Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- Sebastian Inlet State Park
- Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
- Grayton Beach State Park
- John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
- Bahia Honda State Park
- Blue Spring State Park
- Crystal River Preserve State Park
- Rainbow Springs State Park
- Ichetucknee Springs State Park
- Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park
- Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Snorkel with your kids alongside the manatees of Crystal River. Hike trails deep in the Florida coastal hammock. Camp in the best waterfront site in the Florida Keys. You can do all of that at a Florida state park! The 175 Florida state parks offer days’ worth of fun for families (often for free). A native Floridian shares her favorite state parks out there in the real Florida to explore with your crew.
This post was sponsored by Visit Florida.
Raising my two young children in Florida means outdoor adventures at every turn. Awesome year-round weather and parks that never close for the season mean we can visit 365 days a year. My family makes the most of it by camping, hitting the hiking trails and birding a ton during winter’s perfect temperatures in the enchanting Florida state parks. When summer’s heat strikes, we hit beach parks or head inland for tubing and swimming in the refreshing waters of the freshwater springs. Family fun doesn’t have to be costly. We find lots of free things to do in Jacksonville and other nearby places.
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Sebastian Inlet State Park
Find Sebastian Inlet State Park on Florida’s east coast, about 160 miles south of St. Augustine. This stretch of coast is known for attracting nesting sea turtles in the largest numbers in the country. It is an outdoor wonderland for families that love to fish, kayak, surf, camp and hike through the maritime hammock (an evergreen hardwood forest). Part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, it’s a prime place to see migratory and resident species. And if you love biking, there are even mountain biking trails to explore along the Indian River Lagoon. (In this case, a “mountain” biking trail is one that winds through woodlands. You won’t find any mountains in flat Florida, of course, but the easy trails are great for kids!)
The highlight for many people is the park’s fishing jetty and beautiful adjacent beach. I still remember my son’s amazed face when he watched someone reel in a shark and release it from the pier.
For a secret museum nearby with pirate treasure that’s been found along the shores, head just south of the park to the McLarty Treasure Museum. It’s an amazing little gem to enjoy with the kids.
Read More: Florida Family Vacation Ideas
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
This park near Gainesville is home to herds of wild horses and bison. It’s also a birding paradise with more than 300 species of birds.
The best thing to do here is to hit one of the park’s eight hiking trails. I always wake up early to beat the heat. We stroll along the easy La Chua Trail. The kids skip along the boardwalk path, where there is fencing to keep everyone safe. It’s a prime place to spot alligators basking in the sun. The boardwalk takes you right over their watering hole, which always makes me grateful for that boardwalk fencing!
You can also fish or rent a kayak to explore Lake Wauburg, located within the state park. A favorite fishing hole for Floridians, Lake Wauburg has a nice picnic area, too. There are several wooden tables set far enough from the shore for safety but still within eyeshot of the resident alligators.
Grayton Beach State Park
Grayton Beach State Park was named the number one beach in America for 2020 by Dr. Beach. If it’s powdery white sands you’re after, you’ll find them here. Sea turtle nesting season runs from May 1 through October 31, and our family has spotted their tracks here during early morning walks at the park. There are four miles of hiking trails here that take you through a coastal forest. And the park offers cabins and tent and RV sites popular with both Floridians and out-of-staters, should you wish to stay the night.
Don’t miss the chance to paddle a kayak in a coastal dune lake. You only find dune lakes in a few places in the world. This natural phenomenon occurs when wind sculpts ocean dunes into receptacles for fresh water. Western Lake is a 100-acre dune lake within the park and kayaks are available for rent at the onsite ranger station. Life jackets, paddles and a map of the waterway are included in the rental.
Find the park between Panama City Beach and Destin along the gorgeous coastline of northwest Florida.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
For some of Florida’s best snorkeling and a Florida Keys highlight in Key Largo, don’t miss a visit to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. It’s one of many must-stops during a road trip along the Overseas Highway, the 113-mile road through the Florida Keys. Rent a kayak or canoe onsite to head out and explore the mangrove-lined coast here. Or book a spot on a snorkel boat to visit the first undersea park in the USA.
I recently got to snorkel with my nieces around the famous Christ of the Deep statue. It’s always a highlight. The submerged bronze statue is a replica of a Jesus statue by Italian artist Guido Galletti that’s submerged in the Mediterranean Sea off Genoa. The 4,000-pound sculpture has been underwater here since 1965. It’s covered with purple sea fans and other corals that attract an abundance of marine life. My nieces loved the schools of black and yellow Sergeant Major fish we saw.
