Historic / Parks & Forests / Road Trips

Nine ways ways to find the real Florida — 15 minutes off I-75

This is Old Florida: Oak trees in Micanopy.

This is Old Florida: Oak trees in Micanopy.

You don’t have to drive hours into Florida’s remote rural enclaves to experience the state’s natural beauty and funky history. If you’re traveling the length of Florida on I-75, you can find treasures minutes off the interstate.

Here are nine favorite stops along I-75.  Several are perfect places for a picnic. One is an authentic Old Florida restaurant. Some are even free. All of them are worth discovering and exploring.

If you stop at all of these, it will take you days to get from one end of Florida to other! But you’ll have a blast.

Our tour starts from Naples and heads north.

 

Koreshan State Historic Site, Estero

Koreshan historic building: The Planetary Court by Mwanner

Koreshan historic building: The Planetary Court.

Florida’s wackiness goes back to its first settlers, and Koreshan State Historic Site introduces us to one of our earliest eccentrics – Dr. Cyrus R. Teed, founder in 1894 of a utopian community here. Teed and his followers believed the entire universe existed within a giant, hollow sphere and that Teed was the messiah. Thanks to this cult leader, though, a lovely wooded site on the Estero River was preserved through the years for us to enjoy.

Admission is $5 per vehicle; guided tours are $2 an adult.

How to find it: Six minutes off the Interstate just north of Naples. Take Exit 123 off of I-75 on Corkscrew Road/SR 850. Drive two miles west.

How much time will it take: You can get a taste of the place and absorb its strange story in a visit of 60 to 90 minutes. There are nice trails and the opportunity to rent kayaks or canoes for those with more time.

More on Koreshan State Historic Site.

 

Six Mile Cypress Slough, Fort Myers

A family explores Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, Fort Myers.

A family explores Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, Fort Myers.

This is a perfect break on a road trip.  Not only does it have clean restrooms and shaded picnic tables, but the 1.2 mile boardwalk travels through an unspoiled cypress swamp that is as pretty as any you’ll find deep in the wilderness.  The only fee is a $1 an hour for parking.

How to find it: Just south of Fort Myers, take  I-75 Exit 131 (SR 876, Daniels Parkway.) Drive 2.7 miles west on SR 876 and turn right (north) on SR 865 (Six Miles Cypress Parkway.) Entrance is about two miles on right.

How much time it will take:  You can stroll the boardwalk in as little as 30 minutes, though we spent two hours here, lingering to soak up the beauty, look for birds and visit the nature center.

More on Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve.

 

Orange River/Manatee Park, Fort Myers

The manatees at Manatee Park in Fort Myers loll about in the warm water discharged from an FPL plant.

The manatees at Manatee Park in Fort Myers loll about in the warm water discharged from an FPL plant.

If you’re driving this way in winter on a chilly day, this is a must-stop because there’s an excellent chance you’ll see dozens of manatees in the warm-water discharge of a power plant.

The area has other amenities, including a  butterfly gardens, educational exhibits, playgrounds and restrooms. There are videos about manatees and seasonal talks by manatee experts.

Even without manatees (which is likely from April to November), the Orange River is a beautiful kayak trail through Old Florida scenery and you can rent kayaks here.  The only fee is for parking at $2 an hour.

How to find it: Manatee Park is five minutes off I-75. Take Exit 141 SR 80 east five miles.

How much time it will take: You can make this stop in 20 minutes, though manatees have a magnetic power that might keep you around for longer.

More on Manatee Park.

Peace River Seafood,  Punta Gorda

Peace River Seafood in Punta Gorda

Peace River Seafood in Punta Gorda is located in a Cracker cabin under spreading oak trees.

Stop here if you’re hungry and love seafood. Peace River Seafood in Punta Gorda is a true Florida crab shack; they don’t come more authentic than this.

From its 1927 Cracker cabin to the buckets of fresh blue crabs, it’s a little piece of old Florida. Peace River Seafood serves fresh local shrimp, stone crabs, crab cakes, clams, grouper and mahi mahi as well as fresh fish from outside the area, such as salmon and lobster. But crabs are king here.

How to find it: Two miles off I-75. Take Exit 164 east two miles.

How much time it will take:  If it’s crowded, a meal might take 45 minutes to an hour. NOTE: Closed Sundays and Mondays and after 7 p.m.

More on Peace River Seafood.

 

Gamble Mansion, Ellenton

Gamble Mansion in Ellenton, Florida, near Sarasota

Gamble Mansion in Ellenton, Florida

The Gamble Mansion has white columns to rival Tara and it’s the only antebellum mansion left in South Florida. The story that makes the Gamble Mansion famous is its role in 1865 just after the Confederate surrender, when the secretary of state for the Confederacy escaped the country via the Gamble Mansion. It’s just one of the interesting stories you learn here.

There is no fee to enter the park or visitors center. To go inside the house, you must take a guided tour, offered for $6 at 9:30 a.m. 10:30 a.m., 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. from Thursdays to Mondays.

How to find it: Located near Sarasota, less than two miles off I-75, minutes south of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to St. Petersburg. Take Exit 224 west.

How much time it will take:  You can tour the house and museum in an hour. NOTE: Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

More on Gamble Plantation Historic State Park

 

Dade Battlefield, Bushnell

Marker in peaceful Dade Battlefield Historic State Park.

