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 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.
Dade Battlefield Historic State Park
7200 Co Rd 603, Bushnell, FL 33513
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 Geological State Park
4732 Millhopper Rd, Gainesville, FL 32653
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.
Faver-Dykes State Park
1000 Faver Dykes Road, St. Augustine, FL 32086
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.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve
33104 NW 192nd Ave, Okeechobee, FL 34972
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 Blue Springs State Park
799 Blue Springs Rd, Mayo, FL 32066
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 Springs
8300 NE, FL-6, Lee, FL 32059
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
18700 S, Co Road 325, Cross Creek, FL 32640
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.
Mound Key Archaeological State Park
Island reachable only by boat in Estero Bay, near the mouth of the Estero River
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.
Ochlockonee River State Park
429 State Park Road, Sopchoppy, FL
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.
- Florida Rambler story on Big Bend Scenic Byway, which includes Ochlockonee River State Park
Paynes Creek Historic State Park
888 Lake Branch Road, Bowling Green FL 33834
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
St. Lucie Inlet Preserve
Offshore island at Port Salerno
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.
Three Rivers State Park
7908 Three Rivers Park Rd, Sneads, FL 32460
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
Windley Key Fossil Reef State Park
84900 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, FL 33036
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.
- Florida Rambler story: Our Florida Keys Mile Marker Guide, which includes Windley Key
Hidden Gems: 12 Florida State Parks off the beaten path
- Windley Key Fossil Reef State Park
- Three Rivers State Park
- Dade Battlefield Historic State Park
- Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park
- Faver-Dykes State Park
- Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park
- Lafayette Blue Springs State Park
- Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park
- Estero Bay
- Ochlockonee River State Park
- Bowling Green
- Port Salerno
Resources for discovering the best Florida state parks
- Cabins in Florida State Parks
- The Florida State Parks website.
- Florida Rambler archive of articles about Florida State Parks
- List of Florida State Parks, each with attendance figures and economic impact
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning a trip, especially to areas hard hit by hurricanes.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.