I've Lived in Florida for 27 Years — and These Are the Best State Parks to Visit (2024)

Ever since I first came to Florida from the northeast in the late 1990s, I’ve been doing my best to get to know as many of the gorgeous state parks here as possible. And while Florida's 11 national parks — including Everglades National Park, Canaveral National Seashore, and Dry Tortugas National Park — tend to be the heavier tourism hitters, locals like me know its 175 state parks cover similarly gorgeous ground, with everything from freshwater springs and waterfalls to rare dune lakes and cave systems to explore.

I’ve spent moonlit winter nights under majestic oaks and cypress trees along the Santa Fe River at O’Leno State Park, thrown on a scuba tank to go diving with red-bellied turtles and giant gar fish in the crystal-clear waters of Rainbow Springs State Park, and camped on the sand within a couple yards of the water at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys.

Read on for 10 of my favorite Florida state parks — and the best ways to experience them on your next visit, too.

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Rainbow Springs State Park, Dunnellon

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Florida is brimming with freshwater springs, with more than 1,000 of the jewel-toned beauties scattered around the state. And while I hesitate to pick a favorite, Rainbow Springs State Park in north central Florida rises to the top. I love packing a picnic and sitting on the sloping shores surrounding the spring head before taking the cold plunge and walking the trails with family and friends. You can camp along the Rainbow River, accessed via a separate entrance nearby. This is also the best launching point for drift scuba diving outings or snorkeling in Rainbow River away from the crowds. For a luxury stay within a 30-minute drive of the park, consider The Equestrian Hotel in Ocala, an $800-million property devoted to all things equine and set in Florida’s stunning horse country.

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Bahia Honda State Park, Florida Keys

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It’s not easy to score a waterfront campsite at this popular state park on Big Pine Key, but even if you just swing through for the day, you’re in for a treat. Bahia Honda State Park is idyllic for snorkeling in clear, shallow waters atop grassy flats where you might spot juvenile reef fish and passing rays. It has some of the best natural beaches in the Florida Keys, too. You can rent kayaks and snorkeling gear on site, as well as book snorkeling trips to the bountiful reefs just offshore within Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. My favorite thing to do here at sunset is follow the park’s lone nature trail from the southwest end of the island to the top of the old Bahia Honda Bridge. It’s the perfect place to scout fish, turtles, and dolphins frolicking in the clear waters while watching the sky turn all shades of pretty pastels.

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Highlands Hammock State Park, Sebring

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I recently visited this wild state park in Sebring, Florida, with my family, and was amazed by how it felt like a mini Everglades, but was only two hours inland from my home in Tampa. I was also surprised to learn that Highlands Hammock State Park is home to more rare and endemic species than any park in the entire state, including Florida black bears, American alligators, and Florida panthers. One of Florida’s oldest state parks, it dates to 1931, when it was established by the Civilian Conservation Corps. There’s a great on-site museum that delves into that history and shows the conditions in which workers lived, worked, and played back then. We loved riding the tram into the most alligator-ridden reaches of the park and strolling through an old-growth cypress swamp atop an elevated boardwalk trail. Whatever you do, don’t miss a birding hike with ranger Blake, if it’s on offer the day you visit. Blake grew up in this area and has owls calling back to him, plus you'll spot things you’d never see on your own.

The Best National Parks in Florida

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Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, Wakulla Springs

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I first visited this glorious state park, about 15 miles south of Tallahassee in Florida’s Panhandle, as a college kid in town to party at Florida State University during a football weekend. Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park was the first place I ever saw manatees, and the ancient cypress swamp always proves to be a fruitful place to scout alligators. There are a ton of cool ways to experience this park, whether you opt for a guided jungle cruise on a glass-bottom riverboat, go swimming in the gin-clear waters at the spring head, or spend the night at the historic Lodge at Wakulla Springs. The latter — home to the world’s longest-known marble bar, stretching some 70 feet — dates to the 1930s.

