Last updated on August 31st, 2020 at 03:55 pm

As I ramble Florida, I stop in as many Florida State Parks as I can. I am rarely disappointed.

We’ve written about our choices for eight best Florida State Parks, and those tend to be the big, popular parks with camping and cabins and a wide variety of recreational opportunities in one place.

But some of my favorite experiences in Florida state parks are the smaller off-the-beaten-track parks that few have heard of. There is rarely a crowd (good for social distancing) and it gives me that thrill of discovering someplace new. There’s nothing like finding a hidden gem, and there are many among the 175 Florida State Parks.

We’re highlighting a dozen parks and we’ve limited ourselves to parks that had fewer than 36,000 visitors in 2019 — under 100 visitors a day.

Best Florida State Park hidden gems: The entrance to Dade Battlefield Historic State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The entrance to Dade Battlefield Historic State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Dade Battlefield Historic State Park

7200 Co Rd 603, Bushnell, FL 33513
(352) 793-4781

Why go: A lovely spot for a walk where you are challenged to re-think history

With a husband interested in military history, I have visited many battlefields. I have come to love them because they usually preserve land from development, often surviving as the last leafy natural places, and I always learn something when I visit one.

Dade Battlefied does both of those things. With massive arching live oak trees, it is a lovely peaceful place for a picnic and a walk in the bird-filled woods. The small museum on the battle that took place here is eye-opening. Without telling you what to think, it gives you a perspective on the battle, which was part of the Second Seminole War. It’s the place that the fellow after whom Miami-Dade County is named died a hero. But the more you read about the Seminoles, who were resisting attempts to move them to Oklahoma, the more you get a fresh perspective.

Special event: Each year, on a weekend shortly after Christmas, the Dade Battlefield Society sponsors a re-enactment of the battle. Check the Dade Battlefield Society site for the exact date in 2021.

Devil's Millhopper State Park
Devil’s Millhopper (Photo courtesy Kelly Verdeck via Flickr)

Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park

4732 Millhopper Rd, Gainesville, FL 32653
(352) 955-2008

Why go: This huge sinkhole contains a gorgeous miniature rain forest.

Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park is an ideal way to spend a few hours discovering a place so remarkable it has been attracting visitors since the 1880s. Bring a picnic and slow down to enjoy this National Natural Landmark

The limestone sinkhole is 120 feet deep and 500 feet across. A half-mile trail with 232 wooden steps takes you down into the bowl, past trickling streams, lush ferns and wild orchids. At the rim, there are picnic tables and a visitor center with information about how it formed.

The park was originally developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps – watch for the limestone entranceway, which is one of the remaining items built by the CCC.

fishing dock at faver dykes state park
Fishing dock overlooking Pellicer Creek at Faver Dykes State Park. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Faver-Dykes State Park

1000 Faver Dykes Road, St. Augustine, FL 32086
(904) 794-0997

Why go: Woodsy campground in a hardwood hammock and excellent kayaking and fishing

The waterway that makes Faver-Dykes so appealing is Pellicer Creek, a shallow (2 to 6 feet deep) meandering stream that is one of the most pristine tidal marshes on the east coast of Florida. The park is known for abundant salt and fresh water fish plus good birding and wildlife viewing. Look for deer, turkeys, hawks, bobcats and river otters. With paddling trails and several short nature trails, the park would make a good weekend camping destination away from the crowds.

Night sky at sunset. Photo by Dick Scott, rcscottphotography.com
Night sky after sunset in the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve. Long exposure captures the lingering glow of the sunset. Photo by Dick Scott, rcscottphotography.com

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve

33104 NW 192nd Ave, Okeechobee, FL 34972
(863) 462-5360

Why go: Gaze at the stars with skies so dark that this park attracts astronomers from across the state.

By day, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve offers vast prairie space full of birds and wildflowers. What’s most special, however, is that this is one of the few places in South Florida far enough from city lights to experience the dark skies necessary to see the twinkling Milky Way. The park closes at sunset, however, so only campers (or state park passholders who make advance arrangements for an after-hours pass) can stick around and see the stars. During the day, visitors to this park and its 54,000 acres of open prairie, can be rewarded with sightings of birds (Crested Carcara and the rare and endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow), a great variety of butterflies and wildflowers in spring and fall. Sunrises and sunsets here are magnificent.

Lafayette forms two beautiful pools of water, each lined with limestone rocks, surrounded by hard packed earth and separated by a natural limestone bridge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Lafayette Blue Springs forms two beautiful pools of water, each lined with limestone rocks, surrounded by hard packed earth and separated by a natural limestone bridge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Lafayette Blue Springs State Park

799 Blue Springs Rd, Mayo, FL 32066
(386) 294-3667

Why go: You might have to drive a long way, but this park has a magical spring, excellent cabins and great paddling nearby.

