From Pensacola to the Florida Keys, here are the state’s greatest natural wonders.
It doesn’t take much to hook people on natural Florida. You discover an osprey nest atop a power pole or come upon a wetlands of cypress knees. An eagle soars above a velour-smooth lake or, before your eyes, the rainy edge of a cold front greens an oak limb’s ruffle of resurrection fern.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
In fall, the migration of monarch butterflies from Mexico pauses along the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola. The air flaunts orange and black tattoos against white sand and emerald waters. Children mimic the monarchs’ caprice, jumping with winged animation. Families enjoy some last swims before winter.
On such long beaches, we experience the joy of walking just to lose ourselves. One spring, I stared at the sea when a pod of dolphins suddenly barraged into a school of food fish. They were 30 feet off shore, then 20, whipping their tails, chopping away, rising up supremely!
Beneath the sun the sea becomes a sequined image. Waves crash, their wake pecked by sandpipers. Sea oats wave in the breeze. Coreopsis and goldenrod yellow the roadsides.
East of Gulf Breeze, remnant live oaks in a section once used for shaping the hulls of early American sailing ships stand preserved, known as the Naval Live Oaks Reservation Area. At the western end of Santa Rosa Island, Fort Pickens, one of three forts that once guarded Pensacola Bay, forms an outdoors museum.
Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve
They call the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve “Jacksonville’s Central Park.” Its 46,000 acres of creeks, rivers, marsh, wetlands and islands exceed New York’s great park by more than five times.
Almost a half-millennium of history abides here in re-constructed Fort Caroline, a settlement attempted two years before St. Augustine, where Jacques Le Moyne’s drawings leave us first impressions of Native Americans. On Fort George Island, the restored Kingsley Plantation is the oldest still standing plantation home.
History abides, too, in ways of getting around. The best ride is crossing the St. Johns on the car ferry named for Jean Ribault, leader of the French expedition.
In Little Talbot Island State Park,on the north end, driftwood pruned by wind and salt lay about like elk antlers left hopelessly entangled after battle. Nassau Sound scours the shoreline. Low causeways cross creeks once poled across by islanders.
On other nearby islands, you can step from a kayak onto isles of whitest sand and walk to the ends of old bridges, now fishing pier, or horses for hire will carry you beside the sea.
The St. Johns River
Consider the St. Johns like an otter might. Though the river has its issues, the way to its embrace is playfully.
Its 310 north-flowing miles reach from shallowest marsh west of Vero Beach to the Atlantic east of Jacksonville. Because its descent barely exceeds an inch a mile, sometimes the river flows backward, seasonally filling Lake George a hundred miles upstream with shrimp sought by netters from everywhere.
Springs empty for miles down pencil narrow paddling streams; others run for just yards and harbor manatees in winter. Still others supply weekend party sites.
Before trains and cars, when settlers explored south on riverboats, the backs of today’s shore towns were their fronts. Down-home restaurants along these forgotten shores today induce small talk over platters of catfish and crab.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park
Twenty-five miles northwest of Okeechobee off CR 724, I drove across the largest remaining expanse of Florida dry prairie, the 54,000 acres of the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve. Even without binoculars I sighted crested caracara, deer, gopher tortoises, rabbits, red-shouldered hawks and wading birds. A great blue heron lazily lofted itself above spatterdock lilies.
At Seven-Mile Slough, gators, spooked, submerged in palls of turbidity. Midsummer breezes danced across fields of wildflowers. Windmills from former ranchlands, their blades long gone, towered above cattle pastures.
Along tracks of sand, grass and sections difficult with holes, I drove toward the Kissimmee River. Young pines rose from beneath the low car and strummed its undercarriage. Beyond any trace of road, the river pulsed with life. A turtle submerged, fish splashed, a bullfrog sounded. I found the husk of an armadillo and the bony hinge of a cow. A snapping turtle surfaced.
Only the tops of cabbage palms ruffled the horizon. Small yellow flowers painted the brush. A swallow-tailed kite flew by. Everywhere, vultures hovered above dry ponds.
Eyes squint in the futile scan for the far side of Lake Okeechobee. Even from atop the high bridge that comes alongside in Port Mayaca, the fullness of Florida’s largest lake resists beholding. The shore curves away among small towns, canefields, cattle pasture and orange groves. Everywhere inside the rim, water.
Far from the lower coasts and their expressways, the Seminoles’ “big water” remains the center of slow-changing Florida. From nearby roads, the high flood control dike shuts down any view altogether. No view, no pricey real estate.
Instead, travelers find RV parks mostly lived in by fisherfolk who command lake access through many gates and whose lifestyle preserves places.
The trail atop the dike is called LOST, for the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail. LOST is an approximately 110-mile trail encircling the lake. More than half of the trail is paved, and the remainder consists of a two-track gravel roadway on top of the 35-foot high Herbert Hoover Dike.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park covers a million and a half acres. The park was established in 1947 for its biological diversity. Yet, awesome as the birds, the ‘gators and the sawgrass are, I love the people stories.
A Miccosukee elder took me by pontoon boat to a wooded island – a place where lightning still supplies all the electricity, where the world divides rapturously between sky and water and where his parents in the ’20s and ’30s raised a family that paddled dugout canoes everywhere they went.
Everywhere, nature is whisper-close. You marvel while examining a Florida Panther’s track, stand bedazzled by flocks of roseate spoonbills and lose yourself down gumbo limbo trails. Behold the cycle of life that begins with a handful of aquatic ooze!
The Everglades is miraculous not only in how land becomes water and how the colonizing roots of mangroves turn water into land. The comparable miracle is contentious humans seeking common ground and investing billions to undo decades of exploitation. The words of the park’s late champion Marjorie Stoneman Douglas echo: “The Everglades is a test. If we pass it, we may get to keep the planet.”
The Florida Reef
I discovered the reef (Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary) by accident from a small no-name beach in the Keys. A patch of corals grew wading-near off shore. In a world of color I knew only from birds, butterflies, flowers and fruits, an alternate world of Merlin and Oz existed as close as my toes, a world beneath the sea that vibrated seductively.
Equipped with snorkel, mask and flippers, I became at home among schools of grunts and yellowtails, their yellows and blues fusing sun and sea.
I visited among queen angelfish swimming by as coolest dudes and watched barely submerged parrotfish pop corals and turn rock into fine sand while their tails stuck out of the water. Rays swam by, shaped like sub-surface catamarans, while gorgonians fanned their purple lattice like acolytes attending a tiger grouper, its hide permanently shimmered by light reflected through water.