the seashore can camp close to the beach in tents or recreational vehicles.

Gulf Islands National Seashore - Florida District
(850) 934-2600
www.nps.gov/guis


The Talbot Islands are located in Fort George, east of Gulf Islands across the top of the state – on Florida’s other coast. Get ready for windswept Atlantic beaches, peaceful salt marshes, and lots of graceful shorebirds. Such is the scenery at Little Talbot Island and Big Talbot Island State Parks.

Just offshore from Jacksonville via ferry or by car over a 17-mile-long series of bridges, “The Talbots” (as frequent visitors call them) are conveniently close to a sprawling metropolitan area, yet they offer an effective reprieve from the trappings of civilization.

The Talbots protect four separate islands – Fort George, Little Talbot, Big Talbot, and the southern portion of Amelia. As an island visitor, you can swim, fish, hike, or ride a horse on five miles of undeveloped Atlantic shoreline. You can also explore marshes and ocean-side forests of oak, holly, and magnolia trees. The parks shelter nearly 200 species of birds and other coastal creatures such as lumbering gopher tortoises, river otters, and stealthy bobcats.

The Talbot Island State Parks feature camping facilities, convenient ocean-side parking and easy boardwalk access to fabulous Atlantic beaches.

Big Talbot Island State Park
Little Talbot Island State Park
(904) 251-2320
http://www.floridastateparks.org


Ocala National Forest in central Florida attracts tourists with natural delights such as chilly freshwater lakes, bubbling springs, and lush green woodlands. The southernmost national forest in the continental United States, Ocala was the first national forest designee east of the Mississippi River. It’s also the home of the world’s largest sand pine forest.

There’s a lot of nature to experience in and around the preserve’s hundreds of lakes and springs. There are also two large rivers – the Ocklawaha and St. Johns - that flow within Ocala’s boundaries. The forest’s waterways are terrific for boating, canoeing, and fishing. Swimmers, snorkelers, and scuba divers prefer the sparkling clear waters of Ocala’s brisk springs.

The national forest protects stands of cypress, palms, and pines. There are highlands, lowlands, swamps, and plenty of engaging trails for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders. In fact, Florida’s National Scenic Trail slices through Ocala’s 430,000 acres. Observant wildlife watchers can glimpse bald eagles, black bears, and other rare or endangered animals that are seldom seen outside the national forest.

For travelers who plan to stay overnight, there are several camping areas in Ocala National Forest, some with hookups for RV’s.

Ocala National Forest
Seminole Ranger District
(353) 669-3153
http://www.fs.fed.us/r8/florida/ocala/


In the Sunshine state’s west-central region, Myakka River State Park near Sarasota offers outdoor adventures for anglers, canoeists, and kayakers. Myakka features a 14-mile section of one of Florida’s finest “Wild and Scenic” waterways. The namesake river twists through thick stands of oak and palm trees, pinelands, grassy marshes and arid prairies. The main park drive and nature trails provide many opportunities for hikers, cyclists, and equestrians to grab great views of wildlife. Burly alligators, diamondback rattlesnakes, re-shouldered hawks, and delicate deer are common residents of the area.

Visitors who prefer to experience Myakka’s wilderness in the company of practiced guides can board ranger-narrated tram and airboat tours. Campsites and rustic log cabins are available for overnight guests.

Myakka River State Park
(941) 362-6511
http://www.floridastateparks.org


The lush woodlands at Lake Kissimmee State Park in Lake Wales once served as a home territory for Native Americans who hunted game, gathered plants, and fished in what is presently Florida’s third largest lake. Most of today’ s visitors at Lake Kissimmee are enthusiastic anglers, boaters, and eco-tourists who plan to hike or ride horses on the park’s thirteen miles of designated trails.

Tourists at the 6,000-acre preserve can also spot and photograph local wildlife in the dense backwoods around lakes Tiger and Rosalie. Big bass are plentiful in park waters, and sharp-eyed observers sometimes see unusual creatures like bushy fox squirrels and whooping cranes. More common animal residents such as bobcats, white-tailed deer, and turkeys often come into view.

The fun doesn’t stop at sundown because Lake Kissimmee’s pristine night skies are an ideal backdrop for stargazing. And you are free to admire the stars for as long into the evening as you wish. Overnighters can snooze under leafy oak trees in the park’s woodsy campground.

Lake Kissimmee State Park
(863) 696-1112
http://www.floridastateparks.org


The southern edge of mainland Florida is the home of Everglades National Park, North America’s only subtropical preserve. The largest national park east of the Rocky Mountains occupies a 1.5 million acre “sea of grass” that supports fascinating varieties of plant and animal life.

As an Everglades visitor, you will find yourself in the midst of cypress and mangrove swamps, saw grass prairies, and extensive stretches of pine and hardwood trees. One third of Everglades National Parks’ domain is underwater, and Florida Bay borders the preserve. Canoeists, boaters, and fans of fishing can expect to snag bass, snapper, sea trout, and an occasional ‘silver king” tarpon. The park sponsors boast excursions that offer visitors guided studies of local flora and fauna.

Land-based activities are abundant too. Biking, wildlife watching, ranger-led trail walks, and tram tours are popular pursuits. Captivating species such as West Indian manatees, alligators, crocodiles, and elusive Florida panthers (also endangered) live in the Everglades, along with more than 300 varieties of birds and a very healthy population of mosquitoes. Pink-plumed roseate spoonbills, great blue heron, and stately wood storks incite avid birdwatchers to venture into the great “sea of grass” for views of a lifetime.

Everglades National Park
(305)242-7700
www.nps.gov/ever


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"Wild Florida, Get back to nature in the Sunshine State"
   authored by:
WRITER
Paula Loehr, R.N., B.A., worked in the fields of community health and nursing education, and was a school health nurse at the elementary, secondary and collegiate levels before becoming a fulltime journalist. Her writing specialties include family tr...



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