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Florida is a huge state with diverse offerings, and many landscapes looking more like wall paintings. The northwest part of the Sunshine State is giving metropolitan areas a run for recognition with so many natural attractions. TravelingMom went looking for springs and natural landscapes that were not overrun with huge crowds – and found them! Picture all that beauty with an affordable price tag for spring break and summer road trips, too.
Discovering Northwest Florida’s Outdoor Playground
There is more to Florida than beaches, Disney, and traffic. Read on to find four detailed tips from a mom who has explored 36 states – and still raves about Florida!
These are laid back discoveries with small town charms in Northwest Florida that I encountered on a recent trip. Although I traveled with a small group of adult friends, I know my kids would have enjoyed it as well.
1. Experience A Rare Opportunity At The Seacrest Wolf Preserve
Visiting the Seacrest Wolf Preserve was unlike anything that I had ever done. Ricky, a passionate staff member who values the preserve as much as the owners do, led the tour. We were briefed on safety and “wolf business,” and then led into the more than two acre areas that housed each wolf pack.
This wolf preserve is home to 44 wolves and the facility runs like a well oiled machine. Seacrest Wolf Preserve understands the habits of wolves and maintains and protects these endangered animals to the utmost degree. I was impressed at the level of expertise the staff exhibited, especially about mating season and how to introduce wolf pups to their pack.
Four wolf pups, weighing 80 pounds at 10 months old, were there to interact with us and feed snacks to. The pups ever so gently ate balls of raw meat from the palms of our hands and made their way over to us to be scratched and rubbed. One of the pups laid down in a submissive manner for one of the guys on the tour. It was adorable; I was immediately smitten.
We toured the Seacrest Wolf Preserve on a VIP private tour, which is available daily with advance reservation. For a large group tour, visit the facility on Saturday. Seacrest has Gray, Arctic, and British Columbian wolves on the premises, as well as a few smaller animals such as Arctic foxes and raccoons. Check out the tastefully stocked gift shop for some wolf souvenirs and fun t-shirts. I recommend this tour to any animal lover.
Special note: Some preserves have “wolf dogs,” but those at Seacrest are 100% wolves.
2. Tour The Florida State Caverns
Florida State Caverns are the only place in the state where you can tour dry (air-filled) caves. A small group and I were guided by a park ranger through the caverns for an up close and personal cave visit. We entered the Florida Cavern, amazed that the limestone stalactites and stalagmites were close enough to touch. Beautiful formations of draperies, soda straws, and flowstones winded from the ceilings and up from the floor. The temperature is a constant 68-70 degrees.
The caves are quite formidable. My favorite was The Wedding Room, which has a formation resembling a large wedding cake. Our tour was a bit strenuous. At times, we had to duck through narrow passageways and step around water holes. There was so much to see!
At the end of our tour, we were allowed to touch one cold and wet piece of rock formation. This is the first cavern I have visited that permitted that. Other things to do in the Florida State Caverns Park are fishing, hiking, golfing, and horseback riding (you must bring your own). A gift shop and small museum are also worth visiting.
3. Cruise The Chipola River – Merritts Mill Pond
Located in Northwest Florida’s historic town of Marianna, Merritts Mill Pond is more like a river than a spring-fed pond due to its size. It is known for cave-diving and first-class fishing. We took a pontoon boat ride with Cave Adventurers up to Blue Spring, one of the eight springs available along Merritts Mill Pond’s four mile waterway. Gorgeous moss-draped cypress trees lined the banks around us and looked like a famous wall painting more than landscape. Birds nestled in the trees and turtles watched our every move from floating logs.
When we arrived at the crystal-clear spring, we docked to take a closer look. Blue Spring discharges approximately 650,000 gallons of water each day and keeps a 68 degree water temperature year-round. Who knew that Florida was such a spring-hopper destination?
4. Dive And Swim At Vortex Spring
Vortex Springs is best known for freshwater diving. It is the largest diving facility in Florida, and where my daughter and husband were certified years ago. If you are a diver or interested in diving, you can experience scuba, skin, cave, and night diving all on the property.
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There are student platforms at the 20 foot below level with instructor “talk boxes” and all sorts of savvy dive training structures, all emphasising safety. I was amazed by how many diving specialities Vortex Spring offered. Doc and Ruth Dockery, the founders of Vortex Spring, created the red and white “Diver Down” flag.
The 420-acre playground at Vortex Spring offers camping and lodging units for families or large groups, with a hostel style setting for groups of 20 or so people. Camping hook-ups are available for campers and RVs. When I visited, Vortex Spring was making some improvements and changes in traffic to the swimming area, which features swings, slides, zipline, and several fun things to play on while floating down the long waterway, such as a trapeze swing with a nine foot drop into the water. That looked incredibly fun!
Rental equipment is available at the onsite dive shop. Vortex Spring also has paddle boating, tubing, and canoeing, which I would love the opportunity to do. Check their schedule for parties and concert dates.
Northwest Florida Is An Outdoor Lovers Paradise
Sometimes the road less traveled (though I-10 is certainly a busy highway) can bring you to incredible destinations. Northwest Florida is a historic corridor that offers beautiful rivers, freshwater lakes, and crystal clear springs. Photographers, hikers, and nature buffs will love this area. Not only is a Northwest Florida vacation affordable and laid-back, but it also has the small town charms that delighted me.
Where do you travel to see landscapes that look like wall paintings?