Florida population

7 Incredible National Parks and Preserves to Visit in South Florida

Mysterious. Intriguing. Restored. These are just a few of the words that come to mind when I think of the beautiful network of wild and wonderful parks protecting South Florida’s fragile ecosystems. Florida has been a state that has learned from some mistakes in Everglades drainage, water flow, and they have spent the last few decades reversing and restoring natural water flow. Travelers today can experience slices of this tropical paradise and are in awe of its beautiful diversity.

South Florida National Parks

I was pleasantly surprised that there are four national parks to visit in the southern half of Florida. However, don’t think you can experience all of this in 1 day. You will need to pace yourself and plan your trip accordingly.

Anhinga Trail Walk in Everglades National Park (Photo Credit: Andy Lidstone / Shutterstock.com)

1. Everglades National Park

Some people say, “This park is not worth visiting; it’s just a swamp. I do not agree.

What you’ll find in this national park are skies full of birds, trails leading to many hidden oases, and plenty of native alligators. Shark Valley is a popular visitor center in the national park, and you can take a guided tram ride or rent bikes to see alligator friends in the water.

Pro tip: Everglades National Park can only be accessed by car from Naples or Miami using ‘Alligator Alley’ Fuel your car before you go; although it is an easy forehand there are very few gas stations along the way.

Lighthouse in Biscayne National Park, Florida
Lighthouse in Biscayne National Park (Photo credit: nyker / Shutterstock.com)

2. Biscayne National Park

In view of Miami, Biscayne National Park welcomes visitors to its magnificent aquatic sanctuary. 95% of this national park is underwater, so with that in mind, a boat trip should be on your itinerary before you arrive. What you’ll find under the sea is the northernmost living coral reef in the United States, where abundant marine life calls home. Dolphins, manatees, sea turtles and vibrant fish are just a few species you might encounter.

Pro tip: Book your tours well in advance before coming to Biscayne, they fill up quickly, and with no way to get out into the park to see the beauty, you’ll find yourself in land staring longingly at the Atlantic.

Aerial view of Fort Jefferson State Park in Dry Tortugas, Florida
Fort Jefferson State Park in Dry Tortugas, Florida (Photo credit: Thomas Barrat / Shutterstock.com)

3. Dry Tortugas National Park

dry turtles was named after the large number of sea turtles living in the surrounding waters of this fantastic park. Came across this park while researching, and it’s been on my list for a while. It’s the hardest park to reach in South Florida, as it’s only accessible by a 2.5-hour boat or seaplane ride. This park is 99% underwater, and the best way to enjoy it is to swim and snorkel. Fort Jefferson is part of the 1% on earth, and you can explore this fortress that started built in 1846 and made of 16 million bricks!

Pro tip: This national park is a pack in and pack out, leave no trace park. Prepare before you go and take only what you need with you. It’s a long day for this round trip to Dry Tortugas National Park; plan accordingly.

Pond in Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Pond in the Big Cypress National Reserve (Photo credit: Francisco Blanco / Shutterstock.com)

4. Big Cypress National Preserve

If you don’t want to dive into the heart of Everglades National Park from Naples, Florida, stop by Big Cypress National Reserve. You can enjoy everything you want to see without a whole day of travel. Stop at the Visitor Center and pick up a map to choose your adventure. When I come, I like to walk the Kirby Storter Walk. This short 1 mile round trip walking trail will take you through two beautiful ecosystems. You might see turtles, alligators and wading birds at the end of the boardwalk. When you’re on the boardwalk, my best advice is to pause for a moment to stop, listen and see the water; it is in the calm that you will begin to see all the fauna and fish of this region. I call it a taste of the Everglades, and it really is that beautiful.

Pro tip: When you visit any of the national parks and reserves on this list, pack plenty of water, binoculars, sunscreen, and a wide-brimmed hat. These areas are wild and are meant to be. And you’re a guest; be sure to leave it as you found it.

