27 Ways to Explore Florida Like Never Before
From backwoods mud bogs to bioluminescent bays to Miami thrift shops, we’ve hand-picked some of the Sunshine State’s most exciting and surprising adventures.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about the Sunshine State is its sheer vastness and versatility. One moment, you can wade through swamplands in search of wildlife and wonderment. then, a few hours later, tear through longleaf pine forests on an ATV before sprawling out in a grassy clearing under a blanket of stars. Every nook of Florida holds its own secrets and splendor, and luckily for Floridians, the ways to discover them are so innumerable they could last a lifetime. Here’s how to begin the journey, from high up in the sky to hundreds of feet beneath the sea and deep in the heart of Florida.
Here in Florida—where the sun rises on one coast and sets on the other—we have, without a doubt, a big sky, and we’re fortunate to have a lot of ways to rise up into it, like the airborne adventures you’ll find below.
In a city more commonly visited by people interested in roller coasters and a certain famous mouse, the Orlando area also has companies that’ll take you up over it all. With Painted Horizons Hot Air Balloon Tours, you’ll have a bird’s-eye view of theme parks, lakes and the old phosphate mines of Central Florida during daily sunrise flights. The company has a long history with ballooning, having been founded in 1991 by Federal Aviation Administration–certified hot-air balloon pilot and instructor Tom Green. The trips can be solo adventures with just you and the pilot or have as many as 18 of you drifting up into the clouds. Not far away, in the town of Championsgate, hot-air balloon pilot Max Moerles with Air Hound Adventures flies hourlong rides that end with a champagne picnic set up in a field, his colorful balloon lying on the grass nearby.
The first step in becoming an airplane pilot, or at least pretending to be one, is typically called a discovery flight. A certified flight instructor takes you up in a small turboprop plane; you’re in the pilot’s seat. Not long after you reach cruising altitude, the yoke is yours. Here, you’ll discover that flying is a complex combination of steering, throttle and pedals, which bank you left and right, a coordination that just barely begins to make sense before the actual pilot takes over again to bring you back in for a landing. Florida is a prime destination for would-be pilots looking to learn from flight schools dotted around the peninsula, like Florida Aviation Academy in Pompano Beach or Paragon Flight Training Co. in Fort Myers. At Sterling Flight Training in Jacksonville, a 30-minute discovery flight can take you down the First Coast and over the preserve at Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in St. Augustine; it’s an introduction, perhaps the start of your new hobby or, if they really hook you, a new career as a pilot.
Every nook of Florida holds its own secrets and splendor, and luckily for Floridians, the ways to discover them are so innumerable they could last a lifetime.
Once you have that pilot’s license in hand and you’ve tasted the speed of a controlled drop or the power of the G-forces in a tight turn, you might acquire an itch for something more daring. In that case, head to Fort Lauderdale, where Gary Solkovits owns Jet Fighters International. The company trains commercial pilots to fly fighter jets, including “upset” and “critical unusual” training that takes pilots upside down and into altitudes typically not, let’s say, ideal for flying. Similarly, a company based in Zurich, Switzerland, called MiGFlug offers jet flights from Cape Canaveral using an Aero L-39 Albatros, a Czech-made fighter plane in which you can pretend you’re coming up on the tail of Maverick. Over in St. Petersburg, Aurora Aerospace Training Center uses military jets to bring pilots to the point of zero-gravity weightlessness, which the company says makes it the world’s only civilian space training center.
You’ve probably seen one buzzing over you at the beach, gliding gently over the waves, essentially a small airboat engine hanging below a parachute. Powered paragliding looks both fragile and fascinating. Florida Powered Paragliding at Homestead General Aviation Airport offers training for beginners for five to seven days, which ends with students ready to lift off on their own, nothing below them but their dangling feet and the scenery passing by. If you’re not ready to go all in, take a 30-minute tandem flight to test your willingness to suspend by chute. You’ll find similar first-time flights and training for those ready to commit at other spots around the state, including Paragliding Florida in Weston and the Paramotor and Powered Paragliding School in Lake Wales. If the idea of flying without an engine sounds more palatable (and peaceful), the state has several spots known for hang gliding. Since we don’t have cliffs to jump off, hang gliders get a tow either from pickup trucks or ultralight aircraft that pull you up until steady winds keep you afloat. Two spots—Wallaby Ranch and the Florida Ridge Airsports Park—offer aerotow for hang gliders, while Florida Ridge Airsports Park uses a truck to hoist you by cable up, up and away.
