Ravine Gardens State Park – Palatka, FL

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Located just minutes from hot spots like Daytona Beach and St. Augustine, this 152-acre park is truly a feast for the eyes and a wondrous escape from crowded beaches, streets, and tourist attractions. Officially opening in 1933 and adopted by the Florida State Parks System in 1970, Ravine Gardens is one of Florida’s nine New Deal-era state parks. It began as a “tropical landscape paradise” attraction for the town of Palatka to increase tourism and boost economic growth during the Great Depression, displaying some 40,000 azaleas planted along two steephead ravines, suspension bridges, a fountain, and benches. The gardens were a success, and today as a state park, it boasts 270,000 azaleas of many varieties, most of which are original to the gardens. Visitors can also enjoy hiking/biking trails, picnic pavilions, a playground, an auditorium, an amphitheater, civic center, meeting rooms, and more.

The ravines are up to 140’ deep, formed by a spring-fed creek that has eroded the soil, rocks, and vegetation over time. There is a 1.8- mile paved path around the ravines for bicyclists and hikers, but it is closed to motor vehicles due to erosion and safety issues. If you prefer a more challenging path, the 2.5 mile Azalea Trail is for hikers only and traverses up and down the ravines on steep and narrow paths, old stone steps, along the stream, and across both suspension bridges. This trail can be slippery, demanding, and dangerous, so be aware and prepared. You are responsible for your own safety, as always, but this trail is worth it – the views will leave you wondering if you are even in Florida anymore!  

The park is an even more spectacular experience in the months of January, February, and March when the azaleas are in bloom, and it is part of the annual Florida Azalea Festival the first weekend in March. No matter what time of year, this park is worth a visit, and, in my opinion, one of the most under-rated parks in the state. Just incredible!

Rodman Recreation Area/Campground – Palatka, FL

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Located on the northern border of the Ocala National Forest, Rodman Campground and Rodman Recreation Area are managed by the State of Florida Office of Greenways and Trails (under the DEP, like Florida state parks). Their stories began in the 1960s when then-president LBJ flew into Palatka and began the Cross Florida Barge Canal project connecting the Ocklawaha River to the St. John’s River. The canal was intended to span the entire width of the state, connecting the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, thus destroying the Ocklawaha River and decimating sensitive ecosystems across the state. In 1971, environmental protests led by biologist and activist Marjorie Harris Carr succeeded in limiting the canal to its current length (this section is about eight miles, another eight mile section is on the Gulf Coast). The canal required a lock, formerly known as St. Johns Lock, now Buckman Lock, located near the St. Johns River end of the canal. The project also included the 7,200’ Kirkpatrick Dam to impound the Ocklawaha River, creating a reservoir and flooding the forested land at lower elevations. Today, both the dam and canal are still environmentally controversial but remain intact with no plans to alter or remove either.

This 9,500-acre man-made “lake” is rated one of the Top 10 Trophy Bass Lakes and hosts popular annual fishing tournaments. Other fish such as bream, catfish, and mullet are plentiful as well. In addition to river and lock entry for boating/fishing enthusiasts, there are two fishing piers and plenty of bank fishing opportunities. Boat ramps and kayak launches are located at the dam, and a nine-mile paddle will take you down the Ocklawaha River to the St. John’s River. Another boat/kayak launch is located in the campground, but may be closed due to low water levels. Boat, canoe, and kayak rentals are available from several local outfitters along the waters as well. Boats lock through on the half-hour and hour and are often accompanied by manatees, fish, eels, and turtles.

Every three to four years, the water level of the reservoir is lowered several feet to help control vegetation overgrowth and enhance fish populations, exposing parts of the land and plants normally covered by the dammed water. This changes the scenery dramatically and presents different navigational challenges for boaters and people fishing on the water and shorelines.

There are two hiking/biking trails within these boundaries – a nine-mile section of the Florida National Scenic Trail and the two-mile St. John’s Loop Trail.

Overnight guests can choose from 67 camp sites divided into two campgrounds. The older campground is located less than a mile from the dam and consists of 39 sites – 13 have electric/water, 26 do not and are for tent camping only. There is one restroom/showers/laundry facility for all to share. The second campground opened in 2003 and consists of 28 electric/water sites situated along the canal. There is one restroom/shower/laundry building here as well.

Snakes, turtles, manatees, alligators, eagles, herons, ospreys, black bears, deer, woodpeckers, and many other creatures live in these areas, so please respect their home and activities. This is a gorgeous and popular spot for many locals, and for good reason. Be sure to stop by if you’re in the area for a few hours or a few days – you’ll be glad you did!

