One of my goals this year is to see more of Florida; I’ve lived here now for 10 years and I am ashamed to say that I’ve explored very little of it outside the Central Florida area. With such beautiful weather for most of the year – we’ll discount the hotter-than-the-sun summer months here – exploring the great outdoors in Florida is something we love to do as a family, and my mission in the next few months is to take my kids to see some of the natural beauty of the state. With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of Florida National Parks that will be perfect places to explore with my little ones, and I can’t wait for us to get out there and see what the state has to offer!
An unspoiled coastal wetland on the Atlantic Coast, Timucuan is an Ecological and Historic Preserve with over 6,000 years of history.
What is there to do for families? Take a trip to the Kingsley Plantation to give kids a real life look at the history of enslavement in America, and be sure to stop at the American beach, which was established in 1935 to provide beach access to African-Americans when they had no access to other beaches. Timucuan is also home to the Fort Caroline National Monument, a tribute to the short-lived presence of French history in Florida in the sixteenth century.
If you have little animal lovers in your party, explore the Theodore Roosevelt Area, where you can spot all manner of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, wild boars, and bobcats, as well as keeping your eyes out for manatees and bottle-nosed dolphins.
What else is there to do in the area? Jacksonville is just a quick car ride away, and strolling along the Jacksonville Riverwalk is a great way to see the city. Check out the water park at Adventure Landing, or meet with rescued big cats such as white tigers at Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary. The Jacksonville Zoo is also sure to be a hit with kids, boasting a splash pad and carousel as well as the animal exhibits.
Just off the coast from downtown Miami, Biscayne is a National Park that combines a watery playground with a rich history dating back thousands of years.
What is there for families to do? The park is home to over 500 species of reef fish, making it a wonderful place to snorkel; the Maritime Heritage Trail offers the chance to snorkel or dive amongst the fish as well as exploring old shipwrecks. There are also opportunities to canoe, fish, and take guided boat tours (the park is 95% water!)
On the second Sunday of each month from December to April, a Family Fun Fest program provides four hours of activities for kids, and the Dante Fascell Visitor Center has plenty of exhibits and hands on experiences to teach kids about the area.
What else is there to do in the area? Downtown Miami and South Beach are a short drive away; check out the Miami Children’s Museum and the Miami Seaquarium, or pack a bucket and spade and visit one of the beautiful beaches!
A World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve, the Everglades National Park is a unique landscape home to Florida’s best known animal residents, including the American Crocodile, otters, and the Florida panther. It is the third largest park in the 48 United States, covering 2,400-square miles.
What is there to do for families? The best and easiest way to see the Everglades is by boat. Take a guided airboat tour along the waterways to see if you can spot an alligator or two, and be on the lookout for the many species of birds that call the park home. If you want to get a little closer to the water, older kids might enjoy a kayak or canoe trip, and there are a number of family-friendly hiking trails available.
The northern entrance to the park at Shark Valley has a 65-foot observation tower that offers an amazing panorama of the Everglades National Park, really displaying its size.
What else is there to do in the area? To the west of the Everglades National Park is the affluent city of Naples. The city has plenty to do from shopping to dining to pristine beaches, but for kids, you might want to check out the new Sun-n-Fun lagoon water park, or the Golisano’s Children Museum of Naples. You could also explore the Big Cypress Reserve, the freshwater neighbor to the Everglades National Park, where you might even spot a manatee.
Accessible only by boat or seaplane, Dry Tortugas National Park is a 100-square mile park made up mostly of open water, located about 70 miles west of Key West. Dry Tortugas is actually closer to Cuba than it is to mainland USA!
What is there to do for families? This park has a huge number of things to do! It is home to the world-famous Fort Jefferson, which can be found on Garden Key, the second largest island in the Dry Tortugas, and kids are sure to have fun taking a step back in time to explore the fort.
The turquoise waters surrounding the park are crystal clear, with an abundance of marine life including barracuda, lobsters, and tropical fish amongst the corals; many of the snorkel sites have waters calm and shallow enough the kids to take advantage of. Kayaking and paddle boarding are popular ways to explore, and boating tours depart daily.
What else is there to do in the area? Since the only way to access Dry Tortugas National Park is by boat or seaplane from Key West, it makes sense to spend some time there while you’re visiting. Step aboard the Conch Tour Train for a family-friendly tour of the area, or check out the free Florida Eco-Discovery Center. Be sure to stop by Mallory Square to see one of the famous Key West sunsets before you leave, and don’t forget to save room for a slice of key lime pie!
Fort de Soto is made up of five connected islands covering 1,136 acres. The parks ecosystem is home to 328 species of bird, native plants, and provides a safe nesting place for the loggerhead turtle.
What is there to do for families? Fort de Soto is a National Monument, built in 1898 and named after Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. The fort is a fun place to explore, and there is a newly remodeled museum displaying historic artifacts. There is also a theater showing a movie telling the history of the park. Camp Uzita is a living history camp, with rangers dressed in period clothing giving historic talks, as well as Spanish and native crafts throughout the day.
As well as this, Fort de Soto Park has over three miles of white sandy beach, and The Cove beach would be perfect for families since it is sheltered from the waves. Ranger led kayak tours are available, and there is a nature trail that can be explored on your own or as part of a guided tour.
What else is there to do in the area? Take your pick from the stunning beaches of St Petersburg, or visit the famous Clearwater Marine Aquarium where you can meet Winter, the dolphin that inspired and starred in the two ‘Dolphin Tale’ movies. A short drive away is Tampa, where you can visit the Florida Aquarium, and there are plenty of family-friendly places to eat.
Canaveral National Seashore is a barrier island that provides a safe haven for a number of threatened and endangered species, including sea turtles.
What is there for families to do? The seashore has miles of undeveloped beaches that are quite spectacular, perfect for swimming or strolling along (access to some of the beaches requires a permit). Be careful if you do visit the beaches; over 5,000 turtle nests were found on the seashore in 2016! Be on the lookout for any sea turtles, but remember to give them a wide berth, as disturbing them is illegal. There is also a scenic drive from the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge to the seashore along Biolab Road. The seashore is also the perfect place to watch rocket launches from the Kennedy Space Center, so check to see if one is taking place when you plan to visit!
What else is there to do in the area? Named one of the top 10 beach towns in Florida, New Smyrna Beach is close by, with stunning beaches and plenty of places to shop and eat.
What kind of park? Nestled in the heart of downtown St. Augustine, Castillo de San Marcos is a National Monument that stands to remind of the sometimes turbulent history of America, embodying nearly 450 years of history and culture. It is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States.
What is there to do for families? Explore the fortress at your leisure, taking in the many exhibits, and listening to one of the interpretive talks from knowledgeable Park Rangers. There will be actors in period costume to relay the culture of the fort, as well as weapons demonstrations.
What else is there to do in the area? The rest of St. Augustine is an incredible place to explore with an extremely rich history and you can see the city on one of the trolley tours, or on a scenic boat ride. Visit the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum, the Pirate and Treasure Museum, and be sure to stop by the Old Jail for one of their thrilling presentations.
Have you visited any of the Florida National Parks? Let me know in the comments!