For our Spring/Summer 2021 cover story on Little Palm Island, we found ourselves on a private beach with its own firepit roaring, the sun casting shades of orange into the mangroves and a seaplane landing in the bay and then stopping offshore so guests could drop into a speedboat for delivery to shore. It’s one of the state’s out-of-reach spots made accessible by seaplane. Here in Florida, we have more members of the Seaplane Pilots Association than any other state in the nation, thanks to seaplane training schools and tons of flat water, which serves as a wet runway. From Mount Dora, Jones Brothers & Co. flies a small squadron of seaplanes that drop in and out of lakes and rivers in search of gators and quiet spots to tie off. There’s also Tropic Ocean Airways, a full-fledged seaplane airline owned by swashbuckling former fighter pilot Rob Ceravolo, living out a childhood dream of flying the seaplanes he discovered in the pages of a Jimmy Buffett novel.
Bike Trails and Backroads
You just might be under the belief that Florida isn’t a good place to bike, and we wouldn’t blame you. Just a few years ago, a state with year-round biking weather had few safe places to ride. Now, there are bike paths tracing the coasts, crossing through the center of the peninsula and cutting through the landscape. Among the most stunning of them has to be the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, which stretches 90 miles, nearly the entire length of the islands. With open vistas of Caribbean seas, it’s a separated bike path that keeps you away from U.S. Highway 1 traffic for much of the ride, making this a good destination for newbies and experienced cyclists. Further north, the Florida Coast-to-Coast Trail cuts the state crossways from St. Petersburg to Titusville, and while about 10 percent remains incomplete, the path includes long stretches that slice through picturesque hammocks and forests. The trail links up to and includes several other routes, some worthy of a trip on their own, like the 52-mile East Central Regional Rail Trail, covered by live oaks and palms.
In Gainesville, there are a handful of bike routes intersecting the city; take the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, where you can roll along mostly gentle hills for 16 miles through prairies and savannas. Dirt and paved paths intersect with it and create a system you could spend days exploring. Tallahassee has even more options, thanks to the more than 700 miles of paved and dirt paths the city offers. Some planned communities in Florida have also become biking meccas, like The Villages and Weston, where retirees and cyclists from all over descend to ride well-marked and well-
There are also the more hidden, lesser-known spots, just about everywhere. At the Guana River Wildlife Management Area in Ponte Vedra Beach, you might not see another person during a gravel adventure below a shaded canopy. The bike paths in Amelia Island head south and converge into a meandering paved path through Little Talbot Island State Park, where all-day cyclists can continue on to catch the ferry over to Mayport in Jacksonville.
Right now, you might be wondering why we didn’t mention your favorite spot to bike. It’s a good problem to have here in Florida, where suddenly we have so many good bike paths we simply can’t list them all.
Let’s Go Camping
Some of the best exploration in the Sunshine State actually happens after the sun goes down. Roll out a sleeping bag and stretch out beneath the stars at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park to fully appreciate Florida’s first Dark Sky Park. This sprawling sea of grassland is far enough removed from the shimmering lights of Cinderella’s Castle and the light pollution of downtown Orlando to provide ink-black skies ideal for stargazing. Serious star seekers can reserve an astronomy pad in the “red-light district” of the park to take in the full splendor of the skies, but even amateur astronomers can spot the Milky Way from their tent without the help of a telescope.
For those who like a little more glamour than grime, Fancy Camps, a Florida-based glamping company, allows adventurers to experience Florida state parks after dark with all the comforts of a trendy hotel. Their rentable glamping tent can be set up at accommodating sites around the state and comes with a queen bed; dreamy boho rugs and end tables; exterior and interior lighting; a heating/cooling unit; a picnic table and a fire ring. The company has permanent camping sites at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, where outdoor enthusiasts can spend the day paddleboarding the viridescent waters of the Gulf of Mexico or meandering some of the 15 miles of trails, which reveal traces of the old turpentine industry and the World War II JB-2 rocket development program.
Perhaps the most stripped-down, backcountry camping opportunity in Florida can be found deep in Everglades National Park, beyond the boundaries of touristy airboat rides. To reach these remote camping sites, explorers will need a skiff or shallow-water boat that can maneuver through the Wilderness Waterway. Tucked among thickets of mangroves and sprinkled throughout the unforgiving swamp are unassuming “chickees,” the Seminole word for “thatched roofs,” which is about all there is to it. Not for novices, these wooden stilt structures hover just a few feet above the water and offer 360-degree views of unspoiled Florida. With just enough room for a small tent and a cool breeze that keeps bugs at bay, it’s a no-frills affair fitting for those who want to get off grid. Given their isolated location, campers should pack enough food for their stay—or be skilled with a rod and reel. Don’t worry, the platforms are high enough to keep gators away, but be prepared: you may hear things go bump in the night.