Dunn’s Creek State Park – Crescent City, FL

Rodman Nikon 1 208 lumLike all Florida state parks, Dunn’s Creek State Park is steeped in American history, including the native peoples who lived here for thousands of years thriving on the rich abundance of the St. John’s River and surrounding areas. Located in northeast Florida, this was prime territory for European conquests, wars, and slavery during the 16-18th centuries. In 1765, a British attorney and coffee-grower named John Dunn became the “property owner” of much of this parcel of land adjacent to the St. John’s River. Farming, citrus groves, cattle ranching, turpentining, logging, and steamboats soon followed.

Obtained by the state of Florida from the Nature Conservancy in 2001, the state park boundaries protect over 6,200 acres of pristine sandhills, flatwoods, scrub forests, and seepage slope environments. Sandhills were once common throughout Florida but have greatly diminished due to human development. These important natural ecological communities are home to many endangered species such as gopher tortoises, indigo snakes, and fox squirrels. Deer, grey foxes, sandhill cranes, pileated woodpeckers, black bears, bald eagles, and a variety of waterfowl and many other birds and creatures also call this park home.

Three hiking/biking/equestrian Piney Bluff Trails ranging from 1.4 to 6.1 miles in length traverse a variety of challenging terrains including thick sand, exposed roots, mud, and narrow trails. Please note that Blue Pond Trail, another 2-mile trail accessible via a separate entrance, is temporarily closed due to maintenance issues at this time. Fishing, picnicking, kayaking, and geo-seeking are also popular activities here. The day-use area offers a fishing pier, canoe/kayak launch, picnic tables/grills, and a vault restroom. A composting toilet and picnic pavilion are located at the Blue Pond Trailhead. There are no overnight facilities. This beautiful park is perfect for a fun day trip, so bring your water, snacks, bug spray, and remember to respect all wildlife, and as always, leave no trace.

Lake Louisa State Park – Update

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I camped at this wonderful Florida state park several years ago and recently had the opportunity to do it again. As most of you know, I like to cram in as many experiences as I can during any adventure, but I’ve found it nearly impossible to enjoy every feature or activity at any park in any given stay, so visiting more than once offers the opportunity to do so.  Although it’s not unusual for me to visit the same park multiple times, I usually don’t write subsequent posts about them. In this case, I am making an exception to share a few updates. You can read my original post HERE for basic park info.

A major addition to the park’s facilities since my last visit is the concessionaire, P3 Visitor Services, which offers equipment rentals and other amenities. Their Camper Canteen is conveniently located between Hammond Lake and Dixie Lake, in the middle of the campground. It serves as a small camp store, selling basic camping supplies (bug spray, food, ice, firewood, etc.) and provides equipment rentals such as bicycles, kayaks, paddleboards, and fishing poles. Guided kayak tours on Lake Louisa are available as well. The campground is also considerably more shaded than it was during my previous visits due to natural tree growth, providing more protection from the elements as well as more privacy between camp sites….always a plus in my book! The park has also become a hot spot for photo shoots, due to the hilly terrain and abundance of colorful wildflowers and grasses.

Also during this visit, I was thrilled to partake in another activity that was not offered when I camped here before, a one-hour guided equestrian trail ride with about eight other riders and our two experienced and knowledgeable trails guides. Woohoo! The guides match each person to a suitable horse, based on size, weight, and experience level – mine was a beautiful Arabian named Star. We traversed roughly three miles through scenic and diverse equestrian trails in just over an hour. They offer two-hour rides as well, and most of the horses are suitable for children.

Another amenity offered by P3 is “carefree camping” – choose from a traditional site, luxury tent, or luxury double tent – just show up and everything is already taken care of for you.

So as you can see, there is something for everyone at this delightful and diverse park just minutes away from the Orlando metro area. The next time you’re in the area, stop in and see for yourself!

North Peninsula State Park – Ormond Beach, FL

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Established as a state park in 1984, this 534-acre protected wild space just north of Daytona Beach is a relatively small but important coastal haven for many rare and beneficial plant and animal species such as the Florida scrub jay, Eastern indigo snake, gopher tortoise, and the occasional bobcat. It also provides valuable nesting area for endangered sea turtles – when I was there I saw many nests, clearly marked and of course, protected by law. Deer, osprey, pelicans, and many other species live in and/or visit this “small but mighty” park, so please remember to respect their space and activities at all times. The park is situated along the Atlantic Flyway, and birding is spectacular here, especially during spring and winter migrations.

