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Outdoor adventures near Orlando theme parks: See the real Florida when visiting Disney 

Millions of people visit Orlando and miss the very best part.

I understand the draw of the theme parks, but Orlando is also a great base for discovering the authentic Florida of clear cold springs, gnarly cypress knees, mysterious swamps and hiking trails under majestic live oaks.

I’ve visited the area many times to explore the nature parks in Orlando, and these spots would make memorable additions to any visit to the area.

Here are some of our favorites we recommend to those who want more than theme parks in their Orlando visit.

Nature parks in Orlando: The bridge over Big Creek at Lake Louisa State Park in Clermont.
Nature parks in Orlando: The bridge over Big Creek at Lake Louisa State Park in Clermont. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Lake Louisa State Park in Clermont

This big beautiful park is just 20 minutes from Disney theme parks, but is a natural world with 20 miles of hiking trails, small lakes and streams and great cabins. Located on the east end of the vast Green Swamp, you’ll find wildlife, hills, cypress swamps and forests. Visitors for whom orange groves are exotic will enjoy hikes through forests that were once groves. In winter, the fruit (which you can sample) decorate the forest like ornaments on a Christmas tree. If you can extend your visit by a day or two, consider renting a cabin here. They are modern, well-equipped and have lovely views of a small lake from their big screen porches. There’s a campground too.

Lake Louisa State Park
7305 US-27
Clermont, FL 34714


Nature parks in Orlando: Swimmer explores Rock Springs Run at Kelly Park. (Photo by Bonnie Gross)
Nature parks in Orlando: Swimmer explores Rock Springs Run at Kelly Park. (Photo by Bonnie Gross)

Kelly Park and Rock Springs Run

The clear water and rocky shores make Rock Springs in Kelly Park a spectacular sight. Just 40 minutes from the theme parks, Rock Springs Run is great for swimming, tubing and kayaking. The entertainment complex in Disney World is called Disney Springs and recreates a Florida spring. Really? Wouldn’t you rather see the real thing? Go to Kelly Park instead. This is also a great place for picnics and camping.

Kelly Park at Rock Spring
400 East Kelly Park Rd.
Apopka, FL 32712
(407) 889-4179

Nature parks in Orlando: Wekiva River near Katie's Landing.
Nature parks in Orlando: Wekiva River near Katie’s Landing.

Wekiva River Basin

Kelly Park is located in this vast ecological preserve that offers an abundance of recreational opportunities with unique exposure to Florida’s great outdoors. Two places worth considering for an outing: Wekiva Springs State Park and Wekiva Island, both about 40 minutes from the theme parks.

Wekiwa Springs State Park offers swimming in the spring water plus kayak rentals and 25 miles of hiking trails in a dense tropical forest. This is a wild place; one of the few where black bear thrive. The Wekiva is one of two Florida rivers designated as Wild and Scenic by the US Department of the Interior.

Wekiwa Springs State Park
1800 Wekiwa Cirle
(407) 553-4383

Another way to access the river is via a commercial operation called Wekiva Island. Located on the river, it offers a party-like atmosphere with canoe, kayak, and paddleboard rentals, a boat launch, a food truck and a bar serving beer and wine.

Wekiva Island
1014 Miami Springs Drive
Longwood, FL 32779
(407) 862-1500


Nature parks in Orlando: Paddling on Single Creek (Photo: Miosotis Jade via Wikimedia)
Nature parks in Orlando: Paddling on Single Creek (Photo: Miosotis Jade via Wikimedia)

Shingle Creek

This regional park is the closest scenic paddling destination to the theme parks – within 25 minutes. It offers either guided tours or rentals of kayaks, canoes and standup paddleboards. Shingle Creek passes through an unspoiled cypress swamp, a green world of dappled shade where you have a good chance of seeing wildlife. Some call it a “real life jungle cruise.”

The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek
4266 W Vine St.
Kissimmee, FL 34741
(407) 343-7740


Nature parks in Orlando: Camelias blanket the ground during spring at Leu Gardens in Orlando. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Nature parks in Orlando: Camelias blanket the ground during spring at Leu Gardens in Orlando. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Harry P. Leu Gardens in Winter Park

Just 30 minutes from the theme parks, this 50-acre botanical garden is full of blooming flowers, tropical plants, scenic vistas and easy-to-walk trails. There’s even wildlife — visiting here, I saw two otters playing in the central lake just below the overlook. It would be easy to spend several hours wandering and admiring this beauty spot. Admission is $15. Here’s Florida Rambler on things to do in charming Winter Park, a story that includes Leu Gardens.

Leu Gardens
1920 N Forest Ave.
Orlando, FL 32803

Tibet-Butler Preserve

If you don’t have a lot of time and just want a walk in nature near the theme parks, this gem is 15 minutes from the Magic Kingdom. Trails and boardwalks pass through marshes, cypress swamps, pine flatwoods and scrub with chances to spot wildlife from deer to eagles to gopher tortoises. There are 3.6 miles of trails here and a large nature center too. Here’s the trail map for the preserve.