Even the park’s visitor center wows, with its 30,000 gallon salt water aquarium. It allowed my toddlers who were too young to snorkel to marvel at marine life, too. Canon Beach is one of the nicest spots to swim within the park. It’s home to a historic site – the remnants of an early Spanish shipwreck that lie some 100 feet offshore. Visitors are often surprised to see neon-green iguanas here, too. They are an invasive species in Florida and are often seen cruising around the park’s 47 campsites.
Bahia Honda State Park
The Florida Keys, made mostly of coral, are not known for an abundance of sandy beaches. But you’ll find the prettiest ones (Calusa Beach and Sandspur Beach, on Florida Bay and the Atlantic Ocean) at Bahia Honda State Park. Floridians like my husband and I consider the park a real local secret.
Heading south through the Florida Keys, you’ll reach it shortly after crossing the Seven Mile Bridge between Key Largo and Key West. This is a slice of the real Florida, far from the boozing partiers at other Florida Keys hot spots. The 500-acre park typifies the scenic beauty of the Florida Keys, with water and palm trees at every turn.
My toddlers became little explorers there last winter, wandering the beach looking for shells and driftwood. We rented kayaks onsite to paddle through the mangrove environments. Once the kids are old enough, we want to try the snorkeling tours. They leave from the park to explore Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, just offshore.
The campsites are a highlight here. Many of them front the open water, prime for sunset views. An interesting historic site at the park is the Bahia Honda Railroad Bridge. It was built around 1905 by Henry Flagler as part of the Overseas Railroad. Be sure to get a family photo with it as a backdrop.
Blue Spring State Park
The chance to spot manatees in the crystal clear Florida springs while paddling a kayak nearby is the big lure at Blue Spring State Park near Jacksonville. For some great birding in the park (if you’re lucky, you might spot the endemic Florida Scrub Jay) set out on a hiking trail along the spring run. Follow the 4.5 mile Pine Island Trail if you’re looking for a longer amble.
The 72-degree waters at the spring head maintain their temperature year round and are particularly inviting during the hot summer months. That’s when we Floridians descend in droves. I put kids in their puddle jumpers and always end up having to drag them from the water when it’s time it leave. I’m pretty sure my son thinks it’s a giant swimming pool; the water is that clear.
Mid-November to March is when you’ll see the manatees gathering in largest numbers at the spring head (they seek to warm in the springs as an escape from colder ocean waters). The Thursby House here is an interesting historic site that harkens to Central Florida’s frontier days. St. Johns River Cruises and Tours offers two-hour narrated boat tours within the park to explore the St. Johns River.
Crystal River Preserve State Park
Florida’s other main manatee hotspot, Crystal River Preserve State Park, roughly 80 miles north of Tampa, is the place to go if you want to actually enter the water and snorkel with the gentle giants. They usually visit during the cooler months. Wetsuits and snorkeling gear are provided by outfitters like Bird’s Underwater Dive Center that operate just outside of the park.
Crystal River is the only place in Florida you’re legally allowed to be with manatees in the water. I’ve been several times with my four nieces, now ages 10-14, and it’s pure joy to watch them marvel at the manatees. They then go home and study these beautiful creatures for school conservation projects later, with real knowledge about how they live in the wild. There are very specific rules around the interactions, which happen outside of the park. Those include not approaching the animals, and only using one hand to touch them if they approach you. Because it’s so controlled here, swimming with the manatees is not considered controversial by most people who understand the rules and follow them. Observers at manatee swimming areas are always on hand to control numbers and let people know when they’re breaking the rules
Within the park, there are many hiking trails we like to explore. We love walking through a hammock and other real Florida landscapes. There are some great birding opportunities as well as boat tours into the spring-fed river and out into the Gulf of Mexico for sunset.
Rainbow Springs State Park
Be sure to bring your own mask and snorkel on a visit to Rainbow Springs State Park. We love floating in the cool river, spotting freshwater fish and waving aquatic grasses in the crystal clear water. And if you and your kids are scuba certified (like my nieces and I are!) you can even rent tanks and gear at operators outside the park to do a gentle drift scuba dive in the river.
This park roughly 100 miles north of Tampa also has many beautiful campsites where you can spend the night. You can rent kayaks and canoes at the head spring within the park. Florida’s fresh water aquifer, from which the springs bubble, is one of the state’s most vital natural resources. But visitors from across the United States and around the world who only know Florida’s beaches miss out on the freshwater, inland fun. Floridians love their springs, however, and after a visit to Rainbow Springs State Park you’ll soon understand why.
