Often overlooked, Florida’s best county parks are hidden treasures that measure up to their award-winning state-park brethren. County parks can be every bit as impressive, and some have well-managed campgrounds.
County parks are often well-loved and well-known to locals, but out-of-towners often don’t hear about them.
These 10 county parks (plus six honorable mentions) are among our favorites, and the list barely touches the surface. There are many more on our bucket list to visit. Let us know in the comments about your favorites.
Riverbend Park, Jupiter
At this park near the headwaters of the Loxahatchee River, you can pop your kayak or canoe into the river or bike the wooded trails. You can camp downriver at Jonathan Dickinson State Park and visit Riverbend for the paddle of your dreams on one of only two federally designated wild and scenic rivers in Florida.
But you can have a splendid day here without paddling at all. Riverbend has a network of shady, hard-surface trails that are perfect for family bike rides, and you can rent bikes at the park. Hikers too will find good trails to explore. Wildlife is abundant – deer, turkeys, even a flock of beautiful peacocks.
The park also preserves the site of a key battle in the Second Seminole War, the Battle of the Loxahatchee. This peach of a park is also free.
Tigertail Beach, Marco Island
Manicured Marco Island is known for its beautiful beaches, lined with resorts, condos and mansions. The exception to all this commercial development is gorgeous, wild Tigertail Beach.
There’s a reason Tigertail is so unspoiled: 15 years ago it was an off-shore sand bar. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma dumped sand at the southern end, connecting it to the mainland.
You can reach Tigertail by walking north from Marco Island’s main beach, but most people take a shortcut and wade across a shallow lagoon to reach Tigertail. The squeamish may squeal at the oozy lagoon bottom, but there’s a big payoff on the other side — three miles of beach with soft white sand, scads of shells, ospreys squealing overhead and so many shore birds that it’s a stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail.
Day use: $8 parking fee. Address: 480 Hernando Dr. Marco Island, FL 34145. Phone: 239-252-4000.
Long Point Park, Melbourne Beach
Long Point Park is located on a pair of islands in the Indian River accessible via a manmade causeway with 113 waterfront campsites with another 57 sites off the water. It’s the waterfront campsites, and the well-managed campground, that sets this park apart.
Launch your kayak, paddleboard or canoe from your own campsite or a motor boat from the park’s ramp. You can anchor in shallow water behind your campsite.
Explore dozens of spoil islands in the Indian River. These islands are surrounded by clam beds and oyster bars, some of which may be off-limits to recreational harvesting. Check with the park office on where you can legally go clamming.
Even so, the fishing is excellent. The oysters, clams and estuaries are an ideal fish nursery, the nearby Sebastian Inlet is a gold mine for gamefish.
The park includes a wildlife refuge for short hikes.
Anne Kolb Nature Center, Hollywood
On the eastern side of Broward, Anne Kolb Nature Center preserves some of the rarest land among parks in South Florida — mangrove wetlands. The park offers trails for hiking and biking and West Lake, which comprises most of this park, is a favorite for kayaking.
To launch your canoe or kayak into the waters around Anne Kolb preserve, you go a mile west of the nature center to West Lake Park. Here are three well-marked kayak trails winding through the mangroves. Be sure to get a brochure when you pay your $3 admission to the park, West Lake Park, 1200 Sheridan St., Hollywood.
Circle B Bar Reserve, Lakeland
If you’re into birds or nature photography, you’ve probably heard of Circle B. But this big nature preserve deserves to be better known among hikers, families and anyone who enjoys natural Florida.
Peak season for visiting Circle B is fall through spring, when nature photographers flock there to capture images of the huge white pelicans, tropical-pink spoonbills, leggy sandhill cranes, iconic bald eagles and dozens of other birds.
But year-round, it provides miles of well-marked shaded hiking trails and there is always wildlife to be viewed. The nature center was recently redone and has excellent interactive exhibits kids will especially enjoy. Amazingly, it’s all free.
Princess Place Preserve, Palm Coast, Flagler County
This is a magical place with a long, interesting history and all kinds of recreational opportunities.
Princess Place preserves 1,500 acres of pristine land midway between St. Augustine and Flagler Beach, offering offers miles of hiking trails under ancient 80-foot-tall live oaks, a wild-life-rich saltwater marsh perfect for exploring by kayak and primitive camping.
To top it off, you can tour a beautifully preserved 1888 hunting lodge fit for a princess, who indeed lived here for many years.
Princess Place is the oldest homestead in Flagler County, founded by a wealthy 24-year-old from New England, Henry Cutting. In 1888, he built a grand hunting lodge in the Adirondack Camp Style. The unfurnished lodge is open for tours on a limited basis — Friday, Saturday and Sunday only at 2 p.m.
The porch of the lodge overlooks the saltwater marsh and gets a steady breeze from the ocean a mile away.
The longest hiking trail, Hominy Branch, is 2.5 miles under a canopy of oaks. Other trails run along the banks of Pellicier Creek or through the saltwater marsh.
The park has a kayak launch, and the rivers and marshes would be perfect for exploring by kayak.
Moss Park, Orlando
Moss Park is Orlando’s best-kept secret.
