Category: Parks and Nature Centers

Fun in the Panhandle

The thing that most people don’t know about Florida, is that it isn’t all gorgeous shelled beaches and theme parks. Sure, most of the state boasts these things, and there are several great spots to take a vacation or a day trip. But what else is there to do besides Disney World and the beach? Read on below to hear about our Florida caverns trip, and all the beauty that the panhandle has to offer.

My family and I took a trip up to the northern part of Florida, near Tallahassee, to explore some of the lesser known places to visit. We originally planned our vacation around a trip to Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna. However, there was so much more to visiting the panhandle area than just the caverns. We were there for 4 days, and we still weren’t able to hit every spot that we wanted!

Day 1 – Wakulla Springs

We chose a place to stay that was a little off the beaten path, but still not too far from the places we wanted to go. We stayed near Wakulla Springs, just south of Tallahassee. The springs was our first stop the morning after we arrived.

The entrance to Wakulla springs is $6 per car (less if you have one or two people). The parking area is near a historic lodge — which you can stay for the night if you wish!

Picture above and below is the hiking trail that we took in the morning… full of beautiful pine trees and fallen leaves. The weather was gorgeous in January, and pretty cold for those of us from central Florida! This trail is about 9 miles when you go all the way out and back, however, we turned around about 2 miles in so that we could return before lunch.

Back at the parking area, we took a walk behind the lodge. Behind it, you can get a close look at the springs. This area of the park is busy in the summer, due to its nice swimming area and a platform to jump into the water. However in January, we were the only ones out there. It was the perfect time to view the manatees because they seek the constant temperature of the springs. Year-round this spring is about 70 degrees. The water felt pleasantly warm compared with the 45 degree air temperature!

The view pictured above is near the swimming area. Below, is a photograph taken from a second story platform. You do have to walk up a flight of stairs, but it has a much better view of the manatees from up there. This is also the platform that you can jump off of during the summer.

Heading back toward the car, I did take note of the pontoon boat tour the park offers. It’s fairly inexpensive and 45 min long. The tour was booked up at the moment, but it takes you up and down the spring. It is open currently and you can make reservations online.

Tallahassee St. Marks Historic Rail Trail

After lunch, the next stop on our list was the Tallahasee St. Marks Historic Railroad Trail. This trail runs all the way from Tally to the river in St. Marks. We rode the end portion, starting at mile 12.5 and riding out to mile 16 and back (see map at the bottom for where we parked). The entire trail is 16 miles long, or 32 if you ride it out and back. It has restroom stops along the way and is wide and paved. We stopped at the end at the river in St. Marks, which is a popular fishing spot if you are looking to fish. We spotted a swimming otter here! We also stayed to watch most of the cloudy sunset before taking a chilly ride back to our car.

Day 2

The next morning, we drove into the city to see some of the historic sites. Much of the free museums are still closed (January 2021) due to CoVid 19. It was a little challenging to find something that was open. Not to mention, the weather was bordering on rainy. So we opted for a short hike at Lake Jackson Mounds Park.

This park has an entrance fee of $3. There are a few historic Indian Mounds and a grist mill remains site. We hiked about 30 min out to the grist mill and then 30 min back. There is a much longer nature trail that looked tempting, but with the weather being iffy we kept it short. Pictured below is the Grist Mill runs.

There are two other hiking and biking trails in the outskirts of the downtown area that we wanted to check out in the afternoon: Elinor Kapps-Phipp Park and the Lafayette Heritage Trail. We planned to mountain bike there, but the weather wasn’t cooperating. Hopefully, I can check out these two areas in the future.

We did manage to take a drive by of both the Capitol building and the Governor’s mansion. And we went to the one open historic spot downtown, called the Goodwood Museum & Gardens. It is an old plantation that they remodeled in the 1920’s and preserved. The site an old swimming pool, historic house, and even a hockey rink. It was lightly raining, but we walked around anyway. There’s no cost to walk the property and they offer tours of the historic house as well for a cost ($12 adults, $6 children).

Day 3 – Florida Caverns Trip

The third day was a huge day for us! And it started super early (we are not morning people). We were up at 6am to make the hour and a half drive to Florida Caverns State Park. This was the main attraction on our trip that we planned to see. We were excited to get underground and take the caverns tour. They book up, so you are supposed to get there close to the gift shop opening at 8:45 am.

Little did we know — this is what happens when you don’t read carefully — this park is actually in the central time zone! So when we arrived at the entrance at 7:30, we were quite a bit early. We had a nice laugh and then went in search of something close by to do for an hour. Pictured above is a cool park that we found, with a playground for the kids and a running path for me.