A word about alligators: Swimming is common and popular at freshwater springs in Florida. But beware that alligators may be present. Generally, alligators shy away from the cool springs water, but this is Florida and alligators are everywhere. Think of it like swimming in the ocean: You know sharks live there, but they are rarely a problem.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Tucked away in the Central Florida hinterlands about 36 miles northwest of Gainesville and 100 miles due west of St. Augustine, Ichetucknee Springs State Park is the spot to rent a tube and float down a gorgeous spring-fed river for an adventure deep into the real Florida. Tubing along the six-mile-long river is the favorite activity of Floridians and anyone else who visits the park. Bring a snorkel and mask to dip your head in and spot gar and other fish swimming in the gentle current. (See the note above about alligators!)
The tube run is 3.5 miles long, and there’s a tram when you get out of the water to carry you back to where you started. Look for otters and softshell turtles along the way. And be sure to detour off the tubing route to snorkel at Blue Hole (there’s a sign) where the sandy bottom and clear water makes for an incredible, bright blue color contrast. I visit with my friends and their kids every year; it’s a fabulous group activity. We also bring thermoses of water along for the float and I have a cooler waiting for us in the car at the end, stocked with snacks, because you can bet that everyone exits the water famished.
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park
Miami and nearby Fort Lauderdale might be urban family vacation havens, but they’re also close to some of the most spectacular beaches in South Florida. My family knows to bypass South Beach for a more relaxed and natural experience on Key Biscayne at the sublime Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. Just eight miles south of downtown Miami, the park fronts a serene stretch of white sand beach. There’s even a historic site in the form of the Cape Florida Lighthouse, built in 1825, which you can tour Thursdays through Monday.
As far as Florida state parks that offer an amazing escape close to busy urban areas, it’s hard to imagine a better one than here. Biking is a popular pastime at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park thanks to rental bikes available on site for pedaling throughout the park. And my husband, the family angler, always makes time to throw out a line for some fishing with the kids from the park’s seawall along Biscayne Bay.
You’re not far from the Everglades here and hiking trails on the west side of the park let you venture through the mangrove wetlands. The park’s beach is just over a mile long, and Floridians know it as one of the best in Miami, since it’s never nearly as crowded as South Beach. The park is part of the South Florida Bird Observatory, and birding is a popular pastime along the seawall and hiking trails.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
If you need any proof that Florida state parks know how to have fun, then bring the family to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, located 56 miles north of Tampa. This is the only one of Florida’s state parks that hosts live mermaid shows. The siren beauties swim underwater while you watch through a large window. It’s a spectacle kids of all ages adore. I remember the first time my young nieces saw the show and told me they planned to be mermaids when they grow up. It’s certainly possible here!
After taking in one of the several daily mermaid shows, you can rent a kayak to explore the springs or head out on one of the park’s boat tours. The springs are a historic site since they’re the deepest known freshwater cave system in the United States. Kids love the park’s waterpark attraction, called Buccaneer Bay, with waterslides that deposit them directly into the springs. There’s even a dedicated swimming area for kids 6 and under that’s perfect for my toddlers. And plenty of covered pavilions, too, for an alfresco picnic out of the intense Florida sun.
Other Florida State Parks
There are 175 state parks in Florida; my family has hardly seen them all. This, despite the fact that I’ve lived here for nearly 20 years. On future travels, I hope to explore the following together:
This is one I’m saving for my next visit to the Palm Beaches for the guided sea turtle walks.
De Leon Springs State Park
Located about 130 miles northeast of my home in Tampa (and just 62 miles from St. Augustine), De Leon Springs was visited by James Audubon in 1831. My kids will go crazy, without a doubt, eating pancakes at a historic site. The Sugar Mill Restaurant within the park is located in a century-old replica of a sugar mill that once stood here. You can cook your own pancakes at a griddle table. How cool is that?
Just three miles south of St. Augustine and 43 miles south of Jacksonville is another Florida state park birding hotspot. This gorgeous oceanfront park is the place to see beautiful roseate spoonbills. People often mistake them for flamingos, so pink is their coloring.
Located just 27 miles west of Tampa. My kids will love the boat ride to get there. It’s one of just a few Florida state parks that are accessible by boat only. Here, it’s all about swimming in crystal clear waters and hunting for shells along the powdery sand beach.
Falling Waters State Park
Find it 86 miles west of Tallahassee in the Panhandle. This park is home to Florida’s highest waterfall (it plunges from 73 feet overhead!) in a lush setting surrounded by fern-covered trees that will surely have my little ones feeling like true explorers.
This park is 30 miles northeast of Jacksonville and has excellent waterfront camping and hiking trails through more coastal hammock we’ll hope to explore next winter together.
I could go on and on with all there is to see in the state. But that’s time spent reading when you should really just get out there and start exploring all there is to see with your family! Have a great time – and do tell them a Floridian who loves the real Florida sent you!