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Discover 6 Perfect Florida State Parks

By Jeanine Barone
January 12, 2022
A view of the ocean and historic structures at Bill Baggs State Park, Florida
wilsilver77/Dreamstime
All across the Sunshine State, large swaths of beautiful natural expanses are set aside as pristine state parks just waiting for you to explore.

In Florida, a day at a park doesn’t always have to mean hanging out with The Minions, Mickey or Big Bird, though it often does. No surprise, considering the Sunshine State is synonymous with popular theme and water parks. But, Florida is also home to 175 state parks scattered from the Panhandle to the Keys, each offering an opportunity to experience the state’s myriad natural and cultural treasures, whether streams and rivers threading through a verdant landscape, a system of caverns peppered with stalactites, miles of undeveloped sandy beaches, dense tracts of forests dripping with moss, or historic forts and lighthouses. The entire compendium of state parks shows off Florida’s grand diversity of ecosystems, from mangroves to pinelands to dunes, as well as the resident and migrant creatures that call these vast expanses home or pay a seasonal visit. In the six state parks below, a grand array of enticing scenery and activities are on full display. (You can learn more at floridastateparks.org.)

1. Oleta River State Park

Just 30 minutes from downtown Miami, Oleta is considered Florida’s largest urban park and one offering numerous water- and land-based activities. Inside the park, BG Oleta River Outdoors (bgoletariveroutdoor.com) rents canoes and kayaks so visitors can paddle through dark, foliage tunnels along the mangrove-lined river and then on to peaceful Biscayne Bay and the Intercoastal Waterway with opportunities to spot river otter, and sea turtles. (This concession also offers full moon and one-hour Friday sunset kayak tours.) And, despite Miami’s perfectly flat topography, Oleta is considered one of Florida’s best mountain biking venues, with more than a dozen miles of interconnected, challenging single track coursing beside the park’s waterways.

2. Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park

On the southern tip of Key Biscayne, Bill Baggs is most noted for its one-mile-some beach -- perfect for sunning and swimming -- that’s often named as one of the top 10 beaches in the U.S. by Dr. Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University, aka Dr. Beach. Bird watchers are also attracted to this park that’s a stopover on the Atlantic Flyway for migrating species, such as Cerulean and Bay-breasted wood-warblers. Anyone walking to the southern tip of the Pond Trail will be near the Cape Florida Lighthouse, South Florida’s oldest structure that provides stunning views of Biscayne Bay, Key Biscayne and South Beach.

3. Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

Named for the tallest of the coastal dunes along the Gulf of Mexico that resembles a ship’s sail, rising over 25 feet high, Topsail Hill, located in the Florida Panhandle, preserves these white quartz dunes with lakes -- a unique ecosystem -- where fresh and saltwater mix. Those with a fishing license can try to snag catfish, bream or bass in one of these lakes, or cast from the beach for Spanish mackerel, pompano or red fish. The paved Campbell Lake Bike Trail -- named for this coastal dune lake, a popular picnic spot -- that’s shaded by tall longleaf pines appeals to cyclists.

4. Hillsborough River State Park

Just a few minutes north of Tampa, Hillsborough is one of the few spots in Florida featuring whitewater rapids. Those who bring their own canoe relish the small section of Class II rapids. The park also rents canoes that can be put in just below the rapids on this blackwater river, the color deriving from the tannins leaching from fallen leaves. Growing along the shore, live oaks, magnolia and cypress trees provide for shaded paddling, with opportunities to see otters or alligators on the banks. History buffs often sign up on a guided tour of the reconstructed Fort Foster, a replica of the circa 1837 fort from the time of the Second Seminole Indian War.

5. Honeymoon Island State Park

Having received its name after several dozen honeymoon cottages were constructed (and subsequently demolished) in the early 1940s, this barrier island remains a stunning day-trip from Tampa for nature lovers. Though beachgoers flock to the sandy and seashell/rock studded four-mile stretch, a wild landscape of tide pools, sand dunes and salt marshes await those walking past the last parking lot to the shaded Osprey Trail. Hikers will find monarch butterflies fluttering about and the ever-present scent of pine. (A real treat is seeing osprey with their young.)

6. Caladesi Island State Park

A short ferry ride away from Honeymoon Island, Caladesi was once attached to its sister island prior to a major hurricane in 1921. Though now connected to Clearwater Beach after a land bridge formed, Caladesi feels like the Florida of another era, once visitors wander past the ranger station/concession, with nothing but the sounds of bird calls, and the tide lapping at the powdery beach. In 2018, Dr. Beach ranked Caladesi’s dazzling quartz sands as one of the country’s top 10. A network of sandy trails wind through the heart of this island where signs remind visitors that the dense interior is snake territory.