South Florida State Parks

Marina in Collier-Seminole State Park in Florida
Collier-Seminole State Park Marina (Photo Credit: jaimie tuchman/Shutterstock.com)

5. Collier-Seminole State Park

Collier-Seminole State Park is a 7,271-acre park that sits partly within the Great South Florida Mangrove, one of the largest mangroves in the world. This gem of a park lets you see Florida’s abundant wildlife and explore it in multiple ways. Pick your favorite way to get out into nature and go for it. My favorite bike trail is the 3.5 mile Prairie Hammlock Trail which winds through forests of swamps, hammocks and flatwoods. Do you like boating? They have a place where you can launch your boat or kayak for a day on the Black Water River which empties into the gulf. You can also find great hiking trails on boardwalks, places to picnic and beautiful birds to watch.

USCG Duane shipwreck in Key Largo, Florida in John Pennekamp State Park
USCG Duane wreck in John Pennekamp State Park (Photo credit: Off Axis Production / Shutterstock.com)

6. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Known as Florida’s underwater playground, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a water-filled destination that delights every visitor. Created in 1963, this park was the first of its kind. An underwater preservation area has been created to protect and preserve the coral reef found there. One thing I love about this park is the number of unique ways to explore it. If you like being on the water, you can take a guided coral reef snorkel tour. When I did this the area was filled with barracudas hanging around just watching us swim. It was a bit scary at first, but once I got used to their presence, I could just ignore them and explore.

If swimming isn’t your thing, don’t worry, they offer a glass bottom boat tour. You’ll be whisked away in a high-speed catamaran where you’ll barely notice you’re on the water. This 2.5-hour tour will take you to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, where you’ll see coral reefs teeming with marine life. You may see parrotfish, wrasse, damselfish, snapper, grunt, and barracuda on this tour.

Pro tip: If you have mobility issues, you can use the beach wheelchairs they have on site for guests for free.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Boardwalk Florida Entrance
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Boardwalk Entrance (Photo Credit: droneworldadventure.com / Shutterstock.com)

7. Corkscrew Swamp Shrine

Corkscrew Swamp Shrine is one of South Florida’s hidden gems. I took a personal tour with Professor Jerry Jackson, who spent 3 hours walking through the four ecosystems with me. I have been coming to Naples, Florida for over 25 years and until recently had never been to this beautiful part of Florida. This has become the crown jewel of the parks for me.

What makes this sanctuary so unique are the treasures within its borders. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a 2.2-mile boardwalk that winds through flat pine wood, wet meadow, around a swamp, and into the largest old-growth bald cypress forest in North America; it’s really valuable.

Something that took me quite by surprise was going to the area where the Feather Hunters had camped. It was a moment when I stood up and realized the magnitude of what overhunting had done to the birds of South Florida. I am grateful for the conservation that is taking place to restore the plumage bird population.

If you’re a birdwatcher, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a destination that will give you plenty of birds to add to your list. While I was here I was able to add the painted pennant to mine. This colorful bird is found here during the winter months and is fun to watch.

If you’re looking for something unique in the area, a little surprise found here is the Ghost Orchid. ghost orchids are a very rare plant that is on the endangered species list; they are native to southwest Florida and Cuba. Seeing one is a real treasure, and it’s thought that there are only around 2,000 still growing in the wild.

Pro tip: You will need to plan your visit to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in advance. You must pre-purchase your tickets online for timed entry. Plan to take your time while you are here and enjoy every moment of the walk.

There’s so much to see and do in South Florida that you’ll need to pace yourself as you explore. Any time of the year is a great time to come visit as each season offers something new to see and experience. My favorite time to visit these stunning nature-filled destinations is during the winter months when the humidity is less.

Natural spaces are the heart and soul of Florida, where birds fly free, reptiles bask in the sun, and visitors come to enjoy the unspoiled perfection.

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