There are wonderful natural places in South Florida, but first you have to drive through gridlock past dense development to find them.
Those little slices of nature aren’t easy to find. I’ve lived in Fort Lauderdale for 40 years and I’ve visited nearly all the parks in South Florida, from the wonderful national parks down to some real gems among the county parks.
In South Florida, we don’t have enough open space and we have too few hiking and biking trails. Nevertheless, I have come to love the ones I recommend here.
Parks in South Florida: West Broward County
One of the prettiest short nature hikes around is Fern Forest Nature Center, 201 S Lyons Rd, Coconut Creek. First thing to like: It’s free. Primarily, though, I like the half-mile-long, wheelchair- and stroller-accessible boardwalk. The trail winds through a tropical hardwood hammock and a very pretty cypress-maple swamp, providing a taste of what South Florida looked like before we paved it over.
Those who want a longer hike can take the additional one-mile Prairie Overlook Trail loop (not a boardwalk, so not accessible to wheels.) We’ve seen gopher tortoises and armadillo here and we always stop to see the snakes and exhibits in the nature center.
Tree Tops Park and Pine Island Ridge offer a walk under some of the most beautiful live oak trees you can find in Broward County. I also like the exhibit panels inside the nature center that tell the story of Sam Jones, the Seminole chief who lived here. There’s a statue of him nearby that was built because school children lobbied for it. Tree Tops is probably the best place for a two- or three-mile-long hike in Broward County, and it’s largely shady. 3900 SW 100th Ave., Davie. Admission is $1.50 per person on weekends and holidays.
While you’re in the area, stop at nearby Brian Piccolo County Park to spot burrowing owls.This busy family park with soccer fields and large parking lots is a stop on the Florida Birding Trail because of its large population of adorable burrowing owls. 9501 Sheridan St, Hollywood.
Nearby, Flamingo Gardens in Davie has a hefty admission fee ($24 adults; $17 children 3 to 11 ) but offers a lot: Exotic tropical trees and flowers, historic citrus groves, Florida birds in an aviary where you see them up really close, an interesting mix of animals including flamingoes and otters, plus a bit of Broward history via a pioneer home. A narrated tram tour is also included in admission.
Within a mile of Flamingo Gardens is Long Key Nature Center, which has a half-mile trail through a magnificent oak hammock and a nature center. The park is free. 3501 SW 130th Ave., Davie.
Parks in eastern Broward County
On the eastern side of Broward, Anne Kolb Nature Center preserves some of the rarest land among parks in South Florida — mangrove wetlands. The park offers trails for hiking and biking and West Lake, which comprises most of this park, is a favorite for kayaking.
Within a mile of the nature center is West Lake Park, where you launch or rent kayaks to paddle on West Lake and the water around the Anne Kolb preserve. There are three well-marked kayak trails winding through the mangroves. Be sure to get a brochure when you pay your $3 admission to the park, West Lake Park, 1200 Sheridan St., Hollywood.
An alternative places to picnic and launch your kayak on West Lake Park is Holland Park, 801 Johnson St., Hollywood, where West Lake meets the Intracoastal. The park has pavilions, a boardwalk overlooking the Intracoastal, a short nature trail, restrooms and a waterfront observation tower. If you launch from here, paddle toward the Intracoastal and you’ll immediately come to an entrance into the maze of mangrove-lined canals. If you paddle way from the Intracoastal, you reach West Lake where, a short distance north, is the entrance to the green kayak trail. 801 Johnson St., Hollywood.
This Broward County state park is a gem because it preserves a coastal ridge as well as a chunk of Fort Lauderdale’s beach. Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, 3109 E Sunrise Blvd, Fort Lauderdale, In urban South Florida, it is a small sliver of the natural splendor once all around. There’s a lot to do here: beach, biking, shaded picnics, Intracoastal views.
When visiting Birch State Park, a perfect day includes a stop to nearby Bonnet House. On the south side of Sunrise Boulevard, tucked away surrounded by colorful gardens with wild spider monkeys, wading birds and swans, is Bonnet House, a whimsical tropical estate listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1920, it’s a 35-acre oceanfront estate designed by artists as a place to live the good life in winter.
Of course, South Florida’s favorite open space is along the Atlantic Ocean. Our favorite Broward beach is Mizell Johnson State Park in Dania Beach. It’s an excellent place to do a little beach combing or swimming. At this park you can walk for 2.5 miles along what is Broward’s most natural beach and it is easy to find space away from people. Admission is $6 per vehicle. 6503 N. Ocean Dr., Dania Beach.
Secret Woods Nature Center does feel like a secret place in that you’d never know this special respite from urban development is even here. It has one mile of trails and boardwalks through mangroves and under large trees with some beautiful overlooks where the trail meets the New River. This park is free. 2701 W. State Road 84, Fort Lauderdale.
Parks and gardens in Miami-Dade County
On of the most beautiful spots in South Florida is the tip of Key Biscayne at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.
This park has something for everybody: an award-winning beach, a historic landmark lighthouse you can climb for a spectacular view, fishing, hiking and even dining in its waterfront restaurants. It’s easy to spend hours here. Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. Admission is $8 per car plus there is a toll to reach Key Biscayne (but what beautiful views you get along the way!)
Olete River State Park, 400 NE 163rd St, North Miami Beach, 10 minutes from sprawling Aventura Mall, is a remarkable island of green where you can kayak, mountain bike, picnic and enjoy a sandy beach. Many will be surprised to discover there is a wooded peninsula here where 14 small rustic cabins are available for rent inexpensively.
