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National parks in Florida: 11 treasures, even some you haven’t visited

Last updated on January 14th, 2022 at 09:32 pm

Quick: Name a national park in Florida.

You said Everglades National Park, right?

You probably didn’t say Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve or De Soto National Memorial.

And therein lies a great opportunity, because there are 11 national parks in Florida, several of which are little known hidden treasures. The parks stretch from the Panhandle, where Gulf Islands National Seashore is so far west it is in the Central Time Zone, to Dry Tortugas National Park, a remote island 70 miles off Key West.

Some people go on road trips to see how many national parks in the US they can visit. You can go on a roadtrip to explore national parks in Florida — and you’d still have to drive at least 1,200 miles to see them all!

To help you plan trips to discover these national treasures, here’s a guide to national parks in Florida.

National parks in Florida, Northern section

National parks in Florida: Castillo de San Marco in St. Augustine. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
National parks in Florida: St. Augustine visitors should make sure to visit the historic fort, one of the top national parks in Florida. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

The star of St. Augustine, this fort will thrill history lovers, but I think it will wow just about anybody.

First, it is spectacularly scenic. The beautiful coquina-stone fort is three centuries old and offers unobstructed waterfront views.

Secondly, the living history programming is entertaining. Before closing for the pandemic, volunteers and rangers in accurate period guard demonstrated how to fire a cannon at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It’s worth planning your visit to experience this when it reopens.

Fort Matanzas National Monument

Fort Matanzas is one of my favorite Florida hidden gems because it involves a ferry ride across a beautiful inlet AND it is free.

Located 14 miles south of the St. Augustine fort, is a smaller Spanish fort built 50 years after the Castillo de San Marcos. Fort Matanzas has expansive views of water and marshland and wildlife is abundant: Dolphin are frequently spotted in the water; wading birds fish along the shore, osprey fly overhead. After a short boat ride across the Matanzas River, you can climb a very narrow ladder to get to the top of the tower — people were smaller then! — for a tour of the compact fort.

National parks in Florida: Roads and trails through the Timucuan Preserve pass through an Old Florida landscape. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
National parks in Florida: Roads and trails through the Timucuan Preserve pass through a lovely Old Florida landscape. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

I had lived in Florida for decades before I discovered the Timucuan Preserve, a national park near Jacksonville with 46,000 acres of salt marshes, coastal dunes, and hardwood hammocks.

The Timucuan Preserve is home to several remarkable historical sites, including my favorite, the Kingsley Plantation, a 1798 plantation house that tells a story of slavery and a family whose saga could only happen in Florida. (Read a little about this remarkable saga here. ) In addition to the history, the Timucuan Preserve has excellent hiking trails, kayaking, fishing and an Old Florida look and feel. .

Fort Caroline National Memorial

Fort Carolina is located on the bluffs of the St. Johns. The pile of shells and sand is only 60 feet high, but it is the highest point in Duval County.

The French had a short reign in Florida in the 1500 and 1600s, and this site tells the little-known story of French settlers in Florida. History buffs will like the replica of the original fort, built at one-third scale, and the displays. Others appreciate several hiking trails and the beautiful view of the St. Johns River.

This is a good picnic spot; it would be easy to spend a few hours here exploring trails and history. Across the road from the monument is Spanish Pond, a key location in the battle between the French and Spanish. Today, there are boardwalks and trails. Near the Fort Caroline Monument is the Theodore Roosevelt Area, another good place to hike.

National parks in Florida: With white sand that looks like snow drifts on a windy day, this is the Opal Beach section of Gulf Island National Seashore. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
National parks in Florida: With white sand that looks like snow drifts on a windy day, this is the Opal Beach section of Gulf Island National Seashore. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Gulf Islands National Seashore

This national park stretches along the Gulf Coast from far western Florida into Mississippi encompassing some of the best beaches in America plus several historic forts and sites.

Highlights in Florida are Fort Pickens and many miles of pristine barrier island with sand like sugar. One thing that makes Gulf Islands National Seashore so special is the expansiveness of it — you can find unspoiled, uncrowded, spectacular beaches and shore birds and dolphins.

National parks in Central Florida

Eldora Statehouse and Museum at Canaveral National Seashore
National parks in Florida: The historic Eldora Statehouse and Museum at Canaveral National Seashore.

Canaveral National Seashore

Located east of Orlando on the Atlantic, Canaveral National Seashore is the longest undeveloped beach in Florida, 24 miles of pristine coastal sanctuary for people and wildlife.

The sprawling park adjoins the Kennedy Space Center and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, giving it a remote location and secluded feel. With a wild area at its center, you must enter either from the south or the north, with no road connecting the two. Besides all the swimming, fishing and beachcombing opportunities, Canaveral National Seashore has fascinating historic sites and hiking trails.

