Falling Waters State Park – Chipley, FL

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One of the parks I like to refer to as “small but mighty”, Falling Waters State Park boasts the tallest waterfall in the state at 73’. Its 171 acres is chock full of sinkholes, fun trails, and of course lots of Old Florida history. Natives thrived in this area for thousands of years and used the sinkholes as hide-outs during the Seminole War against Andrew Jackson’s troops. During the Civil War, a grist mill operated here which was fueled by the waterfall, and later a successful distillery and an unsuccessful oil well (Florida’s first) were constructed.

There are three short trails within the park which total only about a mile, but the terrain is challenging and offers fascinating views of a variety of geological features. A two-acre lake with a sandy beach area is perfect for fishing or a refreshing swim, and nearby restrooms, showers, and picnic pavilions help make for a relaxing day.

The park boasts the highest elevation campground in the state at 324’ above sea level. Overnight guests can choose from 24 sites with electricity/water, or a primitive group camp for up to 60 people. Restrooms and a dump station are nearby. Sites are fairly private and shaded.

Deer, foxes, fox squirrels, turtles, snakes, and a variety of birds also call this beautiful park home. This was one of the Florida state parks on my bucket list for a long time and it did not disappoint! 

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Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park – Tallahassee, FL

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New York banker and financier Alfred B. Maclay bought this property in 1923 as a southern retreat for his family, subsequently creating his dream floral masterpiece of ornamental gardens surrounding the cotton plantation house which was built in 1909. Of course, Native Americans had thrived here for thousands of years previously. Then later (after the abolition of slavery), a small group of African-Americans built a successful farming community here. Today, the park is on the National Registry of Historic Places and contains several historic buildings and objects.

The gardens consist of primarily azaleas, camellias, as well as ginger, jasmine, holly, dogwood, cypress, sago palm, torreya, hickory, magnolias, and many other interesting and beautiful flowers, bushes, and trees.

The park’s 1,184 acres of beautiful gardens and trails are complemented by its three lakes including Lake Hall, which holds the title of the cleanest lake in the county. Canoeing/kayaking, boating, fishing, picnicking, and hiking/biking are favorite pastimes here, and there are five miles of multi-use trails and an additional three miles of designated biking trails. Kayaks are available for rent, or you can launch your own vessel from the boat ramp. No gasoline motors are allowed on the lake.

The recreation area consists of a playground, pavilions, restrooms, and a sandy beach area for sunbathing and swimming access. No overnight camping facilities are available. This park is awesome any time of the year, but the best time to see the colorful blooms are from January through April. I happened to visit here off-season, but still enjoyed the gardens, trails, and gorgeous lake views. Can’t wait to go back when everything is in bloom!

Three Rivers State Park – Sneads, FL

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Located on the Florida/Georgia border, Three Rivers State Park was established in 1955 after the construction of the Jim Woodruff Dam and a special bill passed by Congress allowing the property to be designated as a recreational area. The dam helped create Lake Seminole, which is fed by the Chattahoochee River and Flint River on the Georgia side. On the Florida side of the lake, the mighty Apalachicola River originates below the dam and eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Aptly named for these three rivers, this park offers opportunities for any outdoor enthusiast.

Kayaking, canoeing, boating, and fishing are popular activities, and canoe rentals are available in the campground. The park provides two launches: one for day-trippers and one launch designated for camping guests only.

There are four multi-use trails and two miles of paved trails offering five miles of challenges amongst the 686 acres of uplands, hills, and ravines. Picnickers can relax and enjoy the lake view at one of the three pavilions, cook a meal on the grill, and enjoy the playground and restrooms in the day-use area. Part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, this park is home to eagles, herons, owls, and many other bird species, as well as deer, opossums, raccoons, and perhaps a wandering black bear. As always, respect all wildlife and be aware of safety guidelines.

Overnight guests can chose from thirty campsites full-facility camp sites, one primitive group site, or a cabin overlooking the lake. This trip, I stopped here for a quick hike, but the campground looked awesome and I would definitely stay here in the future – plenty of wildlife, scenic vistas, and a beautiful campground!

Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park – High Springs, FL

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Privately-owned since 1958, this breathtaking park was purchased by the state in November of 2017, earning it the title of Florida’s newest state park to date. Having camped here last summer, I was curious to see the changes and/or improvements since then….and there were a few positive changes I was happy to see as well as others on the way. One of the parks I like to deem “small but mighty”, this 407-acre paradise is truly something to behold if you are looking to explore the real Florida!

The main spring, aptly named Blue Spring, discharges 44 million gallons of crystalline blue water daily, categorizing it as a second-magnitude spring. There are four other named lesser springs within this park, as well as gorgeous spring runs flowing to the Santa Fe River for your preferred water adventure, but always be aware – this is a natural environment and can be dangerous. Visitors can enjoy hiking to the other springs while exploring the 1.5-mile loop trail through the forest canopy.

Swimming, snorkeling, tubing, paddle boarding, and fishing are favorite activities here, and a diving platform offers an exhilarating entrance into the 20’ deep spring vent below. Canoe/kayak rentals, drinks and snacks are available at the concession. There are several pavilions near the spring head for picnicking which offer grills and electricity, and a convenient bathroom/shower nearby for day-visitors and campers alike.

The park’s elevated boardwalk followed the main spring run all the way out to the river until Hurricane Irma (2017) had other plans; today the boardwalk is much shorter but continues to offer spectacular views of the park’s flora and fauna and paddlers, tubers, and swimmers as they pass by below. Otters, turtles, fish, birds, and of course alligators live in these beautiful waters and surrounding areas, so please respect their home and activities at all times.