So we occupied ourselves in the chilly weather at the park before returning to the entrance to get our tour tickets. The process to get a ticket is to wait outside the gift shop, and then they book you for a tour time. We were able to get on the first tour, which still didn’t start until 9:30.

Upstairs they had a neat indoor history and science display area, so I took the kids upstairs to learn about caverns. We also made a stop at the car to get drinks and snacks, as you cannot to eat on the tour. Due to the CoVid19 pandemic, masks as also currently required on the tour.

The Caverns

florida caverns trip

At the beginning of the tour we met by the gift shop and then walked down a bunch of steps into the cavern. It was not as dark or as cold as I expected it to be! The tour guide said the cave stays around 65 degree year round. Long sleeves and pants is sufficient.

florida caverns trip

The tour guide was excellent, and gave us a ton of information on the cave as we went along. The biggest thing that was hard for the kids: you can’t touch anything!! We walked along through the different “rooms” in the cavern, this one has a Christmas tree, can you spot it? The green is from lights that they have illuminating the area. They had several different colored lights.

florida caverns trip

During the tour, we often had to duck under parts of the limestone. The picture above was towards the end of the 1 hour tour. As we emerged from the cave, I felt the cold weather again and we put back on our jackets and hats! The tour was excellent, I wish it were longer and we could have spent some more time exploring the caverns.

Torreya State Park

The second leg of Day 3, we started driving back from the caverns, and stopped to take a hike at Torreya State Park. I had read online that this is one of the highest elevation hikes in Florida, and we happened to be right near it! The trail here has two loops, one is 5 miles and one is 6. Since we had only about 3 hours, we opted to do most of the 5 mile loop, and then cut back on the road to head back to our car.

The terrain on this hike was awesome for Florida! Where we live down on the east coast, all you have is flat, flat, and more flat. This hike had many ups and downs. They call it the “Florida mountains.” I wouldn’t quite say mountains, as we have hiked in North Carolina, Tennessee, and New Hampshire, but it definitely had changed in terrain, and at some times, huge puddles of water to dodge.

During the hike we were hoping to see more wildlife. It was very cold, so assume the of the animals were hiding. We did see a family of wild pigs, one with a super tiny baby pig! The kids were excited for that one. We hiked all the way to Weeping falls, which was a rather unimpressive waterfall. I think during certain times of the year (probably summer when its rainy) it has more volume. At the time in January, it was just a trickle.

We both started and finished our hike at this beautiful view from the historic Gregory house. This is a good place to park when you are going out on the trail. It’s a large historic house and they have a restroom on site. Behind the house, just at the start of the trail, you will also find several cannon encampments from the civil war.

As you can see, the cavern tour and the 4 mile hike totally wore the girls out. Not to mention they woke up at morning at 6 — which for us homeschoolers, is super early!

Day 4

The last day of ourt trip we packed up and wanted to hit one last spot on the way out, St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was a little out of the way home, but it was worth a stop anyway. The entrance fee is $5 and there are several places along the route that you can get out and view the wildlife or take a side trail. The weather that day felt a little chilly, so we stayed in the car and drove along the path very slowly so we could see the birds. My daughter had just bought a bird guide the day before, so that really held her interest.

We drove all the way down to the lighthouse and stopped to get out. The actual lighthouse is currently closed for visitors, but I think at some point they will reopen so that you can climb it.

On our way back down the path, we were able to spot both a river otter and a baby gator (pictured below). The path to the lighthouse is super long, at least a few miles. We drove slowly out and back and it took us about 30 min.

Steinhatchee Falls

After leaving the wildlife refuge, we headed towards our home on the east coast. There was one last stop that we could check out on the way home, to grab another breath of fresh cool north Florida air and make lunch. Right off the highway we went to see another waterfall.

Although it was a small fall, it has a fast current and was beautiful to look at. The park also has a trail that we didn’t have a chance to walk down. If we head up this way again, we may take a walk here.

That sums up our Florida caverns trip! We thoroughly enjoyed the cooler weather and the change of scenery in the panhandle of our home state! Be sure to visit our page on Tallahassee for more great places to visit!

Florida Caverns Trip Map:

Crystal River Trip

During this time of uncertainty and social distance, my family decided to finally make it out of our hometown and take a budget friendly Crystal River trip! We are huge water people, and we had heard this was a great area to be in the water in the summer. Here are some of our favorite stops from our 3 day trip!

