If you’re looking for outdoor things to do in Florida, there’s no better time of year than spring and late fall, when the weather is mild, the storms are rare and the wildlife is abundant, bolstered by our migrating feathered friends seeking refuge from winter’s bite elsewhere in North America.
Dupuis Wildlife Management Area
The Dupuis Wildlife Management Area features an awesome family tent campground on a bucolic tropical pond, one mile deep into the 22,000-acre refuge. I really loved this campground for its scenic beauty and access to hiking and biking. Only tents and pop-up tent trailers are allowed on 16 spacious but primitive sites. Each site has a picnic table and a fire ring, and there are two composting outhouses. Drinking water is available from a single spigot shared by all campers.
There are also two open-field campgrounds in the refuge’s equestrian area, one of which is set aside specifically for equestrians. The RV campgrounds have rest rooms and water, but no hookups.
Camping is free at both campgrounds, and sites cannot be reserved, but you must have a special-use permit, which you can access online. For more information, go here or call the DuPuis WMA Visitor Center at (561) 924-5310.
The refuge’s 22 miles of hiking trails include a segment of the Florida National Scenic Trail, and horseback riding is permitted on 40 miles of equestrian trails. Desolate park roads offer excellent opportunities for bicycling. For a decent paddling experience, though, you’ll need to transport your kayak or canoe another 6-10 miles deeper into the preserve or 7 miles east to Lake Okeechobee.
The refuge, managed by the South Florida Water Management District, is on Kanner Highway (SR 76), 7 miles west of Indiantown on the Palm Beach/Martin County line and is open year around, except in hunting season.
Ten Thousand Islands
The tides are constantly on the move through the Ten Thousand Islands, going out even as they are coming in, creating currents and cross currents from channel to channel, island to island.
At the peak tides in Indian Key Pass, the main deep-water channel out of Everglades City, the current is moving so fast that it ripples the water’s surface as it squeezes through at near-whitewater velocity.
What a thrill! Quite a ride!
Timing, of course, is everything. The trip requires some planning, and you should start with the tide tables.
The best time to launch your boat is an hour before until three hours after high tide at the Barron River in Everglades City. The river is well marked out to Indian Key and it will give you time to swim from the sandbar and picnic before the tide turns, beckoning your return.
If you are going to do any back-country exploration, be sure you have a GPS with waypoints marked to take you back. It is easy to get lost in the narrow, winding channels that move through these dense mangrove. Every turn is deja vu: You think you’ve been here before.
If you have your own kayaks, launch from the Everglades National Park visitor center in Everglades City. There are also several kayak and canoe outfitters where you can rent a boat in Everglades City and on Chokoloskee Island.
Stop at the park visitor center to grab a map and leave rangers with your float plan. Free parking is available near the kayak launch area.
Big Cypress National Preserve
New recreation areas along Alligator Alley (Interstate 75) offer greater access to the Everglades, and now you can hop on the Florida Trail from the rest area at Marker 63 to hike into the Big Cypress Preserve. Here you can park in a large, safe parking lot on either the south side or the north side of the highway, close to restrooms, picnic tables and even vending machines, and begin a well-marked hike for miles.
From the parking lot on the north side, the hike begins along what was a gravel access road, Nobles Road, which is also suitable for cycling on fat-tire bikes. The trail is clearly blazed and easy to follow.
Thanks to a canal that parallels the road, one begins to see alligators, turtles and birds almost immediately. Cypress trees with air plants along a trail wild with wildflowers takes you deeper into a world of solitude — and the habitat of the rare Florida Panther.
Backpackers will find primitive campsites along the way (they’re free). Register at the sign-in box at the beginning of the trail and be sure to bring your own water. The closest campsite – about two miles from the parking lot – was a lovely clearing with a picnic table. This is a sunny trail, so bring sun protection, and get it done before the rainy season.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
The Florida Keys offer fabulous access to the only living coral reef in the continental United States, and two of the most popular snorkeling destinations are John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo and Looe Key Reef off Big Pine Key.
Another lesser known but equally awesome section of the reef is Sombrero Reef off Marathon. Indeed, I think it would be difficult to find any section of this 170-mile-long reef system that doesn’t impress.
