Florida may be best known for miles of pristine coastline with aquamarine water and sugary sand, but there is plenty more to love about its wilderness areas, from refreshing natural springs to cypress groves to wildlife galore.
Florida is the only state whose parks system has won the National Gold Medal Award for Excellence three times. And adventure-loving types in Northwest Florida have even more to celebrate when it comes to appreciating the outdoors—namely, 12 state parks that showcase the best the state has to offer. Here, some highlights about each.
Florida Caverns State Park
The Florida Caverns State Park offers a cool respite on hot summer days. Karen Parker/FWC
Heads-up spelunkers: Florida Caverns State Park, located near Marianna, is the state’s only state park with a guided tour of a cave. The inside of the subterranean space offers a cool, refreshing respite during the hot summer months, with stunning expanses of stalactites, stalagmites and other fascinating cave features. The park also includes seven miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding, as well as a swimming area, canoe rentals and a 9-hole golf course.
Wakulla Springs State Park
Wakulla Springs State Park features one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world. Alan Cressler
One of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world, Wakulla Springs State Park is a prime place to escape the heat of a Florida summer. The water remains a constant 68-70 degrees year-round with a swimming area and a two-level platform to show your aerial prowess. Hop aboard the guided boat tour of the Wakulla River, and you’re almost guaranteed to see wildlife such as alligators, fish, turtles and manatees.
Blackwater River State Park
Located northeast of Milton off of Highway 90, Blackwater River State Park is a popular spot for outdoorsy Floridians, with camping, hiking, fishing and paddling all on tap. The park contains a designated canoe trail as well as hiking trails, including a section of the Florida National Scenic Trail. The campground is pet-friendly and has sites to accommodate tents as well as 50-foot RVs.
Big Lagoon State Park
Big Lagoon State Park in Pensacola offers many outdoor activities. You can hike 5 miles of trails or bike on the 2.5-mile paved road. The park has a boat ramp and a canoe/kayak launch. You can fish for flounder or sea trout or go crabbing in the lagoon. There is a playground as well as several designated swimming areas for families. The campground has 75 sites for tents and RVs, and the park has many picnic areas.
St. Andrews State Park
The jetties at St. Andrews State Park are teeming with tropical fish, rays, and crabs. Dave Clausen
Make your way to the end of Thomas Drive in Panama City Beach, and you’ll be rewarded with this gem of a state park, which protects 1.5 miles of beautiful beaches and many species of wildlife. Grab a snorkel and head to the jetties, which are teeming with tropical fish, rays and crabs; keep a keen eye out, and you may even spot an octopus. For a sublime camping experience, snag a waterfront campsite and savor the sounds of the lapping waves, or take a stroll or bike ride along the paved loop road, keeping an eye out for deer and raccoons.
Grayton Beach State Park
With more than 2,000 acres of beach, coastal dune lake, sand dunes and forest, Grayton Beach State Park in Santa Rosa Beach is simply stunning wilderness oasis to spend a day (or longer). Along with its mile of beach, the park has a one-mile nature trail and 4.5-mile hiking/biking trail. Paddle along the serene waters of Western Lake, keeping an eye out for wildlife like bears, foxes and deer that make their homes here. Better yet, make it an overnight trip by staying at one of 30 cabins or at the 59-site campground.
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
Cyclists can take advantage of the paved trails at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. Kelsey Bernard
Located right along Scenic Highway 30A just east of Destin, Topsail Hill Preserve State Park has something to offer all types of outdoor enthusiasts. Cyclists and hikers can explore more than 13 miles of trails. Coastal lakes offer the opportunity for more relaxed excursions, while beachgoers can take advantage of more than three miles of unspoiled coastline on the gulf. Keep the fun going at the large campground for tent or RV camping.
Perdido Key State Park
Located on a barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico, the park is known, not surprisingly, for its incredible beaches, which make it a sublime spot for swimming, shelling and fishing. Bird watching is also a favorite activity, especially during migrations. Pack a lunch to enjoy at several picnic shelters. Take advantage of showers, restrooms and drinking water at the beach access areas.
Henderson Beach State Park
You'll find more than a mile of white sandy beaches at Henderson Beach State Park. Kelsey Bernard
Just outside Destin, Henderson Beach State Park features a campground with 60 sites and more than a mile of white sand beach. A great destination for bird watchers, the park is also a family-friendly spot with a short nature trail, playground and beach access. Bonus? You may spot dolphins and sea turtles frolicking in the gulf, right next to the beach.
Deer Lake State Park
Located off of Scenic Highway 30A in Santa Rosa Beach, this serene park is home to a peaceful beach and coastal dune lake, as well as a 1.5-mile nature trail for hikers. Swimming, fishing and birding are popular activities at the beach. There is no campground and no drinking water or electricity at this park, so make sure you arrive prepared for the day.
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