When many people think of Florida, some of the first things that come to mind are the theme parks in Orlando, Miami, and the Florida Keys. However, there are so many hidden gems in Florida that are often overlooked when people take a road trip around the Sunshine State.
As a local, I believe the best of Florida also includes the natural treasures of the state. From the Everglades and beaches to the natural springs and bike trails, there are so many unique places in Florida where you can enjoy a fun and safe getaway.
Looking to discover some of the best hidden gems that Florida has to offer? Here are 14 must-see natural and cultural gems that you’ll find in the four regions of Florida.
Guest Post by Sarah Fay from www.travelsofsarahfay.com
Best Hidden Gems in North Florida (The Panhandle)
1. Apalachicola + Apalachicola National Forest
The Panhandle is a hidden gem in Florida that not even many Floridians make it to. However, if you make your way to this slice of heaven for nature enthusiasts, you’ll be surprised by what you see.
The Panhandle is home to the largest forest in Florida, Apalachicola National Forest. It covers over 900 square miles of swamps, cypress, and longleaf pine forests dotted with lakes and rivers. This national forest has been a longtime haven for the outdoorsy types who enjoy camping, kayaking, canoeing, and hiking.
Not far away is the Gulf town of Apalachicola, a historic coastal town famous for its fishing. Experience its fishing, seafood and oysters, and you’ll see why it’s considered the “Cape Cod of the South.”
2. Gulf Islands National Seashore
Looking to discover one of the best hidden gems of Florida? Look no further than the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
The Gulf Islands National Seashore offers rich biodiversity at every turn, from the Davis Bayou to some of the most secluded beaches with access to snorkeling, hiking, and wildlife spotting.
Fun fact: Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key (both part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore) are the longest stretch of federally protected seashore in the entire United States! Here, you’ll see bottlenose dolphins, starfish, crabs, and fish as you’re swimming to your heart’s content.
Another must-see city in the Panhandle is Pensacola, Florida. This cute coastal town has amazing food, and with over 450 years of history, you will get a cultural, as well as outdoor experience.
Recently, the Panhandle has been hit by some hurricanes. But mother nature always finds a way to heal itself, and it’s great to come back and see mother nature work its magic.
Best Hidden Gems in Central Florida
3. Kelly Park Rock Springs
Florida has over 700 natural springs, but Central Florida is luckily home to some of the best in the state.
Kelly Rock Springs is one of the best spots to come relax and float down the run with some floats. Rock Springs run is about 8.5 miles perfect for scenic paddling. This park offers 26 camping spots that offer shade and a place to cool off.
Get ready to experience the wild side of Florida because this is bear country. You also may see alligators and cottonmouth snakes sneaking around. The beautiful nature will astound you.
4. Wekiwa Island and Wekiwa Springs
Wekiwa Springs State Park, a large natural spring system, is a short 30-minute drive from Kelly Rock Springs. It’s around 45 minutes from Orlando, Florida, but feels worlds apart with its lush landscape.
Wekiwa Springs State Park is larger than nearby Kelly Rock Springs, featuring some amazing hiking trails and more space to paddle around.
If you want some great food, vibes, and music as you soak in the sun, head to Wekiwa Island, a local hangout and one of Florida’s best hidden gems. Find a food truck, beach volleyball, canoe and kayak rentals, and you’re on your way to spending a great day outside.
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5. Winter Garden- West Orange Trail
Florida offers many bike trails along old rail lines, but one of the best is the West Orange Trail. It goes straight through Downtown Winter Garden, a cute and historic Floridian town. The cycling trail is over 20 miles long, passing through nature preserves, towns, and historic rail bridges.
Winter Garden is a great place to shop locally, as it has many boutiques and locally-owned restaurants. Be sure to check out Axum Coffee, one of my favorite places to sit for a good cup of espresso. You’ll get the small Florida town feel in Winter Garden- a stark contrast from Disney World that is less than 20 minutes away.
6. Bok Tower Gardens
One of the most Instagrammable places to visit in Florida is Bok Tower Gardens. This is Florida’s highest peninsular point and it’s located in Lake Wales, Florida.
Bok Tower Gardens consists of 250 acres of gardens, a 250-foot tower structure called Singing Towers, and the Pinewood Estate that is a National Historic Landmark. The Singing Towers got its namesake from the 60 carillon bells that ring from it daily.
Best Hidden Gems in South Florida
7. Dry Tortugas National Park in the Florida Keys
While it may be difficult to get to, Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most unique places to visit in Florida and possibly the United States.
After taking a ferry for a couple of hours, or flying in a small seaplane, you can camp at a National Park overnight and feel as if you’re on a deserted island. The national park is only 100 square miles, but it is perfect for snorkeling, having a picnic, and exploring the old Fort Jefferson.
