Short list of things our family loves: Florida (where we live), exploring. road trips, and nature.
It’s basically what we do.
We know our southern Florida home area well, having taken countless trips throughout our region. If you’re thinking about a Florida trip or want to get acquainted with some of Florida’s more-natural or lesser-known areas, check out my plan for a road trip to some of our favorite places.
Day One. Gather your family and head west from Miami along Tamiami Trail. The Tamiami Trail was named for the two cities that it connects — Tampa and Miami. There are wonderful natural areas along this road, along with Miccosukee tribe settlements. Visit the Shark Valley Visitor Center of Everglades National Park (take the tram tour, or bike along the 16-mile paved path through the grasslands full of gators). Then take the bumpy, unpaved and wild Loop Road in Big Cypress National Preserve to Sweetwater Strand, one of our favorite places to see gators and listen to birds. Farther down Tamiami Trail is a beautiful picnic area with a boardwalk, Kirby Storter Roadside Park — a great place for a picnic lunch. Stop in at famed photographer Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, then pass the smallest post office in the United States and head south to Everglades City to stay in one of the nice inns there after watching the sun set on Florida Bay. (Either that, or camp at Collier-Seminole State Park.)
Day Two. After taking a boat tour of the bay, continue west on Tamiami Trail to Marco Island, home of one of my favorite beaches in Florida — Tigertail Beach. Rent kayaks and watch oystercatchers and reddish egrets hunt for fish. After lunch, head north to the Immokalee area and look for wildlife along the boardwalks of the Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Stay as late as you can for the best/most wildlife viewing chances, then drive about an hour and a half to Sanibel Island on the coast to crash at a beachside bungalow or Periwinkle Park campground.
Day Three. Play at Bowman’s Beach on Sanibel and look for shells, doing the “Sanibel stoop.” Take the driving tour through the main tract of J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where in the past we’ve spotted a yellow rat snake, horseshoe crabs and lots of bird species like black-necked stilts, white pelicans (in winter), and magnificent frigate birds (in summer). The wildlife refuge is one of the nation’s birdwatching hotspots. The island shops and restaurants are fun to check out during the afternoon. Then take a sunset cruise in the Gulf of Mexico and see some of the other barrier islands. Stay another night.
Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest
Day Four. Reluctantly, leave Sanibel in the morning and head east through Florida panther territory for a side trip to Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest. This is pretty, open country — not much like a tree-thick forest — and a great place to drive through to see the lay of the land. Look for the endangered Everglades snail kite soaring over the slough or a rare crested caracara looking for prey. Driving northeast toward the Gulf again, visit Myakka River State Park outside of Sarasota. Myakka is one of our favorite all-around state parks. Ride the Gator Gal (dubbed the world’s largest airboat) on the lake and climb the Canopy Walkway. Then camp or stay the night in one of the park’s cabins.
Day Five. There are some really nice trails in Myakka, and so much to see in the park. But eventually, you’ll leave the Myakka River area and drive east to the Peace River. Both are major southwestern Florida rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico. Stop at the Canoe Outpost to do a paddling trip down the river. Many people get out of their canoes along the way to look for fossils. Our family has taken this trip several times and found fossilized shark teeth and petrified wood, as well as seen some amazing fossils other people have discovered, including a jawbone from a mastodon. We’ve also seen some of the biggest alligators on this stretch of the river! After your paddling trip, drive east to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. We’ve spotted a couple of different kinds of snakes here, usually just as the sun sets, and alligators too. But the best thing we’ve seen at this park in the past is the beautiful night sky. Because the park is far from the light pollution of the coastal cities, Kissimmee Prairie is a favorite for stargazers and astronomy groups — there are even specific campsites for those with telescopes. The park is actually an internationally recognized Dark Sky Park.
Day Six. After waking up to the sound of birds singing in the morning, hike some trails in the prairie, then pack up and drive clockwise around Lake Okeechobee to DuPuis Reserve, a forest with a wonderful scenic drive. Hiking on the trails, you might spot a bald eagle or other bird of prey. When you’re done exploring, drive south past the sugar cane fields back to the Ft. Lauderdale area. And probably collapse.
Day Seven. Be tired but happy after all that exploring through the backroads of southern Florida. After a week of adventuring, maybe take one last little trip, to the nearby Everglades buffer area, just to see the sawgrass and the ospreys that look for fish that are so common in this part of the River of Grass.
Southern Florida is a region that is wonderfully rich in beautiful, diverse natural areas and history that you learn while exploring the parks. I feel lucky to live here and near so many great places that, frankly, we’re too busy with daily life to go see as often as we’d like. This would be one adventurous road trip with your family!
This post was updated from a previous post published by the author.