The Great Florida Reef is about four miles wide and arcs from Key Largo around to (and 20 miles past) Key West, making it the third largest barrier reef system in the world behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Belize Barrier Reef.
No need to bring any gear, although you can if you have it, because there are dozens of full-service snorkel tours, dive boats and glass-bottom boats from Key Largo to Key West.
I’ve snorkeled Sombrero Reef a few times from my own boat, and toured the Pennekamp reef from a glass-bottom boat. Both experiences were fabulous, but I’d have to give the nod to swimming with the colorful fishes at Sombrero, an experience that can be duplicated anywhere in the Florida Keys.
Ocala National Forest
Encompassing more than 600 square miles of wilderness, Ocala National Forest is bursting with adventure. Hike the Florida Trail, camp in the deep woods, spend a lazy day at a cool, bubbling spring, ride a bike or a horse, paddle a spring run, a lake or a river.
Even if you are just out for a Sunday drive, Ocala National Forest will satisfy the urge to explore new destinations. Ramble the forest roads, stop anywhere and take a hike.
From vast Florida sand pine flatlands and cypress-studded wetland prairies to densely wooded oak hammocks and colorful palm-shaded sub-tropical oases, the variety of ecosystems is mind-blowing.
A 66-mile segment of the Florida Scenic Trail twists its way through the Ocala National Forest, and there are numerous trailheads, including access points in the Salt Springs Recreation Area and the Juniper Springs Recreation Area.
Although bicyclists can ride any of the hundreds of miles of forest roads, the only designated off-road trail in the Ocala National Forest is the challenging Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail, a 22-mile single-track loop through the deep woods and rolling hills.
There are more than 100 miles of equestrian trails running through Ocala National Forest, the most popular of which are the One Hundred Mile Trail and the Lake/Alachua/Marion County (LAM) trail, which is 34 miles long.
Primitive campers have the run of the forest. You can camp along any trail, even off the trail if you find a suitable site. Of course, whatever you bring into the forest, you must bring out. RVs are welcome at six forest campgrounds, which you can find at recreation.gov.
Go for a Sunday drive
Ormond Scenic Loop
Live oaks dripping with wisteria and interspersed with native sabal palms offer a dense canopy along the first leg of the Ormond Scenic Loop, one of the most picturesque destinations in northeast Florida.
The trail takes you through tunnels of live oaks and dense hardwood forests, sweeping grass savannas and saltwater marshes, coastal dune ecosystems and pristine beaches.
The 34-mile double loop starts on North Beach Street at Tomoka State Park, continues north along Old Dixie Highway, then jogs east on Walter Boardman Lane, jogging south then east on Highbridge Road until you cross the Intracoastal Waterway at High Bridge.
Immediately after crossing High Bridge, turn south onto John Anderson Drive and cruise alongside the Halifax River, eventually dipping into bustling Ormond Beach before swinging east to State Road A1A.
Heading north along the beach, you will be greeted by gentle sea breezes and the pristine dune environment of North Peninsula State Park.
The loop ends back at Highbridge Road, but it will be worth your while to continue cruising north on A1A through Gamble Rogers State Park to Flagler Beach, and old Florida beach town with tons of character.
Go to the beach
You remember the days when you could pull off to the side of State Road A1A almost anywhere on Florida’s Atlantic coast and drive into the dunes and park for a day at a quiet beach.
That’s still possible in a very unlikely place: The beaches that buffer Florida Power and Light’s St. Lucie Nuclear Plant on Hutchinson Island.
Boy, do these beaches bring back some memories. For years, I would skip from beach to beach, my surf fishing rods loaded and ready at the drop of a hat. I called those trips my “surf fishing safaris,” and they were always productive.
At Walton Rocks Beach, just south of the power plant, you’ll find dogs chasing Frisbees or galloping in the surf to retrieve a tennis ball. Just north of the power plant, you’ll find naked people at St. Lucie County’s only clothing optional beach.
If neither appeals to you, you’ll find pockets for parking and boardwalks crossing dunes to miles of unspoiled beaches.
Getting there: Hop on A1A at Fort Pierce (don’t skip lunch at Archie’s) or Stuart (plan a side trip to the Elliott Museum and the House of Refuge.)
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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.