From snorkeling North America’s largest coral reef to hiking old-growth forests, the Sunshine State has something for everyone
Traveling on a peninsula has its advantages, especially if that peninsula is Florida. The 500-mile-long, 160-mile-wide spit of land that divides the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean offers one of the most diverse adventure portfolios in the lower 48. You can surf one coast and snorkel the other—if you’re a go-getter, you could do both in the same day. Beach camping, old-growth hiking, alligator spotting… you can roll from the surf to a safari, or spend the morning on a mountain bike and the afternoon on a paddleboard. Where to start? Here are a few of our favorite adventures in the Sunshine State.
Surf Cocoa Beach
Yup, this is where Kelly Slater first began to hone his skills. You should bring a longboard, though, as the consistent, rolling beach break is ideal for bigger-volume boards. Expect waist-high waves throughout the town’s various access points, but Cocoa Beach Pier has the most consistent break, and hosts a number of surf comps throughout the year. Wait for high tide to find the biggest waves at the pier, or sign up for a lesson with School of Surf and let your guide worry about the details. Make time to hop into Ron Jon, the biggest surf shop in the world.
Snorkel North America’s Largest Coral Reef
Just off Key Largo, you’ll find one of the largest coral reef systems in the world, protected by the expansive Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. If you’re new to snorkeling, head to John Pennekamp State Park, where you can walk straight from the beach to snorkel through seagrass. (Look for a sunken cannon off Cannon Beach.) For spectacular coral, hire a boat and head to the heart of the sanctuary, where you’ll find miles of reefs (and a sunken statue of Christ) teeming with sea life in relatively shallow water. Molasses Reef, an expansive complex of wrecks and colorful coral formations, is probably the most dramatic, and the popular stomping grounds of sea turtles, nurse sharks, and schools of parrot fish. Book a trip through a Blue Star–rated guide service like Keys Diver to ensure you’re with an operator that runs a sustainable tour.
Mountain-Bike a Roller Coaster
Alafia River State Park, near Tampa, has 20 miles of IMBA-approved bike-only singletrack cruising through an old phosphate mining site that offers fast and frequent elevation changes. Warm up on the beginner-friendly Rock Garden and River Loop trails, which are tight and rooty, before combining Roller Coaster, an aptly named intermediate 3.5-mile loop, with Moonscape, a double black with some of the biggest features in the park. The signature feature of the system is a drop-off-style descent that rolls immediately into a steep climb, like riding a natural halfpipe. Rent bikes at the University Bicycle Center, and don’t forget your helmet.
SUP a Massive Aquarium
St. Joseph Bay is a shallow-water pool cut off from the rest of the Gulf by Cape San Blas. It’s been described as a giant aquarium, thanks to the healthy populations of turtles, dolphins, fish, and seahorses that swim in the warm water. And that aquarium is hemmed in by the 17-mile-long Cape San Blas, which has undeveloped sugar-white beaches lined with the tallest sand dunes in the state, all protected by St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. A paddleboard gives you the best perspective of the marine life living just below the surface. Happy Ours Kayak has a fleet of rental boards and eco-tours and runs scalloping tours in August and September.
Paddle the Everglades
Everglades National Park has some of the most otherworldly landscape in the U.S., offering a subtropical wilderness that’s stacked with coastal lowlands, mangroves, and more endangered species than we can count. You’ll have the chance to see big game, too, from alligators to the Florida panther. The Everglades is more water than land, so a kayak or canoe is your best tool for exploration, and with 1.5 million acres to choose from, you’re going to need to focus. Head to the Flamingo entrance for turn-key adventures with boat rentals and a system of ready-to-explore paddle trails winding through the southern tip of the Glades. Nine Mile Pond is a five-mile loop through grassy marsh and mangrove islands with plenty of gators and birds. Noble Hammock is a shorter, two-mile, maze-like loop following narrow creeks through mangroves.
Tube through a Jungle
Central Florida is loaded with natural springs, where crystal-clear water bubbles from the earth in pools and rivers, offering a natural respite from the heat. At Rock Springs in Kelly Park, near Orlando, the water emerges from a cave and forms a mile-long creek that’s 68 degrees year-round, running through a subtropical jungle that looks like something out of a theme park. You can tube or snorkel the creek, which has carved a path through Florida’s limestone, and do laps thanks to the tubers’ trail that runs adjacent to the creek.
One of Florida’s oldest state parks, Highlands Hammock earned state park status in 1935 after locals made a push to have the area designated a national park. It’s 9,000 acres, with large tracts of cypress swamp and an old-growth canopy that boasts thousand-year-old oaks. To explore it, link up several of the park’s trails and boardwalks that cross creeks and weave through the swamps. Expect to find plenty of lush ferns on the forest floor and wispy air plants and Spanish moss hanging from the canopy. Keep an eye out for black bear and panther tracks on firm ground, and the leathery backs of alligators in the swamps.
Wander and discover Florida's natural wonders, from crystal clear springs, natural caverns, and mangrove tunnels, to the only living coral barrier reef in the continental U.S. For inspiration on your next adventure, go explore at VISITFLORIDA.com.