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National ParksProduct Reviews

Great Gear for National Parks Fans

With the specter of budget cuts, climate change, and the removal of wildlife protections looming overhead, America's great public spaces are in peril, and there couldn’t be a better time to show your support. Whether you're on the road or in nesting mode, we found plenty of good stuff that benefits our National Parks, from pins, posters, and personal attire to books, games, and even candles. 1. Put a Pin on It (Courtesy National Dry Goods) For parks enthusiasts who prefer to advertise their allegiance with a whisper, not a shout, these antiqued-brass pins from National Dry Goods make an understated point. The company’s designs range from a pair of binoculars and an adorable pink flamingo–adorned vintage camper to a roll of film and a Canon AE1, but we're big fans of the National Park series, which includes conservationists Teddy Roosevelt (above center) and John Muir as well parks like Acadia, Yellowstone, and the Rockies. The pins are sold individually, but we recommend the four-piece set, which includes the Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, and Yellowstone—perfect for those whose appetite for exploration is as wide-ranging as the natural wonders themselves.4-Piece Parks Series gift set, $40; natdrygoods.com. 2. Let Your Imagination Run Wild (The Quarto Group) Stoke the wanderlust of young (and young at heart) travelers with this captivating, info-packed tome. Engagingly written by Kate Siber and charmingly illustrated by Chris Turnham, the book is organized by region—east, central, Rocky Mountains, southwest, west, Alaska, and the Tropics—and full of engrossing details that allow you to easily imagine, say, paddling through the thick, humid air of the Everglades, spotting plate-sized turtles and listening for the bellows of crocodiles, or trekking through Death Valley at 134 degrees in the shade, searching for animal tracks in the sand dunes and crunching across the salt-crusted surface of the lowest point in America. It's a playful, educational look at our country’s protected lands.National Parks of the U.S.A., $19.50; amazon.com. 3. Bring the Outdoors In (Courtesy Good + Well Supply Co. and UncommonGoods.com) Whether you’re a tree-deprived city dweller or an outdoor adventurer eagerly awaiting your next excursion, there’s nothing like an aroma to evoke powerful memories. Trigger that sense of nostalgia with a scent that reminds you of your favorite park. Packaged in sturdy pint or half-pint tins, the small-batch soy candles from the Seattle-based Good + Well Supply Co. are a rugged option, perfect for tossing in a suitcase to make a generic hotel room feel like home without worrying about breakage—and they’re created sans animal testing, petroleum, lead, phthalates, and GMOs to boot. Fragrance preferences are highly personal, but we fell for the Great Smokies and its subtle blend of sandalwood, laurel, and red maple; Zion is another delicate option, with notes of lavender and sage. For something a bit more bold, Big Bend conjures the magic of a campfire with a smoky combination of charred wood, embers, amber, and spice. On the more genteel end of the scale, maker Laura Reid visited Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Redwoods to nail down the blend of essential oils (think bay laurel, wild strawberry, and thermal moss) that would best conjure a sense of place, and her hand-poured, coconut-wax candles come in glass jars, with packaging emblazoned with a watercolor rendition of each park. Redolent with granite, cedar, and black sage, her interpretation of Yosemite is our favorite of the three.National Park candles, from $24; goodandwellsupplyco.com. Great Outdoors National Parks candles, $40; uncommongoods.com. 4. Dress the Part (Courtesy Parks Project) Sure, cutting a check is an effective way to give back, but you can lend even more bang to your buck by placing your purchasing power with a company that’s actively engaged with the organization it benefits. As an official partner of the National Parks Foundation, the Parks Project directly funds initiatives that support things like habitat restoration, youth education, and wildlife conservation, so your dollars go where they’re needed the most—and their stuff is really cute too. From beanies and sweatshirts to jewelry and accessories, you could outfit yourself in head-to-toe (non-embarrassing!) NPS regalia if you really wanted to. In addition to a wide selection of t-shirts and knickknacks like key chains and sticker sets, we highly recommend the enamel mugs, both for camping trips and for cold, pre-dawn workday mornings when we’d rather be camping.Joshua Tree Out There tee, $36; National Parks Are For Lovers enamel mug, $18; parksproject.us. 5. Deck Your Walls (Courtesy Fifty-Nine Parks) There are plenty of vintage-looking replicas of classic WPA-era posters floating around, but for something more contemporary, the Austin-based Fifty-Nine Parks offers a unique, high-quality alternative. A project of the National Poster Retrospecticus, a traveling show that highlights the artistry of the hand-printed broadside, the parks series celebrates our public lands in sublime, full-color fashion, with timed releases of large-scale limited editions as well as smaller, more affordable 18” by 24” prints. With the goal of getting “poster fans into the parks and parks fans into posters,” the series features the work of a different artist for each park, from Dan Mumford’s fiery, sunset-hued Haleakalā to Elle Michalka’s more subdued, five-color rendering of North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They're all fantastic, so it's tough to narrow it down to one, but we particularly love Glenn Thomas's sweeping, light-filled Sequoia edition. Really, though, you can’t go wrong with any of them: Each poster is screen-printed here on domestic shores, and the organization donates 5 percent of purchases directly to the National Parks Service, raising $10,000 in its first two years alone.Sequoia National Park poster, $40; 59parks.net. 6. Plan Your Next Adventure (Courtesy Lonely Planet) A more straightforward take on the National Parks Service’s roster, this book from Lonely Planet (Budget Travel's parent company) documents the bounty of our country’s park system in all its glory. With vivid photography, suggested itineraries and accommodations, tips on how get around, and notes on what wildlife to look for where, it’s a one-stop trip-planning shop.National Parks of America: Experience America's 59 National Parks, $30; amazon.com. 7. Test Your Knowledge (Courtesy USAopoly) Quick, what’s the name of the world’s tallest granite monolith? How many species of bees were discovered in national parks by 2014? And which notorious island was once known for being home to the first lighthouse on the West Coast? Find the answers to these questions—and 597 more—with Trivial Pursuit: National Parks, a travel edition with categories including Natural Wonders, Battlefields and Historic Sites, Cultural Heritage, and Wildlife. It even comes with a six-sided die and a hard-plastic carrying case, complete with carabiner, for playing on the go.USAopoly Trivial Pursuit: National Parks Edition, $20; amazon.com.