Tibet-Butler Preserve
8777 Winter Garden – Vineland Road
Orlando, FL 32836
(407) 254-1940

Moss Park and Split Oak Forest Park

About 30 minutes from the theme parks, these two adjacent parks offer an expanse of forest and hiking in the 2,000-acre forest that wraps a beautiful lakefront with picnic tables and pavilions. Wildlife is abundant — mostly deer and sandhill cranes —  and there is camping and kayaking in the two adjacent lakes. 

Moss Park
12901 Moss Park Road
Orlando, FL 32832
(407) 254-6840

Nature parks in Orlando: Manatees at Blue Spring State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Nature parks in Orlando:Manatees at Blue Spring State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Blue Spring State Park

This terrific park is the longest drive from the theme parks — an hour — but we think it’s worth it. In the winter, Blue Spring attracts hundreds of manatees to its crystal-clear spring run. It’s memorable to see these sea cows – and they are the size of a cow – floating blissfully in the spring. When the manatees leave in the spring, Blue Spring is opened to kayakers, swimmers and people floating downstream on tubes. You can rent kayaks and canoes here to explore the St. Johns River year-round. There are great cabins here as well as a campground.

Blue Spring State Park
2100 West French Ave.
Orange City, FL 32763.
(386) 775-3663.

Savage /Christmas Creek Preserve

With more than 1,000 acres, this quiet preserve 30 minutes from downtown Orlando has 14 different ecosystems, from oak hammocks to pine flatwoods to forested wetlands along Christmas Creek. It’s food for birding and wildlife such as gopher tortoise, sandhill cranes, turkey and deer. The park is known for its wildflowers in spring and fall. There are tails of various length available, from 1.5 mile loops to trails that are several miles long.

Map of trails at Savage/Christmas Creek Preserve

Orlando Wetlands Park

A half hour east of downtown Orlando, this free 1650-acre manmade wetland offers some of the best wildlife viewing in Central Florida. Nature photographers love it. The city recently opened the 2,200 foot long Cypress Boardwalk. The site provides advanced treatment of reclaimed water. There are also free tram tours here September through May on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Hikers can take a 3.9 mile loop trail or the 2.5 mile “birding loop.” Come prepared with hats and sunscreen; this is full sun. The park has restrooms. Here’s more information and here’s a PDF of a map and guide. It’s free. 25155 Wheeler Rd, Christmas, FL 32709

Visitors stroll on the boardwalk at the Oakland Nature Preserve. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Visitors stroll on the boardwalk at the Oakland Nature Preserve. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Oakland Nature Preserve

Five minutes off the Turnpike and 20 minutes from downtown Orlando, you’ll find this lovely free preserve and a .7 mile boardwalk to Lake Apopka. We ate our sandwiches here on a break from a long drive and during 20 minutes sitting in the shady shelter overlooking the lake we saw both an alligator cruise by and an American bald eagle fly overhead.

The preserve has a cracker-style building as its nature center and preserves one of the last original fish-camp cabins from the shores of Lake Apopka. Lake Apopka was a famous fishing destination with more than 16 fish camps until in the mid 20th Century, we polluted the lake and killed the fish. Happily, fish are again thriving in the lake and wildlife has returned.

In addition to the boardwalk, there are a half dozen short trails through the wooded preserve.

Oakland Nature Preserve, 747 Machete Trail, Oakland, FL 34760. (407) 905-0054

More outdoor adventures are available at these great beaches near Orlando:

Notes from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning visits.

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Friday 3rd of May 2019

Hi---like Susan's comment, I, too, look forward each month to reading your newsletter. But unlike Susan, I am a winter visitor and not an annual one, at that. What I think, each time I read one of your postings, is "what is the likelihood of encountering a snake at this location?" It is a thought that I cannot get out of my mind. How often DO you encounters snakes on your travels? Each time I have mentionned snakes, someone will say "but this is Florida and Florida IS snakes!" Yikes!!! We camp in a small trailer and do not always want to stay in manicured RV parks when we could be out in nature. But I have to say that it unnerves me, alot!, at the prospect of an encounter. Your thoughts??


Monday 2nd of November 2020

Ive been running at Kelly , Wakeiva and Blue Springs almost every weekend for the last 4 months, I've seen snakes twice. What i noticed is both times it was almost at noon. I don't think you will see any if you go early, as soon as they open. Its best because you are able to see more wild life (lots of deers). The later you go the less probability to see animals, they hide from humans. Some parks have annual passes with that they allow you to go early than the opening time.I hope my information helps you.

Bob Rountree

Wednesday 8th of May 2019

I encounter more snakes in my manicured yard than I do while camping in the woods. Yes, there are snakes in Florida. There are also snakes in Colorado and Canada and New York and Texas. Snakes ARE nature. I don't mean to downplay it, but I have never encountered snakes while camping in Florida and have never heard of anyone being bitten by a snake. Just keep your eyes open and don't trod where snakes thrive, such as high grass and rocky terrain. When paddling, it's a good habit to veer away from low-hanging tree limbs, although I have never seen snakes while kayaking, either.

Relax and enjoy Florida. We have a lot of nature! :-)

Bonnie Gross

Tuesday 30th of April 2019

Thank you so much, Susan. Sorry for the mistake and thanks for pointing it out so we could fix it!

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