Exploring Central Florida State Parks

The Florida State Park System has 175 parks for nature lovers to explore.

There are already lists of great reasons to live in Florida. While most people visiting the state tend to focus on beaches, golf courses, and shopping, there’s something else to be enjoyed, and it’s a benefit that lots of locals embrace, especially active adults who love nature.

The Florida State Park System is an expansive spread of diverse habitats that includes 175 unique parks. It was awarded the 2019 National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Parks and Recreation.

Central Florida is an especially rich region for native plants, freshwater lakes, natural springs, and abundant wildlife. There are dozens of state parks to explore, and while everyone has their own favorite, we’ve chosen five that are particularly agreeable. If you’ve recently moved to the area or you’re planning a Florida retirement, check these out as soon as you’re settled. Hours vary, depending on the park and the season, and the cost is usually between $3 and $8 per vehicle. Annual passes are available.

Lake Louisa State Park

With 20 miles of unpaved trails and seven miles of paved biking paths, Lake Louisa State Park provides a spectacular setting for anyone who wants to hike, peddle, or paddle through 11 plant communities. There are also three lakes to explore; Lake Louisa, Lake Hammond, and Dixie Lake.

It’s a scenic and tranquil place to fish, canoe, kayak, paddleboard, and birdwatch. Eagles and osprey are known to soar overhead while herons, egrets, and waterfowl can often be found snapping at small fish and water bugs along the shoreline. There are also bobcats, deer, and the bushy-tailed fox squirrel.

Once a homestead that included a turpentine still and a sawmill, Lake Louisa’s early beginnings as a cattle range and orange grove are easy to imagine, even with the picnic shelters and playgrounds throughout the park. Bike rentals are available, and visitors can also reserve space for weddings or family reunions.

There’s a large area for camping, and cabins can be reserved for visitors who feel like staying overnight. There are also primitive campsites and space for horses. Lake Louisa is just minutes away from anyone living in Leesburg, Clermont, or the Mount Dora area. It’s only half an hour from Orlando.

Blue Spring State Park

Plan to arrive early if you want to swim in the springs on a summer weekend at Blue Spring State Park. Rangers turn traffic away if it gets too busy, which is frustrating when you don’t make the cut, but it’s a great way to preserve the quiet peace of this pleasant state park. The springs stay at a refreshing 72 degrees all year long, and the waters are ridiculously clear.

Follow the boardwalk along the spring to the St. Johns River, where it’s possible to rent a canoe or kayak or take a riverboat tour. There are also hiking trails that take you through the woods and around the springs or a few miles out into the scrub, where you may surprise a turkey or see a flock of bobwhites.

The best wildlife at Blue Spring, however, is the endangered manatee. In the winter, these lumbering sea cows swim into the spring to warm up. In 2018, 485 wintering manatees were counted at this state park, providing a unique opportunity for visitors to watch and commune with these graceful marine mammals. This state park is in the neighborhood of several Orlando suburbs, including DeLand, and it’s worth the drive from any central Florida city.

Myakka River State Park

It’s going to take days—weeks even—to enjoy everything that Myakka River State Park offers. It’s one of the oldest protected parks in Florida, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) did a lot of work here in the 1930s. There are more than 58 square miles to explore. Visitors share the space with alligators (there’s no question of whether you’ll see one; more like how many will you see), deer, turkeys, bobcats, and around 250 bird species.

The Canopy Walkway allows guests to walk along a bridge at treetop heights, 25 feet above the ground. From a tower that’s 74 feet high, the views will have a dramatic impact on your appreciation of nature. There’s also a birdwalk, which is a great place to watch white pelicans in the springtime and count waterbirds like black-necked stilts, willets, and herons.

Active adults can book a wildlife tour, camp for a few days, or enjoy other activities like mountain biking, canoeing, fishing, and paddling. There are several hiking trails, plenty of historical markers, and an inescapable feeling of being in the wilderness. While it feels completely remote, Myakka is easy to reach from Interstate 75. It’s inside the Sarasota city limits and less than an hour from Tampa.

Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park

It’s on the smaller side by state park standards, but Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park is something special. Its unique ecosystem is challenging on a good day and brutal on a bad. But, there’s no other scenery like it, and this is an excellent place to find the Florida scrub jay, an endemic bird whose numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate due to loss of habitat.

Try identifying the rare plants you’ll find throughout the six or seven miles of scrub and sand, including scrub morning glory, scrub plum, pygmy fringe tree, and cutthroat grass. The hikes are best done in the winter because there isn’t much shade, and there’s actually quite a bit of elevation, at least for Florida. 

There’s an eight-mile equestrian trail, fishing, and two primitive campsites. The park is less than 30 years old, but its position along the Lake Wales Ridge makes it an environmentally sensitive and fascinating place to explore. From this state park, there are tons of other trails and wildlife management areas to visit in the region. Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve is close to Orlando’s most populated suburbs and retirement communities in places like Davenport and Kissimmee.

Fort Cooper State Park

For some fun in the forest, Fort Cooper State Park has several miles of hardwood hammocks, a lake for fishing and canoe rentals (when the water is high enough), and even a bit of history. There are annual re-enactments of the Second Seminole War, and strolling along the Seminole Heritage Trail provides some information about the Seminole tribes who once lived on park lands. Remains of the original fort are still visible.

The park is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, and it’s difficult to visit without seeing deer. They’re usually in the parking area, refusing to be spooked by humans and waiting to greet new arrivals.

The hiking trails throughout Fort Cooper connect to the Withlacoochee State Trail. Visitors can choose a paved trail or stay on more primitive terrain. While you’re in the area, check out the charming and artsy community of Floral City and Downtown Inverness. This area is right between Ocala and northern Tampa Bay communities like Spring Hill.

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