Another great day is to tour Fairchild Tropical Gardens. It’s expensive: $25 for adults, less for seniors and kids. But it truly is world-class botanical garden with more to see than you can fit in a day’s outing.
A lesser known and less expensive botanic garden is further south in Pinecrest. Pinecrest Gardens is the 14 acress site of the old Parrot Jungle attraction and include historic cages (sounds odd but they’re quite interesting), old exotic trees and a jungly landscape. Pinecrest Gardens was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. Admission is only $5 ($3 for seniors) so this is an inexpensive alternative. It’s not huge, but there’s a lot to appreciate here.
National parks in Miami Dade County
Take your guests to discover the Everglades in one of these two sure-fire ways: Either go to Shark Valley and take the tram tour (or walk or bike the paved trail) or go to the Homestead entrance and take the Anhinga Trail.
Here’s a good overview about visiting the Everglades. With either experience, you will see alligators and you will see scads of impressive birds — guaranteed. And, as Marjorie Stoneman Douglas put it: There are no other Everglades. Note that admission to Everglades National Park is now $30 per carload, good for seven days.
Parks in South Florida: Palm Beach County
Two free boardwalks in Palm Beach County are my go-to places for visitors. You don’t have to be a birder to love the extremely visible and profuse wildlife at Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach and Green Cay Wetlands in Boynton Beach. (Note: Green Cay is closed during winter 2019-2020 for repairs.) You will see alligators. You will see anhingas, cormorants, herons, coot, moorhen and many other birds. And they will be easy to spot, unafraid and close to the boardwalk. I usually see more wildlife here than on a long trek to the Everglades!
Quite close to Wakodahatchee and Green Cay is the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, another good place to get outdoors and look for birds and wildlife. The boardwalk behind the nature center is a beautiful, easy stroll, good for wheelchairs and strollers. You don’t see wildlife there, but the swamp has a wild beauty all its own. Admission is $5.
If you live further north and love to see wading birds, consider Peaceful Waters in Wellington. In winter, it attracts lots of birds that are easy to view up close. (That article suggests a few other places to take a walk in Wellington.)
MacArthur Beach State Park in North Palm Beach has almost two miles of beach, lined with wild sand dunes covered with native vegetation. There are no parks in South Florida whose beaches rival the length and beauty of MacArthur Beach. There’s even a reef off shore to which you can swim and snorkel. But the rest of the park is special, too.
A scenic 1,600-foot boardwalk crosses a waterway that separates the parking lot and nature center from the beach. The waterway is a small cove of Lake Worth, rich with estuary creatures, including oyster beds and wading birds. This is also a good place to put in a kayak. Admission is $5. 10900 Jack Nicklaus Dr., North Palm Beach.
Also further north, there are many outstanding places to visit in the Jupiter area. Jonathan Dickinson State Park has a great variety of ways to entertain visitors: horseback riding, biking (you can rent them there), going on a boat tour, kayaking the beautiful Loxahatchee (again, you can rent kayaks and canoes) and hiking, Here’s a complete guide to Jonathan Dickinson State Park.
Bicycle or walk on an Everglades levee
These aren’t exactly parks in South Florida, but they do offer recreation and open space. Several Everglades levees have been repurposed as biking and hiking trails. Few are paved. They are generally hard-packed shell rock that skinny tires can handle, but are perhaps safer on fat tires. They can also be walked. The broad expanse of the Everglades is an inspiring view, but the problem with these trails is the view really doesn’t change.
My favorite: The Blue Gill Trail in Palm Beach County. This levee trail begins on PGA Boulevard at the end of the developed part of Palm Beach Gardens, and leads through the Loxahatchee Slough to Riverbend Park in Jupiter. It’s a 10-mile round-trip, and there are appealing extensions at each end. The trailhead on PGA Boulevard is called Sandhill Crane Access Park and it’s great: There are good restrooms, a few picnic tables, an overlook, a boat dock and parking. (No potable water, however, so bring plenty of your own.)
You also can start a levee trail at Broward’s northern border at Lox Road, where there is parking, an airboat operator and lots of fishermen. If you ride south from here, after the first three miles, you are adjacent to the Sawgrass Expressway. It’s 8.5 miles to Atlantic Boulevard.
A much quieter and more remote route starts at the end of Atlantic Boulevard, where a trail head serves a levee that extends 10 miles straight through the Everglades to U.S. 27 – no roads, no cars, few people and, unfortunately, not a single speck of shade. This is also quite a rocky trail. To find the trailhead at the end of Atlantic Boulevard, go straight at the light on Atlantic as you go under the Sawgrass Expressway. The road curves around until you come to about 20 parking spaces, often filled with fishermen. (There are no restroom facilities.)
A third place to start your levee bike ride is from Markham Park in Sunrise. From here, you can pedal for six miles with the vast vista of the Everglades, never crossing a road or encountering any vehicle traffic. To reach the trail, as you turn into Markham Park from State Road 84, you can take an immediate left into a parking lot for the levee trails. This occurs before you pay the $3 admission to the park. On the other hand, you might pay your $3 admission and enjoy a shaded picnic and use the facilities here before or after your ride.
Like the other levee trails, this is a bit of an endurance test – it’s not paved, there’s no shade and the scenery doesn’t change. 16001 State Road 84, Sunrise.
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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.