Lafayette Blue Springs State Park offers crystalline natural springs for swimming, the pristine Suwannee River for kayaking and multiple parks nearby, including the state’s top tubing river at Ichetucknee River State Park.  The spring here is one of the state’s 33 first-magnitude springs and features a natural limestone bridge across the spring run.

The park’s comfortable two-bedroom cabins on stilts are a great base for exploring the undeveloped rural area that surrounds the park. Within an hour of this location, you can visit a dozen different springs, including Madision Blue Springs (listed below) and Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park.

Madison Blue Spring State Park: About 40 minutes north of Lafayette, this spring blew me away with its natural beauty. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Madison Blue Spring State Park: About 40 minutes north of Lafayette, this spring blew me away with its natural beauty. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Madison Blue Springs

8300 NE, FL-6, Lee, FL 32059
(850) 971-5003

Why go: The most beautiful spring in Florida — my personal opinion.

Ten miles from the Georgia state line, this spring blew me away with its natural beauty. On our visit, the spring was intensely aquamarine and the water quality was sparkling. There is short rocky spring run – so pretty! —  to the Withlacoochee River, where you can watch the clear spring water meet the orange river water. All around the spring, a boardwalk gives you beautiful views. If you find the spring’s 72-degree water too frigid, you can swim or wade in the shallow sandy Withlacoochee, where the mix of spring and river water is warmer. This place is popular on summer weekends, so if you want to avoid crowds, visit weekdays or in cooler weather. There are attractive picnic grounds around the spring.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park: Cross Creek
In the screened porch at Cross Creek, Rawlings’ old manual typewriter and pack of Lucky Strikes look like she just stepped away. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park

18700 S, Co Road 325, Cross Creek, FL 32640
(352) 466-3672

Why go: The Pulitzer-Prize winning author of “The Yearling” fell in love with the authentic Florida here and you will too.

Whether you’ve read her books or not, the home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings,  with chickens, orange trees, sunflowers and walking trails, is likely to enchant you. Her award-winning book is a classic that holds up today and was made into a great 1946 Gregory Peck/Jane Wyman movie. It depicts the lives of Florida settlers, “crackers” who lived in this area around Ocala when she moved here in 1928. You get a taste of that lost world in the tours of the home. Be sure to have dinner down the street at the historic restaurant The Yearling, which features cracker foods and an authentic blues singer on weekends.

We spotted dolphin in Estero Bay three times on our kayak trip to Mound Key State Archaeological Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
We spotted dolphin in Estero Bay three times on our kayak trip to Mound Key State Archaeological Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Mound Key Archaeological State Park

Island reachable only by boat in Estero Bay, near the mouth of the Estero River
(239) 992-0311

Why visit: A spectacular kayak trip and a fascinating place that was once the center of the Calusa world.

With fewer than 2,500 visitors last year, Mound Key State Park is way off the beaten path. And yet, this 125-acre island, which you’ve probably never heard of, was the capital of the Calusa people, a place so important that Ponce de Leon visited and the Jesuits built their first mission in the new world here. The only signs of the Calusa era are the 30-foot-high mounds of shells and fish bones that make this island unusually hilly. There are no park rangers, no water, no restrooms — just a single trail across the island and some fascinating signage explaining the island’s amazing history.

Sixty years ago, the owner of a historic inn brought in a small population of white squirrels. These squirrels – leucistic not albinos – thrived and today can be seen in and around Ochlockonee River State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Sixty years ago, the owner of a historic inn brought in a small population of white squirrels. These squirrels – leucistic not albinos – thrived and today can be seen in and around Ochlockonee River State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Ochlockonee River State Park

429 State Park Road, Sopchoppy, FL
850-962-2771

Why visit: One of the only places to see rare white squirrels plus a great destination for paddling and camping

South of Tallahassee in the Big Bend region, Ochlockonee River State Park is at the junction of the Ochlockonee and Dead Rivers, just a short distance from where they flow into Ochlockonee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, making this an excellent paddling destination.  A boat ramp provides easy access to the river, and you have access to both fresh and saltwater fishing. 

This park has preserved part of the longleaf pine forests that once covered much of the state; it’s a throwback to an earlier time. Wildlife is abundant, and you might spot a rare snow-white squirrel, as well as the rare Sherman’s Fox Squirrel. There are hiking trails and a swimming area is at the scenic point where the Ochlockonee and Dead Rivers intersect.

Suspension bridge at Paynes Creek Historic State Park
Suspension bridge at Paynes Creek Historic State Park. (Photo: David Blasco)

Paynes Creek Historic State Park

888 Lake Branch Road, Bowling Green FL 33834
863-375-4717

Why go: Go for the peace – the river and the feeling.

