Theme parks draw millions of visitors to the Sunshine State, but scattered throughout Central Florida are treasures for the nature-lover as well. You’ll find parks, gardens, and nature preserves just a short drive from the more well-known attractions. Check out these local favorites when planning your next Florida trip.
Deleon Springs State Park
With natural springs flowing at 72 degrees year round, De Leon Springs offers all sorts of recreation in and on the water. During the cooler months, manatees flock to the warm springs. Our children were thrilled to spot several near the swimming hole during our February visit. Rent a canoe or take an eco boat tour and be on the lookout for more wildlife.
If you’d rather keep your feet dry, the park offers plenty of trails. A four-mile loop takes visitors through several habitats, but if you have very young hikers like we did, you might want to stick to the paved half-mile nature trail. You’ll find a variety of wildflowers along with cypress trees common to low-lying areas.
Your favorite part of De Leon Springs might be The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant right inside the park. Fuel your outdoor explorations with a hearty breakfast of bacon, sausage, and pancakes you pour and flip yourself on a griddle built into your table. Armed with a pancake flipper and some blueberries our kids had the best breakfast ever! On weekends and holidays, be sure to arrive early to get a table. If you’re not an early bird, consider leaving your name with the hostess before your hike and enjoy pancakes upon your return.
A paved nature trail and swimmer chairlift in the swimming area make this park particularly accessible for visitors with disabilities.
Tibet-Butler Nature Preserve
Tibet-Butler Nature Preserve offers a magnificent and quintessential Florida landscape just minutes from theme parks. In fact, this park makes a great half-day outing when you plan to spend the evening at nearby Disney Springs.
Choose a hike through the dry scrublands or take a boardwalk through the wetlands. Both trails offer beautiful scenery and the opportunity to spot Florida wildlife, though the wetland trail is our favorite. Besides a view of Lake Tibet, the trail leads through woods and clearings that seem to have a magical glow in the afternoon sun.
Tibet Butler’s educational programs are a big draw for us. Twice monthly Park Rangers host EcoSaturdays on a variety of topics, covering everything from archeology to endangered species, to orienteering with hands-on activities to involve participants. Also offered are a series of Tuesday morning classes for homeschool students and a wide array of field trip programs available for your group (or large family). The Visitor Center’s interactive exhibits offer an educational and air-conditioned respite from the Florida heat.
Kelly Park at Rock Springs
Kelly Park is one of Central Florida’s most popular natural springs. The summer months are crowded and arriving early is highly recommended, but the water temperature stays at 68 degrees year round and this has become our New Years Day tradition.
Before you enter the park, you’ll notice vendors offering inner tube rentals. You’ll want to make a stop here because tubing is one of the best ways to enjoy Rock Springs, but there are no tube rentals inside the park.
Near the parking lot are many picnic tables and grills along with a play structure for the kids to enjoy. It’s just a short walk to the restrooms, boardwalk, and swimming area complete with a small sandy beach perfect for digging holes and burying sibling with sand! Parents can appreciate that the swimming area is relatively shallow and somewhat sheltered from the current of the spring.
Grab your inner tube and head up the boardwalk to the spring head to ride the gentle current down the run and back to the swimming area, passing a small island and floating under a bridge along the way.
Tent and RV camping are also available at Kelly Park.
Natural Florida might not get as much attention at the flashy theme parks, but there are plenty of hidden gems for nature lovers to enjoy.