Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park – Okeechobee, FL

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Comprising 54,000 acres of prairie and wetlands, this fascinating park protects the largest remaining tract of its kind in Florida, including many of its threatened and endangered native species of flora and fauna. Established as a state park in 1997, this land is kept healthy by a balance of frequent prescribed burns and an abundant wet season, very similar to the way it was when indigenous people lived here, and of course when the early settlers arrived. Previously altered by modern human activity such as cattle ranching, agricultural practices, railroads, and military target practice during WWII, it has been mostly restored to its natural state, albeit still a work in progress. Note: unexploded military ordnances potentially remain on the property, therefore digging is prohibited, and visitors should leave the area and notify a ranger if a suspicious device is noticed.

But I’m not trying to scare you off, ha! This is a must-see park, and preferably for an overnight stay! In 2016, it was officially designated as Florida’s first Dark Sky Park. Due to its vast expanse, there is very limited light pollution, which enables spectacular views of the stars, planets, constellations, the ISS, the Milky Way, etc….with the naked eye! Campers can choose from 20 sites in the family campground or 15 sites in the equestrian campground, which all include water and electricity. The family campground also offers restrooms, showers, and laundry facilities. Those wanting the best nighttime sky views can opt for one of five “astro-pads”, but there are special restrictions such as red lights only and no camp fires. There are also three primitive campsites accessible only by hiking or biking 2.5 miles which accommodate four persons each (pack in/pack out).

A park this size surely consists of trails, and trails there are! Over 100 miles of multi-use trails offer a variety of sights, sounds, and endless opportunities to enjoy some of the wonderful species here such as blazing star, St. John’s-wort, the carnivorous pitcher plant, barred owls, burrowing owls, crested caracaras, bald eagles, and swallowtail kites.

On weekends and holidays from November through March, visitors can take a fun and educational prairie buggy tour with a ranger, exploring remote areas of the park. Tours are weather-dependent and reservations are required. Highly recommend!

This is such a unique and fantastic place to visit and explore, especially for an overnight (or a few) stay! 

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Letchworth-Love Mounds Archaeological State Park – Tallahassee, FL

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Located just west of Tallahassee, this incredible 188-acre park protects and preserves the largest earthwork mound in the entire state of Florida. At 300’ in width and 51’ high, this ceremonial mound was built by skillful natives known as the Weeden Island peoples who inhabited the area between 200 and 450 CE. The mound served as a cultural centerpiece for religious rituals, games, meetings, and political events. Surrounding lands included dwellings, social buildings, gardens, and maize fields which enabled a thriving and healthy community.

This is one of three major surviving mound complexes in the Florida panhandle, one of which I recently visited as well (scroll down or search for Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park). A half-mile interpretive trail starts at the base of the mound and meanders past several other smaller mounds – a wonderful little hike indeed! Deer, turkey, eagles, osprey are often seen. Restrooms are located near the parking lot. Such an awesome piece of history here…perfect for a quick hike, history lesson, and a serene tribute to sacred grounds.

Lake Talquin State Park – Tallahassee, FL

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Named for the neighboring cities of Tallahassee and Quincy, Lake Talquin is not technically a lake, but a 14.5-mile long reservoir created after the Ochlochonee River was dammed in 1927 to produce hydroelectric power for those cities. Since 1970, the state of Florida has managed the 526-acre upland park, the 10,000-acre Lake Talquin, and the 17,000-acre Lake Talquin State Forest. The state park consists of bluffs overlooking the lake, including a 1.2-mile interpretive trail offering spectacular lake views and a boardwalk/staircase for more adventurous types that descends down to the lake for further exploring, fishing, birdwatching, photography, etc.

This is an excellent park for day-trippers, but there are no overnight facilities. The picnic pavilion seats up to 100 people, and there are two huge brick barbeque pits available as well, which makes this a great location for family reunions, wedding receptions, and other private parties. Reservations are recommended. Restrooms are located nearby. Kayakers and canoeists can launch from a nearby county boat ramp 500 yards north of the state park entrance.

Deer, turkeys, bald eagles, herons, egrets, osprey, wood storks, and the occasional black bear inhabit this park, and the lake is home to many species of fish, turtles, and other aquatic life, making this a popular destination for outdoor adventurers of all kinds.

Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park – Tallahassee, FL

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Established as a state park in 1966, this is one of the most historically significant state parks in Florida and is also listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. A cultural and ceremonial center for a group of natives known as the Fort Walton Culture between 1,000 and 1,500 CE, the park protects six of seven known sacred mounds which were part of a complex also consisting of residences, other buildings, community plazas, and surrounding maize fields. Political and religious matters, rituals, and games were carried out in this chiefdom until it was relocated to a nearby place known as Anhaica, which was subsequently discovered by Fernando de Soto in 1539, driving out the natives forever.

Only two of the mounds are open to viewing by the public today, the largest being 278’ by 312’ at its base and 36’ in height. Five of the mounds contain items such as pottery, jars, jewelry, coins, and strap handles. One mound served as a burial site. The seventh site is privately owned off of state park property.

Visitors can enjoy the park’s two trails comprising three miles as well as picnic tables and a pavilion. A restroom is located nearby. The remnants of a grist mill can be seen on the interpretive trail, as well as wildlife such as deer, foxes, osprey, red-shouldered hawks, cardinals, and turtles. What a fascinating place – perfect for a quick hike and history lesson!

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! 

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!