The Peace River forms one border of this park, which indeed offers a quiet and peaceful setting plus natural beauty for hiking, paddling and picnicking. Lovely little Paynes Creek winds through the park into the Peace River. It’s fun to walk across a bouncy suspension bridge and gaze into the clear creek and cypress forest. There are several trails along the creek and through the woods and it’s a good spot for birding.

The historic part of the park is a monument placed in 1895 to commemorate the deaths of two settlers at the hands of Seminole Indians.  A small well-done museum tells the story of that incident and how it helped justify the Second Seminole War.

  • Florida Rambler story on the driving route, the Cracker Trail, a story that  includes Paynes Creek State Park
Hidden beach at St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park in Florida
The hidden beach you can only reach by boat is vast and pristine. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

St. Lucie Inlet Preserve

Offshore island at Port Salerno
772-219-1880

Why go: For a hidden beach accessible only by boat, an easy kayak paddle away.

St. Lucie Inlet Preserve is a magnificent stretch of beach on the northern end of Jupiter Island. There are no roads or bridges to the park, so one fun part of this outing is the scenic kayak trip across the Intracoastal. You can paddle this trail through mangroves teeming with fish and birds to find a narrow path that takes you to the spectacular beach.  Or, you can go to the boat dock on the island, where there are restrooms, picnic shelters and a 3,300-foot boardwalk connecting the dock and beach.   A free tram takes visitors from the Intracoastal to ocean from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends and  holidays.

The state park’s beach is 2.7 miles long, but the southern boundary is with Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge, and thus the beach actually continues uninterrupted for more than five miles.

If you’ve always wanted a beach all to yourself, this is the place.

Best Florida State Parks: Hidden gems. Lake Seminole from the campground at Three Rivers State Park
Lake Seminole at Three Rivers State Park (Photo: Bob Rountree)

Three Rivers State Park

7908 Three Rivers Park Rd, Sneads, FL 32460
(850) 482-9006

Why go: Great camping on a beautiful lake with many options for hiking, biking and paddling

 Near the Georgia border, this way out-of-the-way park is located where the Flint River and the Chattahoochee combine to form Lake Seminole above a dam. Below the dam, the Apalachicola River flows into the Gulf. This park has a terrain very different from much of Florida – rolling hills and steep ravines. It stretches along 2.5 miles of Lake Seminole shoreline.

The park offers miles of hiking trails and the park’s paved roads provide miles of safe and scenic bicycling. The park is popular with fishermen. There is one cabin for rent, but this is a great park for camping because all sites have a view of the lake and it is so far from urban noise, lights and congestion

Best Florida State Parks: Hidden gems. Windley Key Fossil Reef State Park: Stone thast is actually an ancient fossilized coral reef was quarried here to build Henry Flagler's railroad to Key West. (Photo: David Blasco)
Windley Key Fossil Reef State Park: Stone from an ancient fossilized coral reef was quarried here to build Henry Flagler’s railroad to Key West. (Photo: David Blasco)

Windley Key Fossil Reef State Park

84900 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, FL 33036
(305) 664-2540

Why go:  This old quarry is beautiful and there are interesting trails through Keys native vegetation

Even in the busy Florida Keys, there are hidden gems that are not much visited, like Windley Key Fossil Reef State Park. As you drive down the little string of islands that are the Florida Keys, you are traveling on an ancient fossilized coral reef that underlies all of the Keys.  At this park, you learn about the Keys’ geological history, as well as its human history.

Like most things in Keys history, it involves railroad tycoon Henry Flagler. The park is an old quarry for rock used in building Flagler’s Overseas Railroad in the early 1900s. Visitors walk along 8-foot-high quarry walls to see cross sections of the beautiful ancient coral.

Self-guided trails through the native vegetation identify dozens of Florida Keys trees and bushes and how they have been used. The park has picnic tables.

Hidden Gems: 12 Florida State Parks off the beaten path

Resources for discovering the best Florida state parks

 

3 Comments

  1. I live in S.E. Fl., and rarely can get to the panhandle, but 1 of my favorites is Torreya S.P., near Bristol Fl. It’s on the bank of the Apalachicola River, and part of its extensive hiking trails are along the banks of the river. On other parts of the trail you can see the remains of Confederate cannon emplacements. You can tour the Gregory house, and 1840’s plantation that used to be across the river. For camping, there is a yurt and about 30 wooded campsites. It is named after the rare Torreya tree, which can still be found there. There is a small waterfall a short walk from the campground. While I love beaches and palm trees, I love this park because it looks less like “typical Florida.” Florida Caverns S.P. is not far away, which is also a great place to visit.

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