We’ve discovered lots of hidden jewels exploring Florida — places we didn’t know about until we stumbled on them. And many of them have one thing in common – they are county parks.
County parks are often well-loved and well-known to locals, but out-of-towners often don’t hear about them.
That’s a shame, because the best county parks preserve some extraordinary spots off the beaten path.
Here are six of our favorites and why we love them:
Princess Place Preserve, Palm Coast, Flagler County
This is a magical place with a long and interesting history plus all kinds of recreational opportunities. Princess Place preserves 1,500 of pristine land midway between St. Augustine and Flagler Beach. It 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. And admission is free.
Here’s a Florida Rambler story about visiting Princess Place Preserve.
Fort DeSoto, Tierra Verde, Pinellas County
The three miles of beautiful white sand at Fort DeSoto Park is consistently ranked among the best beaches in the nation. Fort DeSoto is at the entrance to Tampa Bay, in St. Petersburg. Its size and range of recreational activities will make you think it’s a state, not a county, park. All of these are terrific at Fort DeSoto: Beaches, birding, fishing, kayaking and camping. There is even a seven-mile paved bike trail, a ferry to an undeveloped island that is a state park (Egmont Key) and a dog beach!
Learn more about visiting Fort DeSoto from this Florida Rambler story
Tigertail Beach, Marco Island, Collier County
Manicured Marco Island is known for its beautiful beach, which is 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: 10 years ago it was an off-shore sand bar. In 2005, however, Hurricane Wilma dumped sand at the southern end, connecting it to the mainland. You can reach Tigertail by walking north from the main beach, but most people take a short-cut and wade across a shallow lagoon to reach the beach. 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.
Here’s a Florida Rambler story with details on visiting Tigertail Beach
Circle B Bar Reserve, Lakeland, Polk County
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.
Read details about visiting Circle B Bar Reserve from Florida Rambler.
Riverbend Park, Jupiter, Palm Beach County
Located on the Loxahatchee, one of only two federally designated wild and scenic rivers, Riverbend Park has a lot going for it. It’s where you launch a kayak to paddle the most pristine stretch of the Loxahatchee. 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 where a key battle in the Second Seminole War, the Battle of the Loxahatchee, was fought. This peach of a park is also free.
Here’s a Florida Rambler article on visiting Riverbend Park.
Moss Park, Orlando, Orange County
This could be Orlando’s best-kept secret. Only 20 minutes from Disney theme parks, it offers great camping plus boating, kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, hiking, playgrounds, biking, fishing, picnic areas, a swimming beach, bird-watching, orienteering. The park is adjacent to the 2,000-acre Split Oak Preserve, offering miles of trails to explore. It nestles between Lake Nona and Lake Hart and there is a large pond. The park has abundant wildlife. In one night of camping, we saw two pairs of sandhill cranes and throughout the campground, small herds of deer emerged from the preserve to graze.
This Florida Rambler article on Moss Park provides details.
More great Florida county parks from Florida Rambler:
Spruce Creek, Port Orange, Volusia County: At high tide, this is a great place to launch your kayak into Spruce Creek. It also offers hiking trails, a kayak/canoe launch and a long fishing pier.
Hathaway Park, Punta Gorda, Charlotte County: We fell in love with kayaking Shell Creek here. So much natural beauty.
Kelly Park, Apopka, Orange County: One of the best public campgrounds in the state plus great swimming and tubing in Rock Springs Run.
Clam Pass Park, Naples, Collier County: I loved discovering this beautiful beach where the small pass creates a tidal flow and natural lazy river effect.
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.
West Lake Park, Hollywood Beach, Broward County: One of the most accessible and natural places to kayak in urban Broward County.
Lithia Springs, Lithia, Hillsborough County: This park has very nice wooded, private campsites and a freshwater spring whose cold and crystal clear water makes a great swimming hole. While summer weekends are packed, weekdays, when school is in session or in cooler weather, the park will feel serene.