Superlative Florida Spots for the Ecotourist
su·per·la·tive (suh-pur-luh-tiv) – adjective
1. Surpassing all else or others; supreme; extreme.
By Terry Tomlinson
As evidenced by the popularity of books on world records, extremes always fascinate people. A book on the planet’s most interesting features would surely list many locations in Florida. Indeed, this magnificent state boasts four national parks, two national seashores, three national forests, 30 state forests and 161 state parks – all unique in various ways.
Come with me now on a tour of superlatives from Pensacola to Jacksonville to Miami and back. Except where noted, these are supremes and extremes for the state, not necessarily the nation.
Most-Visited Ecotourism Destination
More than a million visitors from around the world flock each year to Everglades National Park. Unlike any other place in the world, this expansive, wet grassland park is just a portion of the actual Everglades. Home of the Ten Thousand Islands, this park is one of the few regions in the world where you can see both alligators and crocodiles in the same environment.
Farther west than Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is a small group of islands you can reach only by boat or plane. Popular with birdwatchers, the Dry Tortugas' remote location in the ocean attracts birds you rarely see elsewhere, especially as our feathered friends migrate from North America to South America.
Largest National Forest
The Apalachicola National Forest is comprised of 564,961 acres on gently rolling terrain and it’s the largest of the three national forests in Florida.
Largest State Forest
Blackwater River State Forest in Santa Rosa County offers more than 209,571 acres of woodlands, lakes and waterways and is the largest state forest in Florida. It’s a dream-come-true for hikers, campers, kayakers, mountain bikers, horseback riders and nature lovers. The Blackwater River is also one of the few shifting sand-bottom streams which remain in its natural state for nearly its entire length.
Largest Sand Pine Habitat
Located in central Florida, Ocala National Forest is the oldest national forest east of the Mississippi. Here, you’ll witness many beautiful springs that look as though they’re lit up from underground. This is also home to some of the largest sand pine habitat in the world. Combined with rivers, streams and a border facing Lake George (the state's second-largest after Okeechobee), Ocala is unbeatable for canoeing and kayaking.
Most-Visited State Park
More than a million people drive across the Dunedin Causeway just north of Clearwater every year to visit Honeymoon Island State Park. Besides Florida's famous sunshine, beaches and nature, visitors come to swim, fish and snorkel in the warm waters of the Gulf or picnic while they enjoy the beautiful scenery. Shelling is particularly good here, as the Gulf currents deposit an incredible variety of seashells on the shore. Learn about the barrier island and ecosystem at the Nature Center. Eat lunch at Cafe Honeymoon overlooking Hurricane Pass and Caladesi Island.
Largest State Park
With more than 77,000 acres, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is the largest state park system of 160 state parks. Known as "the Amazon of North America", Fakahatchee Strand is a linear swamp forest, approximately 20 miles long by five miles wide on the edge of Florida's Everglades. This vast wilderness is a mosaic of royal palm strands, cypress domes and grassy prairies dotted with wild bromeliades, native ferns and orchids. The park's wildlife includes a number of threatened and endangered species. The Florida panther, wood stork, Florida black bear, mangrove fox squirrel and Everglades mink have all been seen within the preserve. Although there is limited access to the preserve, visitors can see some areas by driving through a portion of the park on Janes Scenic Drive, an 11-mile-long unpaved, gravel road. At the Big Cypress Bend, on the north side of U.S. 41, about seven miles west of Route 29, visitors can walk along a 2,000-foot-long boardwalk to experience the beauty of a magnificent old growth cypress forest. For the truly adventurous, the park offers guided swamp walks once a month from November through February.
Smallest State Park
At just .80 acres in size, Fernandina Plaza State Park may not offer the amenities and room to roam like other larger state parks, but it's just as historically significant. Most may not know it, but it's been in the state park system since 1941, and was purchased for only $450. Not a bad deal for almost an acre on Amelia Island, right? This was the site and plaza grounds for the Spanish Fort San Carlos, built in 1814. It's no longer there, but visitors come daily to enjoy a piece of greenspace right in Old Town.
One of the Oldest State Parks
Fort Clinch State Park offers a living history museum complete with costumed re-enactors. On Amelia Island (north of Jacksonville), the fort was occupied by Confederate and Union troops during the Civil War. The buildings are still standing, and you can see how the troops lived. If you're not into history, enjoy the park's nature or bike trails.