Marker in peaceful Dade Battlefield Historic State Park.

This is the place where the fellow after whom Miami-Dade County is named died a hero. The peaceful park shaded by magnificent live oaks is a good spot  to soak up some Florida history and take a walk or have a picnic.  The battlefield tells a dramatic and thought-provoking story – I suspect you’ll learn a few things.

There’s a lovely half-mile trail through pine flatwoods, where you have a good chance of spotting gopher tortoises, woodpeckers, songbirds and hawks. The park has a playground plus a picnic area with covered shelters. Entry is $3 per vehicle.

How to find it: Ten minutes off-75. Take Exit 314 east on SR 48. Go five miles east and turn right on County Road 603. This road dead ends in the park in two miles.

How much time it will take:  You can tour the museum and site in 45 minutes. Add time if you want to take a walk or picnic.

More on Dade Battlefield Historic State Park.

 

Micanopy

Cafe in "downtown" Micanopy.

Cafe in “downtown” Micanopy.

Micanopy is right off I-75 near Gainesville, but it feels far away — like a small town in a Florida long gone.  There are no major attractions here. If visiting Micanopy is for you, you’ll enjoy browsing antique and gift shops, sipping a beverage at an oak-shaded café, strolling side streets and perhaps visiting the historic cemetery. There are two popular spots to get lunch, both on Cholokka Boulevard, the main street.

How to find it: Micanopy pretty much starts at Exit 374/County Road 234. Go east and turn right into town.

How much time it will take:  You can see Micanopy in 15 minutes by car, but it’s better to slow down, stroll and browse. There’s a great B&B in town, the Herlong Mansion, if you’re looking for an overnight stop.

More on Micanopy.

 

Paynes Prairie, Gainesville

Trail to the observation tower on the south end of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

Trail to the observation tower on the south end of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

This Gainesville area state park is a vast playground for hikers and bikers, but also for bison, wild horses and, sometimes, thousands of sandhill cranes. It’s a huge park and the southern entrance is the one right off I-75. As we drove into the park, we saw flocks of turkeys and a buck with a full rack of antlers. If you’re lucky, you might spot some of the resident bison here.

A good stop is the 50-foot-high observation tower overlooking the prairie, which you reach after a short walk through a forest thick with drapes of Spanish moss. There are a half dozen trails to explore and an impressive visitor center. Admission is $6 per vehicle.

How to find it:  The southern entrance to the park is two miles off I-75, using the same exit as Micanopy — Exit 374. Travel east on CR 234 for 1.4 miles until it intersects with US 441. Turn left onto 441 and go about 0.6 miles to the entrance to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park on the right.

How much time it will take:  A leg-stretching walk and a climb up the observation tower could be done in 45 minutes, but it’s a great place to explore on a longer hike.

More on Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park.

 

Stephen Foster Culture Center State Park & White Springs

I do not think it is a coincidence that the Stephen Foster Museum at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park looks like a class Southern plantation.

I do not think it is a coincidence that the Stephen Foster Museum at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park looks like a class Southern plantation.

The best thing about this state park is the Suwanee River, and there are some beautiful views available here along the Florida Trail that adjoins the river as it passes through the park.  The park also has a classic funky-Florida throwback to the 1950s – the museum devoted to the composer Stephen Foster, who in 1851 wrote “Old Folks at Home (aka Swanee River)” without ever visiting Florida. It became Florida’s state song in 1935.

The museum tells Stephen Foster’s interesting life story, and there’s no question, he was a genius songwriter. The museum’s dated perspective makes it a very curious spot.  Admission is $5 per vehicle.

How to find it: Seven minutes off I-75 Exit 439 to S.R. 136. Travel east on S.R. 136 for three miles. Turn left on U.S. 41. Park entrance is on the left.

How much time it will take: It’s worth it to stop for 30 or 45 minutes to walk and enjoy the scenery along the river. It would be easy to spend several hours or even days here exploring and hiking. The adjoining town of White Springs is also an evocative historic spot.

More about Stephen Foster Culture Center State Park and White Springs

 

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4 Comments

  1. Ron Seitz says:

    Bonnie, I appreciate your “find real Florida” article. I was made aware of this through “All About RVing” on FB so I was curious to the access for a 38′ MH or do we need to park at the exit and take our “toad”? We also live in FTL but travel by RV when ever possible and will be working on “finding the real USA” on a year plus tour of our great country next year and will either blog or FB our travels. As RV’rs we always have to consider access, parking, turn space etc. without doing any backup maneuvers! Thanks for some great places to visit!

    • Hi Ron,
      There is no blanket answer, Ron. Parking at each of the points of interest in this article vary in their accommodation for motor homes.
      For example, at privately owned Peace River Seafood, where the parking is haphazard, you may end up on the swale. Same is true of Micanopy, a small town off the beaten track.
      State parks, on the other hand, usually can accommodate larger RV’s and buses for day-use visitors.
      If you plan an overnight stay at or near these points of interest, then you need to check availability of campsites for your RV’s length.
      In any case, you should bring the toad and expect to use it.

  2. Amy Gill says:

    You might consider adding the Alachua Sink and The Devil’s Millhopper. Both are in Gainesville and a little further off. The interstate. Both are very interesting, relaxing stops – especially in cooler weather.

  3. Don Silver says:

    Great suggestions. I hope to do an I75 road trip soon. I haven’t been to any of these places.

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