Travel and Leisure — March 13, 2015 at 5:00 am

Florida’s 6 Best State Parks

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floridastateparkPristine emerald-water beaches, swampy Everglades marshes, and the coastal prairies of Big Cypress National Preserve characterize Florida’s famous landscape. While the Sunshine State has been documented, photographed, and extensively written about, Florida’s state parks pull back the curtain a surprising world that many wouldn’t associate with this famous flat land. Colorful coral reefs dotted with the wreckage of Spanish Galleons, stalagmite-pierced caves, and even one of Florida’s only natural climbing area. Florida’s parks open an unseen and unexpected degree of excitement to a state that’s not particularly known for its outdoor culture. These are Florida’s six best state parks.

Weeki Wachee Springs State Preserve
Manatees lazily float through 500-acres of crystal-like freshwater springs as kayakers and scuba divers explore dense mangrove forests populated with elegant blue herons. Just north of Tampa, on Florida’s western seaboard, Weeki Wachee enchants generations of swimmers and families indulging in the limestone springs, sprawling trails, and a world-famous mermaid performance. Year-round, the water naturally heats to 70-degrees for snorkelers, while strong underwater currents create a challenging course for experienced scuba divers. By far, the park’s most famous attraction is its famous mermaid show, that became an iconic part of Florida’s heritage. The mermaids have been a staple of the park for over 40 years, even counting Elvis as a fan.

œ State Park
Divers, surfers, and fisherman flock to one of Florida’s premier beaches, attracted by turquoise waves, tranquil white shores, and marshy islands. In 1715, a Spanish fleet shipwrecked in a hurricane, sending a treasure trove to the depths of the Atlantic. While much of the collection is in a nearby museum, valuable pieces are still found. One of the wrecks, the Urca de Lima, lies in relatively shallow water just offshore. Sebastian Inlet is one of Florida’s top surfing areas, with sizable swells, strong currents, and looping waves that play host to an annual summer competition.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
This “living” state park covers over 50,000 acres of colorful reefs, playful marine life, and fascinating shipwrecks, just off the coast of Key Largo. The coral reef, one of two in the continental United States, came under protection in the 1960’s, opening a tropical wonderland of scuba diving, snorkeling, and boating with a bevy of animal life. Turtles, dolphins, and the occasional shark wander the shallow waters between neon-colored coral sanctuaries. The wreck sites, while mostly artificial, include several Coast Guard cutters and a set of F4 fighter planes. On the surface, several kayak trails loop around the backcountry of the Florida Keys.

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park
Marking the southern tip of Key Biscayne, a historic lighthouse over one of the best beaches in Florida caps Bill Baggs State Park. The park is popular with standup paddleboarders, fisherman casting lines from the seawall, and kayakers gliding among manatees and seabirds. Each year, hundreds flock to the shores to watch turtles slowly crawl from the waves and nest on protected sites. For land-lovers, several seaside bicycle paths connect with trails around Key Biscayne, allowing for a full loop around the island.

Florida Caverns State Park
While Florida above ground is lush, sandy, and tropical; underground the water-porous limestone erodes into spectacular caverns lined with stalagmites, boulders, and subterranean waterways. The caves formed as calcite slowly eroded from the dripping water of the nearby Chipola River. Over thousands of years, the thin limestone eroded and left gaping spaces. If you want to enter the caverns, park rangers lead curious explorers into the dark—climbing, leaping, and crawling between the dazzling formations. Inside, the caves are home to a colony of rare gray bats, protected from the public, while alligators, beavers, snapping turtles, deer, and owls linger around the above-ground campsites.

Blowing Rocks State Preserve
Florida has climbing. It’s a legal gray area according to park rangers, but for many, Blowing Rocks State Preserve presents Florida’s only natural bouldering. The limestone sea-cliffs formed over millennia with the help of petrified sand; carved by waves into a series of cavern-like interiors. The rock is sharp and in some places brittle. Caution and attention should turn towards tides and waves, which could dangerously strand unsuspecting visitors. Many of the few established routes are stout, however it’s been reported that a few rate as high as V12. Because the rock is still under erosion, climbing is highly discouraged and any visitor to the bluffs should exercise good judgement and stewardship.

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