On the Water
With 1,350 miles of coastline, Floridians need to find their sea legs if they want to explore the real hidden treasures of our peninsula. There are the well-known deep-sea fishing trips and snorkeling expeditions in the freshwater springs, which glitter like diamonds beneath the high-noon sun. But embark on a marine adventure by the light of the moon, and it illuminates a spectacle found in few other places on Earth.
Sink a paddle into the warm waters of Indian River Lagoon near Titusville after nightfall and the phenomenon appears. Glowing streaks of neon blue punctuate the dark waves as each kayak stirs up dinoflagellates—harmless plankton that emit bright blue light when moved. There are dozens of outfitters that lead excursions into a bioluminescent bay near the Kennedy Space Center, but opt for one like A Day Away Kayak Tours, which levels up the light show by using clear kayaks that immerse you in the bioluminescence. While microscopic organisms are responsible for the anomaly, larger marine life like mullet, manatees and dolphins can also be seen putting on a real performance. Aquamarine sparkles outline their movements and silhouettes like fireworks raining down from the sky. This display is best viewed during warmer months, with the peak season running from May through early November.
Embark on a marine adventure by the light of the moon, and it illuminates a spectacle found in few other places on Earth.
Pack up and head about an hour west to the endearing city of Winter Park for a beginner-friendly paddling path that looks better suited for a gondola than a kayak. Winter Park’s Chain of Lakes are connected by Venetian canals framed with cypress trees and verdant ferns. The meandering waterway connects six lakes and winds through neat rows of opulent mansions with manicured gardens, giving paddlers a glimpse of the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
Finish your trek on the west coast for an encounter you won’t find anywhere else in North America. Slipping into Crystal River’s 72-degree water in the middle of winter may not sound like a dream dip, but what you’ll find cruising along the pellucid waters is worth the chill. Crystal River is the only place on the continent where you’re legally allowed to swim with manatees in their natural habitat. From November through April, as many as 400 of these gentle giants flock to balmy Kings Bay, giving Floridians the unique opportunity to share the water with them. To see these mellow mammals up close, launch your kayak or slip into the springs early in the morning when they’re at their most playful. Don’t forget, these calm creatures are endangered, so avoid making loud noises and initiating contact. If a curious manatee approaches—as they’re wont to do—stick to a gentle touch with one palm, never both.
Off-Roading & Mud Bogging
Take advantage of the Sunshine State’s swamps when you explore Florida’s boggy backwoods on an all-terrain vehicle or other off-roading vehicle. The Ocala National Forest boasts one of the most extensive off-roading trail systems in the state. Four-wheelers and motorcycles can kick up dust on more than 200 miles of trails that weave through endangered scrub oaks and sand pine forests. If you’re tackling the terrain in a four-wheel drive vehicle, there are 81 miles of off-road pathways to ride. The forest service limits speeds on these routes, allowing riders to take it easy and spot some of the forest’s wildlife, including black bears, coyotes, white-tailed deer and wild boar.
For those a little more wild than mild, make the drive over to Hog Waller Mud Bog & ATV in Palatka for some mud-slinging mayhem. Don your least-favorite denim for this drive, because the centerpiece of this Putnam County playground is a 6-acre mud pit. Play around in the pit or embark down some of the 50 miles of natural and man-made trails. For a challenge, visit during the park’s all-hours weekends, where adrenaline addicts can rip through the pit and ride the trails long after the sun goes down. Remember: The filthier you are, the more fun you’re having.
For those willing to plunge beneath the surface, a diver’s playground awaits just off the coast. In the north, scuba divers can swim the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail and see 12 unique wrecks from Pensacola to Port St. Joe. About 22 miles south of Pensacola is one of the most popular diving destinations in the country: the USS Oriskany. Once a massive aircraft carrier that served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, now this sunken ship is the world’s largest artificial reef. Advanced divers can descend as deep as 145 feet to the flight deck, while more novice swimmers can peer through the portholes and decks of the conning tower starting at 80 feet below the surface.
Off the coast of Palm Beach, divers won’t find sunken ships or treasure chests, but instead a family of mermaids swirling among schools of fish and burgeoning coral. The underwater sculpture garden is part of the 1000 Mermaids Artificial Reef Project, an initiative that casts the bodies of real Floridians into concrete mermaids that will live forever on the ocean floor near Fort Lauderdale, Dania Beach and Palm Beach. This gallery of ethereal figurines isn’t just for looks; each sculpture gives baby coral a secure place to adhere to, creating an artistic artificial reef ripe for exploring.