National Parks

Celebrate National Park Week 2018!

National Park Week 2018 is April 21 through 29, and we have good news, not-so-good news, and not-so-bad news for national park lovers. The good news is: Free admission on Saturday, April 21! The not-so-good news: Park fees will rise on June 1. The not-so-bad news: Fees will not rise as much as had been proposed and discussed earlier this year; they’ll rise only $5 at 66 National Park Service sites. Here’s what’s happening: FREE ADMISSION ON APRIL 21 National Park Week 2018’s theme is “Park Stars” - including the night skies overhead, iconic park landmarks, and “superstar volunteers.” The day that will attract the most attention and visitors is a fee-free day on Saturday April 21. National Park Week also overlaps with National Volunteer Week and the 48th annual Earth Day (April 22), making this coming weekend an excellent time to get to know a national park, forest, historical park, or other NPS site better. NATIONAL JUNIOR RANGER DAY Saturday April 21 also happens to be National Junior Ranger Day, allowing kids to participate in hands-on learning and activities and earn a Junior Ranger badge and ranger hat. The Junior Ranger program is actually available just about any day that a park is open, and it's one of the finest examples of the National Park Service mission at its best: Rangers engage with kids to teach them the basics of park ecology, wildlife, geology, and Native American history and culture, often inspiring a lifetime love of the national park experience. GOOD NEWS ABOUT PARK FEES On June 1, entrance fees (7-day entry per vehicle) at 66 parks will rise by $5. While park lovers, including Budget Travel, are relieved that fees will not rise to the $70 that had been proposed earlier this year, we do appreciate that park fees alone, no matter how high, cannot possibly fund the NPS’s backlog of repairs and upgrades and support the growing popularity of our national parks. FIND YOUR PARK We love the Find Your Park program (findyourpark.com), a collaboration between the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation. We also unblushingly recommend our own coverage, including national park guides, photo galleries, and news that we hope will inspire and empower you to get out there and discover all the NPS has to offer.

