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Florida's Epic State Park System Thrives Above & Below The Water

Are you looking for the perfect state park to visit in the sunshine state? Florida State Parks boast an incredible array of state parks for all seasons and reasons. Are you looking to camp? Hike? Boat? Beach? Visit a secluded island? We are here to tell you that there is a Florida State Park for you from the panhandle in the Gulf of Mexico to the tip of Key West!

Nature lovers, campers, and scuba divers delight in Florida State Parks' diverse range. They span over 1,250 square miles and present unique ecosystems, underground spring-fed caves, crystal clear waters and waterfalls, white sand beaches, and endless outdoor activities. It is challenging to choose with almost 200 parks in the state, but we did our best to narrow our selection of the best state parks in Florida.

The Best State Parks in Florida

10. Bill Baggs Cape

people gather at the foot of a tall white lighthouse with foliage in foreground

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Located just outside Miami, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park features unworldly views from the historic Cape Florida Lighthouse. The oldest structure in Miami, the lighthouse, drew mariners off the Florida Reef into port until 1990. In case you were wondering, yes, you've seen this lighthouse in "Miami Vice," "Burn Notice," and "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."

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Named after the longtime The Miami News editor, Bill Baggs has some of the best beaches in the state. Take a tour of the famous lighthouse, enjoy biking around the park, or view the scenery from the water on a kayak. If you're into cool things like history and freedom, the state park became part of the Underground Railroad when hundreds of enslaved Black Seminoles escaped from the Bahamas in the 1820s.

9. Blue Spring

Wild Manatees "kiss" above water in Blue Springs State Park in Central Florida USA near Orlando

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We almost asked if you like manatees, but that's a silly question. Of course, you do, which is why you're already packing your bags for the refreshing waters of the Blue Spring that sits alongside the St. Johns River an hour north of Orlando. The clear waters are a constant 72 degrees and are home to a protected group of manatees. Manatees migrate to the warm spring waters during the cold winter months, and it's not hard to spot these endangered creatures.

The park is home to other wildlife, including birds, ospreys, eagles, and kingfishers. A highlight of Blue Spring State Park is the 3.6-mile Pine Island hiking trail, which winds through unique plant life to the blackwater St. John's River.

8. Florida Caverns

Stalagmites in a cave in Florida Caverns State Park.

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A genuinely mind-blowing site is the underground cave network at Florida Caverns State Park, located west of Tallahassee in the town of Marianna. These caves date back to 38 million years ago-an ancient sea floor carved up into passages by millions of years of acidic groundwater. You did say you were into history earlier. You're welcome.

In addition to the 45-minute guided tour, the park also offers wildlife viewing and nature trails.

7. Honeymoon Island

Honeymoon Island State Park view. Near the Gulf Coast town of Dunedin, Florida.

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Situated outside of Tampa near the city of Dunedin lies Honeymoon Island, one of Florida's most visited state parks. Known for its crystal clear waters and white sand beaches, a visit to this barrier island will quickly show you why this state park is one of the state's best. It's simply one of the most picturesque, serene locations in Florida. Hence the name!

Take a day trip and enjoy a meal at one of the picnic areas, bring your fur baby to the pet-friendly south beath, or take the 2.5-mile Osprey Trail that crosses through some of the state's only untouched slash pine patches.

6. Bahia Honda State Park

Beautiful red hair caucasian woman on vacation in black bikini with sexy body resting, sleeping and sun tanning on tropical wild sandy beach, view of turquoise sea water on background

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Don't let the woman above fool you: there's plenty to do at Bahia Honda besides taking a sun-soak nap on the beach.

Boasting some of the best beaches in the Florida Keys, Bahia Honda is a refuge for nature lovers looking to do some epic snorkeling, sunbathing on sandy beaches, or trying their luck at saltwater fishing.

Bahia is also the prime place on this list for birding! Low tide exposes shallow sand flats where ocean birds rest, including willets, sanderlings, short-billed dowitchers, ruddy turnstones, and plovers. All of those birds are amazing, and at least two of them sound like band names.

5. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Image of a wooden deck and lookout point at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in the Florida Keys - USA

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A grand underwater canyon, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the first underwater park in the United States. Located in Key Largo, this rare park encompasses 70 nautical miles. It serves as a mystical haven for snorkeling and scuba diving. It's the only living coral reef in the United States, making it an extraordinary place for visitors. Beneath the waves lie a diverse marine ecosystem and wreckage left over from the Spanish colonization.

Those who do not want to explore Spanish shipwrecks underwater can take a two-and-a-half-hour glass-bottom boat tour, I guess.

4. Lovers Key State Park

Kayak paddling on the ocean along Lovers Key in Southwest Florida.

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*adopts a comically French accent* Ah, zee lovers key! A place of romance, zee wild passions of Florida waiting to be unlocked!

Okay, maybe we don't know why these islands were named, other than they're white-sand beaches, and everyone loves those.

With two miles of white sand beaches perfect for swimming and picnicking, Lovers Key State Park is located south of Cape Coral between Hickory Island and Estero Island. When visiting this gorgeous Florida State Park, you may see manatees, bald eagles, and dolphins.

3. Amelia Island State Park

An elevated boardwalk across the protected sand dunes of Amelia Island's main beach.

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Nestled 40 minutes from Jacksonville, Amelia Island State Park is one of the only state parks in Florida that offers the exciting activity of horseback riding on the beach. Unfortunately, we couldn't find any pictures to prove it. Just imagine someone took that picture from atop a horse.

Jokes aside, horseback riding at sunset on Amelia Island's beaches just went on our bucket list. What a unique experience for your Florida trip, eh?

Maritime forests, salt marshes, and some of the best beaches lie in this 200-acre region of unspoiled aquatic wilderness. If you make it to Amelia Island, you can visit the nearby Big Talbot Island State Park, where century-old live oaks grow on top of the dunes.

2. Highlands Hammock State Park

street winds through lush forest

Ebyabe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Highlands Hammock State Park is the Florida State Park with the rarest endemic species that thrive in the diverse ecosystem of the old-growth hammock forests found here. This land, more than any on this list, is delicate and precious. Be respectful here, even as nature takes your breath away. At Highlands Hammock, you can walk the same trails beneath colossal oak trees as Florida panthers and black bears.

An excellent choice for hikers, visitors can take the nature trails through ancient oaks, spot alligators in their natural habitat, and traverse the elevated boardwalk trail through a cypress swamp.

1. Rainbow Springs State Park

View of the Rainbow River at Rainbow Springs State Park near Dunnellon, Florida

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Situated west of Ocala in central Florida, Rainbow Springs State Park presents 1,400 acres of park property. The park's main attraction is the freshwater springs that have been celebrated for over 10,000 years.

You can camp next to the Rainbow River, see the blooming azaleas in springtime, and spend hours snorkeling this magnificent wonder.

This article was originally published on November 4, 2021.

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