Encompassing almost three miles of pristine beachfront property, visitors can not only enjoy the sun, beach, and waves, but the beauty and serenity of the two-mile Coastal Strand Trail through shaded hammocks as well as the paved bike trail along SR A1A. Surfing, swimming, fishing, shelling, and picnicking are also popular activities. Smith Creek Landing offers a scenic overlook and a picnic area with restrooms as well as access to the Coastal Strand Trail and the Halifax River. Another smaller parking lot is situated along A1A but has limited spaces and no restroom facilities. Overnight camping is not allowed anywhere in the park, but like most other Florida state parks, it is open 365 days a year from 8:00 a.m. until sundown. I absolutely loved it here…eyegasms galore! This is another park I will definitely be visiting again soon!

Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park – Flagler Beach, FL

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In 1821, Major Charles Wilhelm Bulow acquired over 4,500 acres along a tidal creek just a few miles north of what is now Daytona Beach and began development of a plantation, using African slaves to clear land and cultivate crops such as rice, cotton, and sugar cane. Today, this 150-acre park contains relics of the Bulow family’s plantation home and sugar mill, a spring house, and several wells; however, very few remnants of the slave quarters exist. The plantation was destroyed during the Second Seminole War in 1836, but the remnants are a powerful reminder of Florida’s pioneering yet violent and turbulent history.  Established in 1957, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

Visitors can hike or bike all or part of the 6.8 mile Bulow Woods Trail which leads from Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park to Bulow Creek State Park. A screened pavilion overlooking Bulow Creek is available for reservations and has six picnic tables, grills, and nearby restrooms. Fishing and kayaking are popular here, and an access ramp is located near the picnic area. Bulow Creek is recognized as a State Canoe Trail, and canoes and kayaks may be rented from the park office.

Wildlife such as bald eagles, swallow-tailed kites, osprey, snakes, and manatees live and traverse through these lands and waters, so be sure to respect their home.

This park’s hours are different from most Florida State Parks, opening from 9am until 5pm and closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The $4 entrance fee is payable via iron ranger. There are no overnight facilities. Bring bug spray, water, snacks, and wear proper attire for your adventure…..and enjoy!

Bulow Creek State Park – Ormond Beach, FL

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You’ll definitely feel like you stepped back in time when you visit this beautiful and serene 5,600-acre state park located just a few minutes north of the hustle and bustle of Daytona Beach, Florida. Home of the famed Fairfield Oak as well as the ruins of eleven old plantation sites, this park is a must-see if you are in the area. At over 400 years old, The Fairfield Oak is one of the largest of its kind and stands as a silent but powerful reminder of Florida’s turbulent history. The Dummett Sugar Mill contains the most notable ruins which can easily be seen off of Old Dixie Highway. As with many of the sugar mills of the day, it was destroyed by fire in 1936 during the Second Seminole War, but its remains give us a glimpse into life during the struggle for Florida’s statehood and the associated slavery and violence of the Civil War. Previously, the Timucuan natives lived here for thousands of years, thriving off the natural abundance of the coastal waters and lands.

There are several hiking trails, the longest being the Bulow Woods Trail (6.8 miles), which leads to Bulow Plantation Ruins State Park to the north. Wahlin Trail is a much shorter loop trail that circles a groundwater spring amidst bluffs and towering trees. The park also offers canoeing, picnicking, wildlife viewing, as well as a reservable primitive camp site. Bulow Creek is an official Florida State Canoe Trail and is accessible via all surrounding roads.

Deer, barred owls, egrets, woods storks, snakes, and many other species can be seen and heard at this gorgeous Old Florida gem. Remember to bring bug spray, water, and snacks. Entrance is free and like most other Florida state parks, it is open from 8am until sundown every day of the year.

Big Cypress National Preserve – Ochopee, FL

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Established in 1974, Big Cypress National Preserve holds the title of the first national preserve in the U.S. Comprising 729,000 acres of swamps, hardwood hammocks, prairies, pinelands, and estuaries, this national treasure enables the natural flow of freshwater into the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands. As with the other protected lands and waters of south Florida, the preserve originally faced many threats due to human expansion in the area, including the proposed creation of the world’s largest, futuristic jetport with the world’s largest runway. Construction began in 1968 but was halted in 1970, thanks to efforts of scientists and environmentalists such as Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and Dr. Luna Leopold (yes, son of Aldo) and others. The results led to Florida’s first Environmental Impact Study, which stated unequivocally that such development would destroy the entire south Florida ecosystem, including the Everglades.

