Southeast Florida

Where to take South Florida visitors for a taste of nature

Holiday houseguests?  If you’re lucky, they love the outdoors and you can take them on any and every authentic adventure that Florida Rambler covers.

But what if your guests like their nature a little tamer? What if you have to coax them to appreciate Florida’s environment?

Florida is too big for me to make recommendations for short daytrips statewide, but since I live in Fort Lauderdale, I have several  suggestions for ways to entertain visitors to southeast Florida:

Broward County

We are nature-starved here in Broward, so it isn’t easy to find a good outdoor experience. But I think the prettiest short nature hike around is Fern Forest Nature Center  in Coconut Creek. First thing to like: It’s free. Primarily, though, I like the half-mile-long, wheelchair- and stroller-accessible boardwalk. The trail winds through a tropical hardwood hammock and a very pretty cypress-maple swamp, providing a taste of what South Florida looked like before we paved it over. Those who want a longer hike can take the additional one-mile Prairie Overlook Trail loop (not a boardwalk, so not accessible to wheels.) We’ve seen gopher tortoises and armadillo here and we always stop to see the snakes and exhibits in the nature center.

I also recommend Secret Woods Nature Center for a short nature trail, this one leading to scenic views of the New River and a combination visit with a walk at Tree Tops Park in Davie and then a stop at nearby Brian Piccolo County Park to spot burrowing owls. Tree Tops has has three nice nature trails and good picnic grounds. Admission is $1.50 per person on weekends and holidays.

Nearby are two other great spots:

Carribean flamingo (Photo by rubyblossom via Flickr)

Carribean flamingo (Photo by rubyblossom via Flickr)

Flamingo Gardens in Davie has a hefty admission fee ($20 adults; $13 children 4 to 11 ) but offers a lot: Exotic tropical trees and flowers, historic citrus groves, Florida birds in an aviary where you see them up really close, an interesting mix of animals including flamingos and otters, plus a bit of Broward history via  a pioneer home.  A narrated tram tour is also included in admission.

While you’re in Davie, there’s a pretty half-mile trail through a magnificent oak hammock at Long Key Nature Center. The park is free but there is an admission to the exhibit in the nature center.

Miami-Dade County

Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne

Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne

On of the most beautiful spots in South Florida is the tip of Key Biscayne at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.

This park has something for everybody: an award-winning beach, a historic landmark lighthouse you can climb for a spectacular view, fishing, hiking and even dining in its waterfront restaurants.  It’s easy to spend hours here. Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to Cape Florida State Park Admission  is $8 per car plus there is a toll to reach Key Biscayne (but what beautiful views you get along the way!)

Here’s a scenic and free experience with dramatic downtown Miami views: Visit the Miami Circle park, which marks the site of an important archaeological site from the Tequesta Indians , who lived in Florida when Ponce de Leon arrived 500 years ago. (Turns out 2013 is the big anniversary of his arrival.) From the Miami Circle, the Miami Riverwalk Park along the south side of the river extends out to Brickell Key, an island in Biscayne Bay that is home to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The path around that island provides great views of the bay. We were rewarded on a bike ride on this patch with a dolphin swimming by. Don’t expect to see a lot at Miami Circle Park; just enjoy the views.

Take your guests to discover the Everglades in one of these two sure-fire ways:  Either go to Shark Valley and take the tram tour (or walk or bike the paved trail) or go to the Homestead entrance and take the Anhinga Trail. Here’s a good overview about visiting the Everglades. With either experience, you will see alligators and you will see scads of impressive birds — guaranteed. And, as Marjorie Stoneman Douglas put it: There are no other Everglades. Note that admission to Everglades National Park is now $25 per carload, good for seven days.

Another great day is to tour Fairchild Tropical Gardens. It’s expensive: $25 for adults, less for seniors and kids. But it truly is world-class botanical garden with more to see than you can fit in a day’s outing.

Palm Beach County

Stilt photo by Maureen Leong-Kee, Flickr

Stilt photo by Maureen Leong-Kee, Flickr

Two free boardwalks in Palm Beach County are my go-to places for visitors. You don’t have to be a birder to love the extremely visible and profuse wildlife at Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach and Green Cay  Wetlands in Boynton Beach. You will see alligators. You will see anhingas, cormorants, herons, coot, moorhen and many other birds. And they will be easy to spot, unafraid and close to the boardwalk. I usually see more wildlife here than on a long trek to the Everglades!

Quite close to Wakodahatchee and Green Cay is the Loxahathee National Wildlife Refuge, another good place to get outdoors and look for birds and wildlife. The boardwalk behind the nature center is a beautiful, easy stroll, good for wheelchairs and strollers. You don’t see wildlife there, but the swamp has a wild beauty all its own. Admission is $5.

If you live further north and love to see wading birds, consider Peaceful Waters in Wellington. In winter, it attracts lots of birds that are easy to view up close. (That article suggests a few other places to take a walk in Wellington.)

Also further north, there are many outstanding places to visit in the Jupiter area.  Jonathan Dickinson State Park  has a great variety of ways to entertain visitors: horseback riding, biking (you can rent them there), going on a boat tour, kayaking the beautiful Loxahatchee (again, you can rent kayaks and canoes) and hiking, Here’s a complete guide to Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

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