The DeSoto National Memorial has benches and picnic tables with scenic views of the Bradenton River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
National parks in Florida: The DeSoto National Memorial has benches and picnic tables with scenic views of the Bradenton River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

De Soto National Memorial

Because people from Great Britain founded the United States, most of us learn little about the Spanish, who came to Florida earlier but whose influence faded. As a result, a national memorial about conquistador Hernando de Soto covers what may be fresh ground for many of us.

This park occupies 26 beautiful acres on a peninsula where the Manatee River joins Tampa Bay. It has spectacular views with benches positioned for those who want to watch the passing boat traffic. A well-done three-quarter-mile trail goes along the water and through the mangroves, telling the story of the indigenous people and the Spanish explorers. There are several small beaches.

In winter, a Living History Camp features rangers and volunteers dressed in period clothing with demonstrations and talks, and this is expect to be offered in winter 2020-21.

  • After a long closure, the visitor center at De Soto National Memorial is open, along with nature trails and restroom.
  • Entry fee: None
  • Address: 8300 Desoto Memorial Highway, Bradenton, FL 34209
  • Website for Desoto National Memorial

National parks in South Florida

A cannon from the HMW Fowey, which sunk off Boca Chita in 1748. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
National parks in Florida: On Boca Chita Island, a cannon from the HMW Fowey, which sunk off Boca Chita in 1748, overlooks the water. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Biscayne National Park

Biscayne is certainly a different sort of national park — it’s 95% underwater. Located south of Miami, it offers adventures underwater, on the water and near the water. On land, there’s an excellent visitor center, attractive picnic sites and beautiful views.

There are several boat trips to help you see more, including the most popular boat tour, which is to Boca Chita, an island with a fascinating back story. You also can take snorkeling trips, including snorkeling on a shipwreck. Kayaking from the mainland is a good option, as is the tour to Stiltsville, an area in Biscayne Bay where seven historic stilt houses are remnants of bygone days.

National parks in Florida: Beach at the Dry Tortugas National Park: Campsites are steps away. Terrific snorkeling is right off this beach along the walls of the fort. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Dry Tortugas National Park

This is one of the least-visited national parks because it is a lot of trouble to get there. But it’s worth it.

A few good reasons to visit this island 70 miles west of Key West: the Civil War era Fort Jefferson, the extensive bird life, the dazzling snorkeling in clear turquoise water, the sheer beauty of this speck of land and surrounding seas.

The park can only be reached by ferry (about $175 per person) or seaplane (around $360 per person.) Because of the difficult reaching it, consider planning a camping trip so you can spend some time.

Alligator viewed from boardwalk at the Big Cypress Visitor Center along the Tamiami Trail.
National parks in Florida: Alligator viewed from boardwalk at the Big Cypress Visitor Center along the Tamiami Trail. (Photo: David Blasco)

Big Cypress National Preserve

Adjacent to Everglades National Park, Big Cypress was established as a “preserve” rather than a park so that its 729,000 acres could still be available for activities not allowed in the national park, such as swamp buggies and air boats.

For visitors, a key advantage of Big Cypress is that since it has no fee, it is a good alternative for those who want an Everglades swamp experience without paying the hefty price to enter Everglades National Park.

Some of the best paddling trails in the Everglades are actually in Big Cypress — Turner River kayak trail, for example. There’s also good hiking and a wonderful rustic backroad, Loop Road, where you are likely to see wildlife.

National parks in Florida: The view from a houseboat in Everglades National Park (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Everglades National Park

This best-known Florida national park is huge and varied, stretching from the Atlantic to the Gulf across the bottom of the Florida peninsula, with three entrances and dozens of trails for hiking and kayaking.

It’s known for its vast and visible wildlife. It’s not hard to see alligators and even crocodiles. Manatees routinely hang out in the Flamingo Marina; dolphins commonly swim along boat tours from the Gulf Visitor Center. Thousands of wading birds migrate here in the winter.

It’s not a park that wows you through a windshield. You need to experience it by being immersed in it on foot or by boat.

Note: Check website for each park for up-to-date closure information during pandemic.

National park fees and free days

Every year, the national parks offer several free days — Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the first day of National Park Week, the anniversary of the National Park Service, National Public Lands Day and Veterans Day. See this story to see dates for this year.

Current members of the military and veterans get free admission. In 2021, the families of fourth and fifth grade students also enter without fees. Details on those programs and other passes are in this Florida Rambler story.

Discounted passes to national parks are available for senior citizens. Additionally, the annual America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass allows unlimited entrance to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas, including all national parks.  (In 2020, the cost is $80 for this annual pass.) Here’s more information about passes.


A note from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning your trip by following the applicable links in this article.

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Jeff Wade

Sunday 11th of October 2020

You're right! We need to checkout these parks! I look forward to it! :-)

Steven Bryant

Thursday 1st of October 2020

Awesome! Those of us who live in Florida should really make an effort to see the real Florida. There are so many places I can't wait to visit. Thank you for the great site.

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