National Parks

10 Most Visited National Parks in America

The National Park Service has released its Annual Visitation Highlights for 2017, and as always we’re finding travel inspiration in its listing of the most visited places in the system, which includes national parks, recreation areas, monuments, battlefields, and more. Overall, the NPS welcomed more than 331 million visitors in 2017, falling just slightly short of breaking the record set in 2016. The two most visited NPS-designated areas were the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway running through some of the most beautiful countryside in Virginia and North Carolina, with more than 16 million visits, and the 82,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area protecting ecologically and historically important lands around the San Francisco Bay Area, with more than 14 million visits. As for the most-visited national parks in America, the top 10 list remains fairly consistent year-to-year, and we heartily recommend a visit to at least one of these gems in 2018: 1. GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK More than 800 square miles in North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains (nps.gov/grsm) welcomed an estimated 11,338,893 visitors in 2017 to take the top spot. The park’s namesake mist, iconic Roaring Fork Motor Trail, abundant campsites, hiking routes that include a segment of the Appalachian Trail, and incredible wildflowers and fall foliage make this park one of the most beloved travel sites in the U.S. 2. GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK What can we say about the Grand Canyon (nps.gov/grca) that hasn’t already been said? Encompassing nearly 2,000 square miles in the Arizona desert, with legendary lookouts, rafting in the Colorado River, and the sheer awe the vast canyon inspires, this national park drew an estimated 6,254,238 visitors last year.  3. ZION NATIONAL PARK This jaw-dropping park in the southwest Utah desert is movin’ on up, with Zion (nps.gov/zion) going from fifth place in 2016 to third place in 2017 with an estimated 4,504,812 visitors. We’re big fans of Zion’s nearly 230 square miles, offering camping, hiking, those iconic red cliffs, and an overall blissful vibe. (And, as a bonus, Utah boasts four other incredible national parks that are just a road trip away from Zion.) 4. ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK Colorado really does have it all. In addition to its towering peaks (and peerless skiing), beautiful rivers, and range of wildlife, it’s also home to one of America’s favorite national parks. Rocky Mountain (nps.gov/romo), in northern Colorado, straddles the continental divide, delivers gorgeous aspen, bighorn sheep, endless trails, and much more, luring an estimated 4,437,215 visitors in 2017. 5. YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK More than 1,000 square miles in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite (nps.gov/yose) is iconic even to travelers who haven’t been there yet, with its giant sequoias, incredible waterfalls, and “stars” like Half Dome and El Capitan. Despite the floods and wildfires that plagued the state of California in 2017, Yosemite drew an estimated 4,336,890 visitors. 6. YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK In Yellowstone (nps.gov/yell), “rush hour” can mean being stuck behind a herd of bison that has chosen just the right moment to cross the highway in the Lamar Valley and stop traffic for miles. Including portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, Yellowstone’s 3,400 square miles were the very first national park in the world, and with its herds of bison, families of grizzlies, geysers like Old Faithful, hot springs, and gigantic waterfalls, the park remains a favorite, drawing an estimated 4,116,524 visitors last year. (Yellowstone is also a road trip away from Montana's Glacier National Park and adjoins Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park; both parks made this year's top 10 list.) 7. ACADIA NATIONAL PARK For travelers who can’t decide between a mountain and a seaside vacation, Acadia (nps.gov/acad), nearly 50,000 acres on Mountain Desert Island, in Maine, obliges with both the highest peak on the East Coast, the crashing waves of the North Atlantic, forest trails, the charming town of Bar Harbor, and an array of wildlife that includes moose, black bear, and whales. In 2017, the park welcomed an estimated 3,509,271 visitors. 8. OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK Craving a real American rainforest? Surprisingly, Washington State is where you’ll find one, with Olympic (nps.gov/olym) encompassing more than 1,400 square miles on the Pacific Northwest’s Olympic Peninsula. Last year, an estimated 3,401,996 visitors headed here for climbing, hiking, and exploring the mountains, old-growth forests, and the Pacific coast. 9. GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK Experienced travelers (or, frankly, anyone who takes a quick look at a map) know that you can easily combine a trip to Grand Teton (nps.gov/grte) with a trip to neighboring Yellowstone. But Grand Teton’s 310,000 acres, in Wyoming, boast enough wonders to keep any visitor busy for days, with the jagged namesake mountain range, beautiful Jackson Hole, and incredible hiking, camping, and fishing. Last year, an estimated 3,317,000 visitors did just that. 10. GLACIER NATIONAL PARK Glacier (nps.gov/glac) happens to be my favorite and, not coincidentally, most visited park. Covering more than 1,500 square miles in northwestern Montana (and adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park, in Alberta, Canada), Glacier offers the legendary Going-to-the-Sun Road, which takes visitors up to the continental divide, at Logan Pass, where you may find snow in July (and sometimes even in August), and the uncanny mountain goats that make this rocky terrain their home. Don’t miss canoeing on Lake McDonald, hiking the old-growth Trail of the Cedars, and stargazing with a ranger on select evenings.  While I was not one of the estimated 3,305,512 visitors in 2017, I’ll be back as soon as I possibly can.

National Parks

Should the U.S. Fund National Parks by Allowing Oil Drilling?

Tucked away in the federal budget for fiscal 2019 is a proposal to fund our national parks’ infrastructure backlog. Three cheers? Hold on. Before you start celebrating at the notion that the backlog of $11+ billion in needed national parks repairs may actually be tackled, note that the necessary revenue would come from allowing oil companies to lease the right to drill on federal land. AMERICA’S PARKLAND IS UNDERFUNDED As Budget Travel reported recently in National Parks in Peril, our national parks are seriously underfunded and facing an array of infrastructure needs, threats from climate change, and the removal of protections for some wildlife, including wolves, grizzlies, and bison. IS DRILLING A SOLUTION? Now, the administration proposes to cut more than 2,000 jobs from the National Park Service at a time when the parks are seeing record attendance each year. Perhaps even more concerning, the 2019 budget proposal would establish the Public Lands Infrastructure Fund, which would make park-infrastructure funding dependent on revenues derived from leases to oil companies allowing them to drill on federal land. WHAT DO YOU THINK? We want to hear from you: Do you support the administration’s proposal to fund the national parks using revenue from oil drilling on federal land?