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Sebastian Inlet State Park, Melbourne Beach

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Straddling Melbourne Beach and Vero Beach, Sebastian Inlet State Park is a haven for anyone who likes to fish, surf, or simply stroll the sand for miles. Many moons ago, when I dated a Florida surfer boy, we’d come here to camp at nearby Long Point Park, all the better to be up for dawn patrol when the waves were cranking just offshore from Sebastian (First Peak is considered the best surf break here, but there are gentler options for beginners, too). These days, I visit with my kids to walk the length of the pier to see what anglers are reeling in and pop into the fascinating McLarty Treasure Museum to ogle finds that have washed ashore from the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet of galleons that met its demise here during a hurricane (much of the loot is still buried in the sand somewhere offshore).

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Grayton Beach State Park, Santa Rosa Beach

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Along with Madagascar, New Zealand, and Oregon, a small stretch of the Florida Panhandle in Walton County is one of the only places in the world where you can find coastal dune lakes — rare geographical features of shallow water nestled into sand dune ecosystems. You can see some of the most beautiful examples of these at Grayton Beach State Park, including Western Lake, where it’s possible to rent a kayak or standup paddleboard to glide atop waters as smooth as glass. Stay in one of the park’s cozy cabins, secreted among the tall pines, or nab one of the 59 campsites that put some of Florida’s most pristine white-sand beaches at your doorstep. Other park highlights include a 4.5-mile hiking and biking trail that meanders through a forest home to Florida black bears, gray foxes, and white-tailed deer.

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Myakka River State Park, Sarasota

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East of Sarasota, along Florida’s Gulf Coast, Myakka River State Park is a real surprise that’s home to wetlands, prairies blanketed with wildflowers come autumn, and forests dense with palms and live oaks. Every time I visit, I’m reminded of how scenic this state is. Birders like me flock to the Birdwalk, a boardwalk that winds through hammock environments to a floodplain marsh where you might hear ospreys calling overhead and spot roseate spoonbills and herons foraging the shallows for something to eat. My kids love adventuring down the Myakka Canopy Walkway, which is raised 25 feet above the ground. You can visit the park on tram and boat tours, too, making it perfect for a multigenerational day trip from nearby cities like Sarasota and Tampa.

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Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Key Biscayne

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Within minutes of downtown Miami, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park promises sandy beaches with no development, as well as bayside hideaways for enjoying sunset drinks, like family-owned and operated bar The Cleat (my favorite spot to sip a watermelon sangria fronting No Name Harbor). When you’re not kicking back on the beach, you can rent a bike to pedal a 1.5-mile paved pathway in the park, hike nature trails through mangrove wetlands, or grill at a picnic pavilion overlooking Biscayne Bay. This park is also known for the historic 1825 Cape Florida Lighthouse, which you can tour several days a week during guided visits.

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Ravine Gardens State Park, Palatka

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I was floored by this fascinating state park in the north Florida town of Palatka, near Jacksonville, when I happened upon it during a road trip earlier this year. The best time to visit Ravine Gardens State Park is from January through March, when more than 18 types of azaleas come into peak bloom — they’re at the heart of gardens formed within the natural ravines here back in 1933 (there’s even an annual Azalea Festival held the first week of March). The park’s most unique geological formations are two “steephead ravines,” which are naturally cut 120 feet into the earth and formed by erosion. You can explore the park along a paved road (driving, biking, or walking), or opt to detour along trails that follow suspension bridges and stone staircases down to a spring-fed creek.

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Florida Caverns State Park, Marianna

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Drive about one hour north of Panama City to reach the only Florida state park where you can head underground to explore caves and caverns without a scuba diving tank. Guided tours take visitors into large underground spaces within the limestone cave system to ogle stalactites and stalagmites illuminated for a dazzling effect. You’ll descend 35 steps to tour a dozen different rooms, within which your guide might point out interesting subterranean denizens, like cave crickets, bats, and salamanders. When you emerge from the cave, it’s into a beautiful hardwood forest, providing an incredible contrast between the up-top and down-below Florida worlds.

I've Lived in Florida for 27 Years — and These Are the Best State Parks to Visit (2024)
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