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.
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
Clermont, FL 34714
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
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
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.
1014 Miami Springs Drive
Longwood, FL 32779
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
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.
1920 N Forest Ave.
Orlando, FL 32803
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.
8777 Winter Garden – Vineland Road
Orlando, FL 32836
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.
12901 Moss Park Road
Orlando, FL 32832
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.
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.
Orlando Wetlands Park
Off the beaten path and uncrowded, the Orlando Wetlands Park is a wildlife lover’s refuge. It’s a half hour drive east of downtown Orlando and its free.
The 1650-acre manmade wetland offers some of the best wildlife viewing in Central Florida. Nature photographers love it. What’s even better: The city recently opened the 2,200 foot long Cypress Boardwalk that goes through a cypress island where birds nest.
The site provides advanced treatment of reclaimed water and over more than three decades, it attracted a lot of birds and animals that found it an ideal habitat.
There are free tram tours 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 Florida Rambler on visiting the Orlando Wetlands Park, including a map and visitor tips.
Orlando Wetlands Park
25155 Wheeler Road
Christmas, FL 32709.
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.
More outdoor adventures are available at these great beaches near Orlando:
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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.