Day 1

Bird Beach

One of our first stops was a small beach called Bird Beach. When we first arrived, we were the only ones there! While the water was a little mucky (and probably more suitable to fishing than swimming), it was a peaceful place to wade around and look for tadpoles. Parking was free as well! My kids were out on their tubes in the water in no time.

Bird Beach

Day 2 – Rainbow Springs

Our next stop to get up early and take a drive over to take a swim at Rainbow Springs State Park! If you have some extra funds in your budget to go tubing at Rainbow Springs State Park, I highly Recommend it! If not, skip ahead to the next section on Rainbow Springs itself. Since we had not gone anywhere in months, we splurged on the tubing ($20 a person +$2 a person for the state park entrance). It has a separate entrance located at 10830 SW 180th Avenue Rd, Dunnellon, FL 34432. You pay at the entrance and then park your car. A shuttle takes you up to the start of the tube run, and you float back to your vehicle. You can bring your own tube or use one of theirs.

What we enjoyed most about the run, was swimming in the water along the way. The current was fast enough that it kept you moving, but slow enough that you could easily get out of your tube and swim around. The route takes a little less than 2 hours and passes you by some of the neighborhoods in the area.

Rainbow Springs State Park Head Spring

Rainbow Springs State Park

After the lazy river, since we had already paid our admission fee to Rainbow Springs State Park, we went up to the other entrance to the park. At this entrance, they have a swimming hole and a bunch of trails. This is up by the head of the springs. You park (free), and then you can walk up to the park with trails and a swimming hole. We had already paid our $2 entrance fee, so we just showed them the receipt.

Rainbow Springs Swimming hole

The springs is always a cool 72 degrees year round. It is a VERY cold place to swim! We lasted a little while before we had enough of the freezing water. There are also trails, restrooms, and a concession stand at the park. You can rent kayaks here as well to kayak the springs.

Fort Island Gulf Beach

Fort Island Gulf Beach

After coming back from the springs and waiting out Florida’s typical summer afternoon thunderstorms, we headed out to watch the sunset at Fort Island Gulf Beach. This area has a small beach with a roped off area for swimming in the warm Gulf waters. It also has a fishing pier. We were not lucky enough to see one of the beautiful west coast sunsets (it was cloudy). However, we did enjoy sitting on the pretty white sand on the beach while the kids swam. I did notice that this area is frequently checked for bacteria levels, so use your discretion before swimming in the area. Make sure to check the posted signs.

Day 3 – Hunter Springs

Hunter Springs

The next day was our final day in the area. We chose to spend it at Hunter Springs Park, which is free, aside from the parking. The parking is only $1 an hour. Although the park was crowded, it was easy to find a spot on the deeper side of the swimming hole to get in and be by ourselves. The water was SO clear and blue!! The girls brought their inner tubes, snorkels, and boogie boards. They were able to see a few tiny fish and a crab. I wouldn’t say this is a great place for snorkeling, but it was a fun place to swim!! (if you want to snorkel, you need to take a boat or a kayak out into the Three Sisters Springs area).

At Huter spring, you can rent a kayak at a couple of local places nearby, but they are pretty pricey. Since we had splurged on the tubing, we skipped the kayaking part. We would have loved to bring our own kayaks from home to launch. Maybe next time! There are so many beautiful things to do on the water in Crystal River. We can’t wait to make another trip!

Map:

FIT Botanical Gardens

On one of our adventures this week, we took the kids to the FIT Botanical Gardens. This is another great free place to spend a few hours, and it’s right on the campus of the Florida Institute of Technology!

Parking is located off of S. Babock Street. There are a few spots designated to the garden, so get their early to secure yourself a parking space. After parking, you walk down a large covered bridge to reach the garden. If you are visiting in the summer (as we were), make sure to bring your bug spray! It’s definitely humid and buggy in the gardens.

Garden Entrance

You can stop at one of the picnic tables here to have some lunch, and then start walking about the trails. There are several paved trails in the area with walks along a tiny stream. You’ll see a map posted near the entrance. You can view it on the bottom of this page as well.

FIT Botanical Gardens

Trails

Once you get on the paved trail, it walks you along a small stream where you can look for fish. There are a couple of opportunities to venture off the paved path to a wooded trail in the back, but it’s fairly overgrown. We enjoyed just staying on the path and taking in the scenery.

The path takes about 30 min to an hour to walk around. There are some pavilions along the trail that you can stop to take a rest. Also, there you will find a large courtyard area near the front of the gardens. The courtyard is laid with pavers and has a shaded pavilion and a pond as well.

FIT Botanical Garden pond and Courtyard

While we were stopped in the courtyard, the kids spotted more fish and a couple of yellow belly slider turtles as well. The turtle were very friendly!

