Florida is the quintessential vacation destination in the U.S. for young and old alike. There are so many entertainment venues, historic sites, and outdoor recreational opportunities to do and see in the Sunshine State that it can be difficult to figure out an itinerary.
If you are thinking about vacationing in Florida this year, let me share with you six unique experiences I love in Florida that you shouldn’t miss to help you broaden your horizon a bit beyond spending a week at Disney World and Universal Studios.
1. Dry Tortugas National Park
The Largest All-Masonry Fort In The U.S.
On a small island in the middle of what can only be described as a Caribbean paradise, the Dry Tortugas National Park, there stands a massive 19th-century fort — Fort Jefferson.
Near the conclusion of the War of 1812, Britain landed troops at what is now Fort Morgan, Alabama. The invasion was for naught since upon landing, the war was over and the land was given back to the U.S. But that invasion and the war itself caused the government to build a series of massive stone fortresses along its coastline to deter further invasions. One was built in the Dry Tortugas: Fort Jefferson.
Construction began in 1845 and was halted in 1875. By that time, over 16 million bricks had been used in its construction making it the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas.
Today, the fort stands silently on the island of Garden Key surrounded by the crystal clear turquoise waters between the straits of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. A visit to the fort is a fascinating journey back in time where visitors can experience life in the late 1800s, take in the incredible decorative brickwork with over 200 arches, the long silenced cannon portals, barracks, and more.
For a truly unique experience, plan to spend a night or two camping under the palms at the island’s Garden Key camp area where the sunrises and sunsets are simply stunning and you are guaranteed to get lost in the stars with the most brilliant nighttime sky.
Camping is on a first come, first served basis. Camping fees are paid upon arrival at Garden Key. The park and campgrounds are only accessible by private boat, ferry boat, or seaplane, but you need to book your passage months in advance — they sell out fast. This is a very remote location so if you plan to camp, you need to plan accordingly. Visit the Dry Tortugas National Park information page for details.
2. Falling Waters State Park
The Tallest Waterfall In Florida
Being a relatively flat state, you wouldn’t think that Florida would have a waterfall, but there it is, cascading down 73 feet into a 100-foot-deep, 20-foot-wide cylindrical sinkhole at Falling Waters State Park. It isn’t the only waterfall in the state, but it is the tallest.
The falls are an impressive sight to see when viewed from the observation platforms along the park’s Wiregrass Boardwalk Trail, an easy-to-moderate 2-mile out-and-back hike. The upper platform gives you a bird’s eye view from the top of the falls while the lower puts you up close to the base of the falls where you may be doused with the water’s cool mist.
- Waterfalls in the South can be elusive. In the heat of summer or during a drought, the falls can virtually disappear.
- There is a small per-vehicle day use fee charged.
- A park brochure with a trail map is available online.
3. Everglades National Park
The Only Place Where Alligators And Crocodiles Coexist
Everglades National Park encompasses over 2,400 square miles of subtropical wilderness, the largest in the U.S. But that’s only a fraction of the size of the Everglades themselves, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park only encompasses 20 percent of the swamp’s total area, but it is still the third-largest national park in the country.
Within its borders, Everglades National Park plays host to over 2,000 species of plants and animals, 78 of which are either on the threatened or endangered species list, and it is the only place in the world where you can see alligators and crocodiles living together.
The to-do list at Everglades National Park is lengthy but my favorite thing to do is to walk or bike one of the park’s 15 trails to experience the Everglades’ natural beauty and wildlife up close and personal.
For biking the trails, you can bring your own bike or rent one from the Shark Valley Tram Tour Company and pedal the 15 miles of the paved Tram Road where you may spot alligators, herons, and a wide variety of turtles. A favorite hiking trail is the short 1-mile out-and-back trek on the Bobcat Boardwalk that leads you through beautiful sawgrass sloughs and tropical hardwood forests.
As I mentioned, there are way too many things to do and see in the Everglades, so much so that I can’t list all of the activities here. Visit the Everglades National Park “Things To Do” page for a complete list and tips on planning your adventure.
4. St. Augustine
The Oldest Continuously Occupied Settlement In The U.S.
Strolling along the brick-lined streets of historic St. Augustine, you can feel the history of this city that was first settled in 1565 by the Spanish 42 years before the settlement at Jamestown and 55 years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock — making this the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the United States.
Historic sites fill the streets including fascinating museums like the Pirate and Treasure Museum, which features over 800 artifacts from the golden age of piracy dating back to the 1600s; the Medieval Torture Museum, which explores the darker side of human history; and so much more.
The centerpiece of a visit to St. Augustine is the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, an over 450-year-old fort built by Spain that still stands proudly today. The monument is protected by the National Park Service which offers fascinating tours and living history displays throughout the year.
St. Augustine has some truly amazing dining options to choose from. My personal favorite is having dinner at the Sunset Grille where the view of the beach and the sunsets are spectacular and the locally caught Caribbean Snapper served up with a tangy sweet mango, pineapple, and papaya salsa is so delicious.
5. The Kennedy Space Center
A Base For The Largest Rocket In The World
There are few things more exciting in the world than watching a rocket launch, and the place to watch one is from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Merritt Island.
Rocket launches — both manned and unmanned — are launched almost on a weekly basis including the manned SpaceX Falcon rockets that send men and women to the International Space Station and now the new Space Launch System (SLS), the largest rocket in the world, that will soon be taking humans back to the moon.
You can learn about upcoming launches complete with price information at the center’s Launch Schedule website. But there is much more to KSC than launches.
While there enjoy incredible IMAX movies, guided tours of launch facilities at Cape Canaveral (aka Cape Kennedy), spend time at the Astronaut Encounters where you can talk and have lunch with our astronauts, feel the sensation of being launched aboard a space shuttle and ride thrilling rocket simulators, take a tour of the actual space shuttle Atlantis with former launch director Mike Leinbach, and so much more.
The center is open 7 days a week, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Remember, though, that Kennedy is a working spaceport, so some attractions (like bus tours) may be closed during launches.
6. Leon Sinks Geological Area
Part Of The Longest Underwater Cave System In The U.S.
The virtually flat and level terrain of the Florida peninsula gives way to a remarkable geologic wonder along the panhandle near Tallahassee. The region is made up of soft, porous limestone that over the centuries has been weathered and worn by the elements creating large and deep sinkholes and natural bridges. This action by the elements is called karst geology.
What this means for visitors to the Leon Sinks Geological Area in the Apalachicola National Forest is an interesting 4.4-mile moderate loop hike to view these beautiful, massive sinkholes filled with crystal clear water, many of which go as far as 300 feet below ground and are part of the longest underwater cave system in the U.S.
Now, you can’t explore the underground water-filled caverns, but the larger more impressive sinkholes have viewing platforms that you walk out over the edge to look into the crystal clear waters and into the watery depths. And you may view some wildlife as well as the trail weaves through cypress and gum swamps.
There is a small day-use fee per vehicle for entry into Leon Sinks. Trails are easy to follow using paint blazes to show the way and have informative interpretive signage along the route that describes the geology and the wildlife you will find here in greater detail.