Which spring is biggest? The answer depends on how spring flow is measured, where it’s measured from and how many flow points are counted, so three come into the equation.
Silver Springs in Marion County is often called the largest freshwater spring in Florida, if not in the U.S., with an average flow of 820 cubic feet of water per second (cfs). Only about half of this total is from the main spring vent at the headwaters of Silver River, however. The rest of the flow is from other springs as far as 3,500 feet below the headspring. Therefore, the total flow from the main spring at Silver Springs is probably more like 400-500 cfs. These various vents have water with different temperatures, which means the waters come from different depths or directions and are, in essence, different springs.
The three-acre spring at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park just south of Tallahassee can produce more than a billion gallons of 70-degree water per day at 125 feet deep and flowing with 600,000 gallons per minute. You can see the place where both episodes for “Tarzan” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” were filmed. It’s said that more than 200 species of birds have been seen here, and that Ice Age fossils remain in the caverns of the spring.
So again, which is the largest single freshwater spring? If river rises are counted, it is Alapaha Rise in Hamilton County. If it is a clear-water spring, the winner is probably Silver Springs, with Wakulla Springs close behind. Either way, both are superlative.
The longest river in Florida is the St. Johns River measuring 310 miles. This river is also one of the few rivers (and the second longest) in the United States that flows north instead of south. The St. Johns is home to numerous species of plants and animals. It is not uncommon to see dolphins in the river east of Jacksonville and manatees in the springtime when the water warms up. Alligators, bald eagles, ospreys, stingrays and many species of fish—both salt and fresh water—are found living in the river and on its banks.
Lake Okeechobee is the largest lake not only in Florida, but the southern United States. The name Okeechobee comes from the Hitchiti words "oki" (water) and "chubi" (big), and literally means "big water." At 730 square miles, it’s also the third-largest freshwater lake wholly within the continental United States and is relatively shallow, with an average depth of only nine feet. The lake covers land in five counties.
Did you know that Florida has caves considered by many to be the most beautiful you can encounter anywhere in the world? Near Marianna in northwest Florida, Florida Caverns State Park has the only dry, air-filled caverns open to the public. The beautiful cavern available for tours is a series of connected rooms containing formations of stalactites, stalagmites, columns and other amazing features.Visitors can also camp out and hike on trails and canoe on the Chipola River.
Largest Underwater Caves
One of America's longest underwater cave systems, Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Recreation Area serves as home to endangered cave crustaceans. The park's sinkholes and springs also make up Florida's most extensive underwater cave complex.
Highest Florida Waterfall
Falling Waters State Park, north of Panama City, has the highest waterfall in the state at 70 feet. Falling Waters cascades into a 100-foot-deep, 20-foot-wide sink. The final destination of this water is still unknown.
Largest Limestone Shoreline on Atlantic Coast
Blowing Rocks Preserve is a magnificent barrier island sanctuary located on Jupiter Island, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River Lagoon. Blowing Rocks protects a variety of natural habitats including beach dune, coastal strand, mangrove wetlands, tropical hammock and oak hammock. Its rocky Anastasia limestone shoreline is the largest on the Atlantic coast. During extreme high tides and after winter storms, seas break against the rocks and force plumes of saltwater up to 50 feet skyward, an astonishing sight to behold.
Longest Beachfront Park
St. George Island State Park has nine miles of undeveloped beaches and dunes – the longest beachfront park in the state of Florida. Sandy coves, salt marshes, oak forests and pines provide shelter for a variety of wildlife, including bald eagles and ospreys. You can also indulge in biking, canoeing and shell gathering on St. George Island.
South Florida's Oldest Building
The Cape Florida Lighthouse in Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park was built in 1825. Restored in 1846 after being demolished by Seminoles, you can partake in a guided tour of the lighthouse or just hang out in beach and waters of Key Biscayne near Miami.
One of the South's Largest Live Oak Trees
The Fairchild Oak is about 800 years old, meaning it’s been living since America’s first settlers arrived. With archeological sites nearby of old sugar plantations, this mighty oak can be found in Bulow Creek State Park on Florida's east coast, between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach.
When Stephen Foster wrote “Old Folks at Home,” he made the Suwannee River a household name. His first line goes: "Way down upon the Swanee River, far, far away." Unfortunately he didn’t spell the river correctly, probably to avoid mispronunciation. The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail starts in Live Oak and ultimately divides Dixie and Levy counties at the Gulf of Mexico.