Visitors can explore two scenic drives: Loop Road, a 27-mile drive through dwarf cypress forests and pine forests, or if you prefer more open landscapes, you can opt for Turner River/Wagonwheel/Birdon Roads Loop, a 17-mile drive through open prairies. Wildlife is abundant, so please use caution, stay alert, and as always, never feed, harass, or disturb wild animals.

The preserve’s two visitor centers are located on the Tamiami Trail (US 41): Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center, near the western boundary, and Oasis Visitor Center, which is closer to the eastern boundary. Both locations provide visitors with maps and information, indoor and outdoor exhibits, gift shops, restrooms, trailhead access, picnic areas, and more. Ranger-led hikes, paddles, and programs are popular here, and reservations are required. 

Visitors can also enjoy bicycling, wet/dry hiking, birding, photography, and canoeing/kayaking within the preserve. There are several boat rental companies and canoe/kayak liveries in the area, or you can launch your vessel from one of the preserve’s five launches. Note: only two of the launches allow boats – all allow canoes/kayaks. Paddling is allowed year-round, but best from November through March, when water levels are lower and the heat and insects are less bothersome. It is risky the rest of the year because the high water levels can make waterways indistinguishable, plus it’s downright miserable due to the heat and insects.

There are eight front country campgrounds, but only one is full facility, and it is open year-round. The others offer varying amenities and are opened seasonally and/or due to flooding, so please plan accordingly. Backcountry camping is also available, but a permit is required.

When you’re in the south Florida area, this is another wild and wonderful place to explore and experience the Real Florida!

Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge – Boynton Beach, FL

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Officially named Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge after said scientist/environmentalist/activist who pioneered much of the comprehensive south Florida wetlands preservation we know today, this refuge comprises the northernmost section of what remains of the original Everglades. Established in 1951 under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the refuge protects over 147,000 acres (229 square miles) of wetlands, prairies, sloughs, and pinelands, providing habitat for many endangered and threatened plant and animal species. It also serves as a freshwater storage area and flood control for the surrounding areas. Considered a “gateway site” for The Great Florida Birding Trail, it is home to some 250 bird species, as well as pollinators, fish, turtles, alligators, snakes, otters, deer, raccoons, and bobcats.

Visitors can enjoy interpretive programs, guided tours, fishing, kayaking, photography, hiking, biking, and special events throughout the year. A visitor center and short boardwalk through a cypress swamp will whet your taste for exploring the rest of the refuge, by foot, bicycle, canoe/kayak, or boat. After a peaceful stroll on the boardwalk, I opted for a long hike through the restoration area, where I spotted butterflies, spider lilies, gators, and birds of all kinds. Be sure to take drinking water, sun protection, bug spray, and watch out for fire ant mounds. This is another fun and gorgeous outdoor experience you don’t want to miss if you’re in the area!

Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge – Copeland, FL

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Did you know? The Florida panther is the state animal of Florida….and there’s not a more deserving species! What beautiful and fascinating creatures they are! Once roaming freely throughout the state, they are now considered critically endangered, occupying less than 5% of their original habitat and suffering from lack of genetic diversity due to their many threats caused by human activity/population growth.

This protected area consists of 24,300 acres purchased by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1989 and expanded to 26,400 acres in 1996, in order to provide healthy and safe habitat for the imperiled Florida panther. USFWS restores and conserves the ecological diversity, conducting research and monitoring the flora and fauna of the refuge. During the 1940s and 1950s, almost all of the ancient, towering cypress trees in southwest Florida were harvested for lumber, and today a new generation is taking their place in protected areas such as this. The refuge is part of a connected network of protected areas including Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, ensuring the survival of the Florida panther and many other irreplaceable species.

Florida panthers require 100-300 square miles for their home ranges, and females tend to stay close to their mothers’ range. Young males, however, will wander great distances to find a mate and suitable range, and are often killed by vehicles while crossing roads. Habitat loss/degradation and fragmentation have been major factors in panther population decline, currently estimated at around 230, but was as low as 20 individuals in the 1970s.

Between 12-16 panthers live within the refuge, denning, hunting, and roaming these cypress swamps, hardwood hammocks, pine forests, and prairies. They are joined by bobcats, coyotes, deer, black bears, fox squirrels, wood storks, alligators, and marsh rabbits, and many other species who benefit from these protected lands.

There are two short hiking trails open to the public – one is .4 miles and the other is 1.3 miles. Both are accessible from the trailhead parking lot near I-75 and SR-29. The gates are spring-loaded to keep the panthers and other wildlife safe, in order to avoid traffic fatalities, so please be sure the gate is closed as you enter and exit. Also remember to take bug spray, water, and stay alert. Another awesome park in southwest Florida that I will be revisiting soon, promise!