Only 20 minutes from Disney World and Universal Studios, Moss Park offers fabulous camping plus boating, kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, hiking, playgrounds, biking, fishing, picnic areas, a swimming beach, bird-watching and orienteering in the adjacent 2,000-acre Split Oak Preserve, The preserve offers miles of trails to explore.
Moss Park is on a peninsula nestled between Lakes Mary Jane and Lake Hart. Abundant wildlife thrives in the park and the preserve. In one night of camping, we saw sandhill cranes and small herds of deer, who emerged from the preserve to graze.
The campground’s 54 RV/tent sites are spacious, private and shaded. Day use: $3-$5 per vehicle. Camping: $18-$23 per night. Address: 12901 Moss Park RD, Orlando. Phone: 407-254-6840. Web site: www.orangecountyfl.net
Fort De Soto County Park, St. Petersburg
Fort De Soto has three miles of white-sand beaches that are consistently ranked among the best in the nation. You can paddle to offshore islands and access bike trails you can ride all day.
There are two fishing piers, a historic fort, picnic areas, playgrounds and an impressive bird population. While a challenge for RVers to get reservations in the 238-site campground, there is almost always availability in an 85-site section set aside for tent campers.
The park’s seven-mile bike trail offers access to the 38-mile-long Pinellas Trail.
There’s a ferry to Egmont Key State Park and a 800-foot boat-launch area. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on visiting Egmont Key.
E.G. Simmons County Park, Ruskin
The beaches, kayak trails and a spacious 112-site campground rivals any state park, and most of the sites are waterfront, allowing you to launch your kayak or canoe directly from your campsite.
Paddle trails weave through dozens of mangrove islands in the adjacent wildlife sanctuary.
When we visited, the mullet were jumping everywhere, a strong indicator that the fishing is decent in these nurturing backwaters.
There is a swimming beach on the bay and a boat launch.
Camp Milton Historic Preserve, Jacksonville
Camp Milton Historic Preserve, a City of Jacksonville park, has two unusual things about it – it interprets a rare-in-Florida Civil War site, and it is a trailhead for a terrific 14-mile paved bike path, the Jacksonville-Baldwin Trail.
Camp Milton was the base for 8,000 Confederate troops, who were defending against the Union troops who had taken Jacksonville. The Confederates erected three miles of earth and timber fortifications, traces of which have been found. Today you can see those traces (there’s not much left) as well as a re-creation of a late 19th-century homestead, a replica bridge, an arboretum and boardwalks.
The bike trail is a paved trail following a former railroad line that begins just west of Jacksonville and extends 14.5 miles west to the town of Baldwin. The trail goes through several habitats, past two creeks and wetlands and at time the tree canopy forms a tunnel over the pathway.
While at Camp Milton, watch for birds. The site was recently added to the Great Florida Birding Trail. Eastern bluebird, eastern meadowlark, palm warbler, and loggerhead shrike can be found in and around the fields by the entrance. Raptors like bald eagles, American kestrel, and sharp-shinned hawk (winter) may be spotted overhead. Check the creek area for songbirds.
Camp Milton has restrooms, picnic tables and drinking fountains. There is no playground and if you don’t ride the bike trail, you’ll probably be done with the park in an hour or two.
There is no entry or parking fee. Address: 1225 Halsema Rd N, Jacksonville, FL
Six more county parks you’ll love…
Includes links to more information on each park, with addresses linking to locator maps.
C.B. Smith Park, Broward County: This well-manicured park is one of South Florida’s best family-oriented recreation areas with a water park and multiple waterslides (closed in winter), batting cages, a golf driving range, tennis center, multiple picnic areas, playgrounds, and fishing lakes. The park has a well-groomed campground with 71 paved RV sites, full hookups. Day use: $1.50 per person on weekends and holidays; free on weekdays. Water park admission: $9.50 per person. Camping: $30-$40/night plus tax. Address: 900 N. Flamingo Road, Pembroke Pines, FL 33028. Phone: 954-357-5170.
Peanut Island, Riviera Beach, Palm Beach County: The very definition of hidden gem: It’s an island with camping, some of the best from-the-beach snorkeling in South Florida and a fascinating historic site, a bunker where President John F. Kennedy could hide during a nuclear attack.
Kelly Park, Apopka, Orange County: One of the finest public campgrounds in the state plus great swimming and tubing in Rock Springs, this park would make any “best parks” list. 400 E Kelly Park Rd, Apopka, FL 32712
Spruce Creek, Port Orange, Volusia County: At high tide, this is a great place to launch your kayak into scenic Spruce Creek. It also offers three miles of hiking trails, a boardwalk, kayak/canoe launch and a long fishing pier reaching into the marsh. 6250 S Ridgewood Ave, Port Orange, FL
This list includes only county-managed parks. For our favorite state parks, see Best Florida State Parks; Our 8 favorites . We also recommend some of the lesser visited state parks. Here are Hidden Gems: 12 state parks to discover.
We’d love to hear about some of your favorite county parks in the comments below.
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Veteran journalists who worked together at Fort Lauderdale’s SunSentinel newspaper, Bonnie and Bob founded FloridaRambler.com in 2010 to explore the natural, authentic Florida, writing about their natural interests in hiking, biking, paddling, RV and tent camping, wildlife, unique lodging, dining and historic places.