Turtles in the Pond

When you make your way back towards the picnic tables by the entrance, you will notice a large building called the Ruth Funk Center for Textile Arts. The center was closed while we were visiting on a Sunday, but this is another free attraction that is right next to the garden. It offers different exhibits throughout the year.

So, we spent about an hour at the FIT botanical gardens. It was summer and we were hot! You could stay much longer in a nicer season. Also, here is a map of the gardens to guide you while walking around:

FIT Botanical Garden Map

If you’re looking for more to do tin the area, don’t miss our page on the Melbourne area to find some other budget friendly activities!

FIT Botanical Gardens
Website: https://www.fit.edu/garden/
Facebook
Phone: (321) 309-3836

Map:

Exploring our Local Rail to Trail

Trans Florida Central Railroad Trail

While some of the COVID19 restrictions are easing up here, we decided to explore a rail to trail in the area that I hadn’t had a chance to go to yet. This trail runs for 2 miles, is mostly paved, and is a unique trail because in one section it passes right over route 95 – a major Florida highway.

To access the trail, you can park in one of two locations: The Fellsmere Trailhead or the North County Aquatic Center. (Side note- check if the aquatic center is open because this is another fun stop to make while you are in Sebastian!)

Of the two places to park, The Fellsmere trailhead is much closer to the foot bridge that goes over the highway – which is what attracted us to the trail. Note that it does have a large section of gravel before you reach the footbridge. The aquatic center is farther away from the bridge, about 1.5 to 2 miles. However, if you park there, you will have pavement from the parking area to the bridge.

Fellsmere Trailhead Parking Area

We parked at the Fellsmere Trailhead. In the parking area, there is this large barn (assuming a visitors center and restroom – it was closed due to COVID when we visited). And an adjacent playground for the kids.

From the parking area, it is a bit of a walk to get down to the trail. You walk down a larger gravel service road leading up to the trail. It took us about 5-10 min to get to the end of the service road walking with two children. If we did this trip again, we would probably have brought our mountain bikes, because it would have allowed us to see more in the time that we had.

Service Road

The service road leads down to the trail, then you make a right. The trail down this way is much more shaded and private. You can see the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) ropes course while you are walking along this route as well – the ropes course is managed by the University and is fairly expensive.

At the end of the gravel, you will reach the highway overpass (pictured at the top of this page). This is where the cement part of the trail starts. It is a very wide trail, room for a couple of people to ride their bikes next to each other. I took this photo from the top of the trail:

We turned around at this point, as we had been walking about 30 min so far. I would have gotten a lot farther with the kids if we had our bikes! We enjoyed the part of the trail that we saw and have plans to go back soon.

Enjoy! If you want to see more activities to do in the Sebastian and Vero Beach area, visit our page here.

Map:

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Boyd Hill Nature Preserve Fun – St. Petersburg

During our trip to St. Pete, Boyd Hill Nature Preserve was one of mine (and my children’s) favorites! If you love to just get outside and explore, this place is for you. Bonus, their entrance fee ($3 adults, $1.50 kids) helps take care of the injured birds they house in their aviary.

trail path at the nature center

First stop on our journey was the playground… it was so neat! There is a small ropes course that the kids could do on their own, a saucer swing, spinning wooden saucer, and a treehouse-like play structure.

Front view of the playground
back view of the ropes course

After playing outside for quite some time in the Florida heat, it was time for an A/C break. We then went inside to discover the nature center. Inside the building we a bunch of neat activities and information about animals.

one of many displays inside the nature center

They had multiple interactive displays for the kids to look at and play in. They also had a small section of live animals, such as snakes, frogs, scorpions, and even a bat! This section took us about 30 min to go through, but I could easily have seen the kids spending more than an hour inside.

Outside, there were multiples paths, trails, and boardwalks. We definitely needed to use our map!

There were many place where you could see baby alligators and there was a bird aviary, where the center keeps injured birds and takes care of them. We even saw a bald eagle!

bird aviary

We didn’t make it to every trail with the kids in tow, but we did manage to make it to the island, off of Lake Maggiore. From there you can see across the lake the buildings in downtown St. Pete!

This was a great 1/2 day trip. If you’d like to visit the center:

Phone: (727) 893-7326

Website: http://www.stpeteparksrec.org/boydhillpreserve/

Location (click for map): 1101 COUNTRY CLUB WAY S.
ST. PETERSBURG, FL 33705

Hours: Closed Mondays. Other days 9-6 in the winter, 9-7 in the summer. Open early (7am) on Saturdays.

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