Overnight guests can choose from 25 campsites, 8 of which are designated for primitive tent camping only. The others offer electricity and water, but tent campers will need to provide their own 30-amp to 15-amp adapter, at least for now. All sites are within short walking distance to the main spring, concessions, and restrooms.

This newest Florida state park is one of my all-time favorites, and I look forward to seeing even more improvements in the future, for the health of this spectacular environment and the enjoyment and safety of park guests.

Torreya State Park – Bristol, FL

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One of Florida’s first state parks, this sprawling 13,735-acre park was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1930s and established as a state park in 1935. It was named for prominent botanist John Torrey after the discovery of a critically endangered species of conifer known as the Florida nutmeg tree and has been mesmerizing and enchanting visitors ever since. This beautiful tree was one of the first federally-listed endangered species and exists only on these high limestone bluffs and ravines along the Apalachicola River in northern Florida and southern Georgia.

150’ bluffs overlooking the river, surrounded by 100 miles of mostly wilderness in all directions will trick you into believing you are not in Florida anymore, Toto! Sixteen miles of trails through the “mountains of Florida” offer stunning views from highest to lowest elevation, including sinkholes, sandy beaches, and a waterfall!

Visitors can tour the Gregory House, a two-story, eight-room, 3,000 square foot pre-Civil War plantation home built in 1849 by cotton farmer Jason Gregory. It’s no surprise that this area is rich in Native American and Civil War history.

Overnight guests can choose from 29 full-facility camp sites, a cabin, a yurt, two youth camps, and three primitive/hike-in camp sites. The campground offers modern bathrooms/showers, laundry facilities, a visitor center (original CCC barracks), and free nighttime serenades by local barred owls. 😀

Deer, foxes, bobcats, rabbits, bears, snakes, gopher tortoises also live here, so remember to be respectful of their home and aware of your own safety at all times. This is a wonderful park to experience and I would definitely stay here again!

St. Sebastian River State Park – Fellsmere, FL

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Acquired by the state of Florida in 1995, this 22,000-acre park protects land and waterways that were used in recent history for citrus-growing, ranching, logging, and turpentining. Early indigenous human activity dates back some 20,000 years during the last Ice Age, when flora and fauna were quite different here. Such a remarkable, special place!

Today, sixty miles of multi-use trails through pine flatwoods, sandhills, scrubs, and cypress swamps offer rare sightings of over fifty endangered plant and animal species such as Florida scrub jays, red-cockaded woodpeckers, indigo snakes, gopher tortoises, Catesby’s lilies, and Florida butterfly orchids. Deer, bobcats, coyotes, alligators, turkeys, and many migratory and non-migratory birds also thrive here. Located along the Great Florida Wildlife and Birding Trail, this park is known as one of the top birding spots in the country. It’s worth noting that all trails are rather long and more suitable for equestrian/extended hikes or bicycling. Be sure to bring plenty of water, sun protection, and bug spray.

Boaters, canoeists, and kayakers are not permitted to launch within the preserve, but nearby launches at county parks along the St. Sebastian River allow access to 8 miles of pristine waters within the park. Fishing is allowed in all ponds and waterways, including the C-54 Canal.

Six hike-in, primitive camp sites are available for overnight camping, five of which accommodate up to 20 people. Two camp sites are in the northern (Brevard County) part of the preserve, and four are in the southern (Indian River County) part. Hammock camping is allowed. Reservations are required. Restrooms are available at the visitor center as well as one port-o-let on the north side of the park.

The park offers activities such as scrub jay encounters, wagon rides, guided hikes, and swamp tromps. Visit their Environmental Learning Center on the northwest side of the preserve or call 772-589-5050 for more information. This is an amazing park that could be easily missed but well worth a visit!

Jonathan Dickinson State Park – Hobe Sound, FL

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Named after a Quaker merchant who shipwrecked in the area in 1696, this park is teeming with pioneer history and the Old Florida feel. To add to the charm and mystery of the park, a famed trapper known as Trapper Nelson, aka The Wildman of the Loxahatchee, thrived here from the 1930s until his unsolved death in 1968. After WWII, he transformed his homestead into one of the area’s first tourist attractions, “Trapper’s Zoo and Jungle Gardens”. His restored camp is available for tours daily via kayak/canoe, boat, or the concession’s tour boat.

In addition, the U.S. Army established a top-secret radar training school here in 1942 but deactivated it in 1944 and deeded it to the state of Florida in 1947. This property as well as Trapper Nelson’s help comprise the park’s 10,500 acres of protected scrub, pine flatwoods, swamp, and of course the Loxahatchee River, Florida’s first National Wild and Scenic River.

Canoeing, kayaking, paddle-boarding, boating, fishing, and bicycling are popular activities here, and all rentals are available at the concession. There is also a ramp for guests bringing their own vessels for a small launch fee. The concession restaurant offers local, sustainable, organic foods, and beer/wine for riverside dining. A beach/swimming area near the concession is available if conditions allow, but there is no lifeguard, so remember to use caution at all times.

Hikers can enjoy several trails ranging from 1 to 9 miles in length, and there are 8 miles of multi-use trails suitable for hikers, cyclists, and equestrians. Guided horseback rides (ponies for children under 6) are available seasonally. The park also offers picnic pavilions, a playground, and a visitor center with interactive displays and a research center for children and adults alike.

Campers can choose from 142 sites within two full-facility campgrounds complete with modern restrooms, showers, and laundry facilities. Sites are roomy and fairly private. Three 30-person primitive group camps and a five-site equestrian campground are also available.