You can take a day tour to get to Dry Tortugas National Park from Key West, Florida. The ferry will take you 70 miles west to see Fort Jefferson, where you can snorkel and explore this Caribbean paradise. Is this one of the coolest places to visit in South Florida? 100%!
8. Everglades National Park
Back in the day, Florida once was covered in swamps and the Everglades stretched as far as Orlando, Florida. However, due to development, they have receded to the present-day area of South Florida, but it is still an amazing place to visit. The Everglades can be accessed from two main entrances in South Florida: Flamingo Visitor Center and Shark Loop Visitor Center
If you’d like to go canoeing through mangroves, see crocodiles, alligators, and manatees head to Flamingo Visitor Center. Fun fact: this is the only place in the US where you can see crocodiles. If cycling is your thing, go to Shark Loop where you can cycle 15 miles of trail and head to the top of a tower that will show you how immense the Everglades truly is.
Best Hidden Gems: East Coast Florida
9. Bioluminescent Kayaking in Cocoa Beach
There are a few places in the world where you can experience bioluminescence, but you don’t have to go far to experience it in Florida.
Cocoa Beach is not only a beautiful beach, but it also has bioluminescent kayaking tours that can be done here as well. For the brightest glow, head here in the summer (as close to the new moon as you can).
During the day, hit the beach or head to see NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. After all, they don’t call it the Space Coast for nothing!
10. St. Augustine, Florida
While St. Augustine may not boast a huge national park, it is a destination that cannot be missed if you come to Florida.
As the oldest city in the US, St. Augustine has over 450 years of history to explore. From its colonial days, explore Castillo de San Marcos or a stay at Gilded Aged hotels, there is something unique about experiencing the historic streets of St. Augustine.
Looking to hit the beach? St. Augustine Beach is not too shabby and is a perfect place to relax or fish off the pier.
Not only is St. Augustine one of the most underrated places in Florida, it’s also among the best hidden gem vacation spots in the US.
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11. Timucuan Preserve and Talbot Island
When you visit Jacksonville, one of the largest cities in land area in the USA, you may not expect to find a giant nature preserve within the city limits. But here we are:
The Timucuan Preserve is an ecological and historic preserve in Jacksonville and is part of the National Park Service. Not only can you spot wildlife here, but you can also explore the history of the Timucua Native Americans and Fort Caroline. This hidden gem in North Florida boasts more than 6,000 years of history, so there’s a lot to learn.
Underrated Places in Florida’s West Coast
12. Cedar Key
At first, I didn’t know what to expect from Cedar Key, because it is not particularly known for its beaches. However, it is a cute coastal island town with great fishing, outdoor activities, and a relaxed Florida vibe. If you’re looking for a true authentic experience, this underrated destination in Florida has you covered.
Cedar Key is Florida’s second-oldest town. Established in the 1850s, it was the western stop of the Florida Railroad. The Florida Railroad connected Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island (East Coast) to Cedar Key on the West Coast.
Stay at the Island Hotel Cedar Key, which has been in operation since 1859, paddle to a ghost town, and enjoy some of the best birdwatching in Florida.
13. Weeki Wachee State Park: A Hidden Gem in Western Florida
Do you believe in mermaids? Well if you didn’t before, perhaps after visiting Weeki Wachee, you will.
For years, visitors have been coming to this classic “Old Florida” tourist attraction to see live mermaids, ride on riverboats, and learn about Florida’s wildlife in the bluest water you have ever seen. Look no further than the natural spring water at Weeki Wachee State Park.
There are also extensive underwater caves where divers can explore. The state park also has a little waterpark and the mermaids are always around to put on a show.
14. Caladesi Island
Last but certainly not least on this list of the best Florida hidden gems is Caladesi Island.
Caladesi Island is only accessible by boat, but it’s definitely worth the extra effort to get to this untouched island paradise off the west coast of Florida.
If you are lucky to book a camping spot on this island, you will be able to listen to the warm ocean breeze, swim on what feels like your own private island, and explore the Scharrer Homestead with a hike through the island’s interior. The ferry takes 20 minutes, and it costs $16 USD round trip for adults, and $8 USD for children.
Best Hidden Gems to Visit in Florida
Before heading to any of these amazing hidden gems in Florida, be sure to refer to local government guidance and safety protocols as they relate to COVID. And of course, be sure to practice social distancing!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sarah Fay is a freelance writer from Orlando, Florida. As an avid solo traveler and adventure travel aficionado, she endeavors to share articles that inspire people to travel solo, learn about different cultures, and try new adventurous experiences. Follow Sarah’s adventures on her blog at Travels of Sarah Fay and Instagram page.
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