15 Fun Day Trips in Florida, Off The Edge of The Map!
Koreshan State Park – Estero, FL
Fort Jefferson – Dry Tortugas National Park, Key West, FL
Coral Castle – Homestead, FL
Bonnet House Museum & Gardens – Fort Lauderdale, FL
Historic Smallwood Store – Chokoloskee, FL
Fort Matanzas National Monument – St. Augustine, FL
Indian Key Historic State Park – Islamorada, FL
Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park – Flagler Beach, FL
The Ghost Town of Ellaville – Madison, FL
Historic Haile Homestead – Gainesville, FL
White Sulphur Springs Ruins – White Springs, FL
Braden Castle Ruins – Bradenton, FL
Ancient Spanish Monastery – North Miami Beach, FL
John Gorrie Museum State Park – Apalachicola, FL
International Independent Showmen’s Museum – Riverview, FL
Key West Cemetery – Key West, FL
Fun Day Trips In Florida! 15 Sweet Summer Side Trips That Are Off The Edge of The Map!
“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” – Andre Gide
“Still round the corner, there may wait, a new road or a secret gate.” – J. R. R. Tolkien
Legendary frontman of The Doors Jim Morrison, a Florida native by the way, allegedly once asked (to no one in particular), “Where’s your will to be weird?” If you’re traveling through Florida and you want to take a little break from the world-famous theme parks and white-sand beaches, you just might want to heed the Lizard King’s challenge and seek out some of the weirdest and most offbeat attractions the Sunshine State has to offer. As we all know from the immensely popular “Florida Man” phenomenon, the state has earned a much-deserved reputation for the weird – and that goes for some of its rather bizarre and fascinating tourist sites as well. Looking for a real Florida adventure off the beaten path? From a picturesque ghost town on the banks of the Suwannee River and a fortress made entirely out of coral rock to a remote Civil War-era fort that can only be reached by boat or seaplane, these eclectic summer side trips in Florida are sure to provide you with some unforgettable travel memories from the Sunshine State. Here are 15 sweet summer side trips in Florida – off the edge of the map!
1 | Koreshan State Park – Estero | In 1893, a rather odd religious sect founded by Dr. Cyrus R. Teed (1839-1908) known as the Koreshans built a communal settlement called “New Jerusalem” along 300 acres adjacent to the Estero River in southwest Florida. Believe it or not, Teed and his followers subscribed to a Hollow Earth theory dubbed “Cellular Cosmogony” – declaring that the universe was a rotating sphere that existed inside the Earth. Although Teed hoped that New Jerusalem would someday be populated with 10 million followers, the number of actual Koreshans never exceeded 250 residents. The settlement’s Art Hall served as the site of frequent concerts from the 13-piece Koreshan orchestra that were often attended by Fort Myers residents, including the likes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who lived next door to each other along the banks of the Caloosahatchee River. Today, Koreshan State Park (aka Koreshan State Historic Site) is home to 11 restored historic buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places that comprise the Koreshan Unity Settlement Historic District and include the Founders House, Planetary Court, Art Hall, Members Cottage and New Store. Visitors also can enjoy camping, canoeing and kayaking, hiking and fishing, among other recreational pursuits.
WHERE: 3800 Corkscrew Road, Estero, Florida 33928 | WHO: (239) 992-0311
2 | Fort Jefferson – Dry Tortugas National Park | One of the most remote national parks in the United States, Dry Tortugas National Park lies approximately 70 miles of Key West and is only accessible via boat or seaplane. It encompasses seven small islands, including Garden Key, which is home to Fort Jefferson (named after President Thomas Jefferson), the largest all-masonry fort in the country. Constructed with approximately 16 million bricks between 1846 and 1875, Fort Jefferson served as a federal outpost during the Civil War (dubbed the “Guardian of the Gulf”) and held more than 500 prisoners, including Dr. Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen and Edmund Spangler – all of whom were associated with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Mudd, who set the broken leg of presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth after he made his escape out of Washington, D.C., was eventually pardoned by President Andrew Johnson after treating victims of a yellow fever epidemic at the Fort in 1867. In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt designated Fort Jefferson as a national monument and Dry Tortugas National Park itself was established in 1992.
WHERE: Garden Key, 70 Miles West of Key West, Florida | WHO: (305) 242-7700
3 | Coral Castle – Homestead | Billed as “America’s Stonehenge,” Coral Castle continues to enthrall visitors with its “fantasy world carved out of stone.” Originally known as simply “Rock Gate Park,” Coral Castle was sculpted by Latvian immigrant Ed Leedskalnin (1887-1951) using more than 1,100 tons of coral rock. Jilted by his Latvian fiancée, Ed headed to South Florida in despair and spent the rest of his life creating this bizarre and magnificent monument to lost love using only homemade tools. Highlights of Coral Castle include functioning coral rocking chairs, a Polaris telescope, a nine-ton gate that opens with the touch of a finger, moon fountain, throne room, repentance corner and much more. Iconic rocker Billy Idol was so fascinated with this place that it inspired his 1987 hit song, “Sweet Sixteen,” which featured the lyrics: “Someone’s built a candy castle/For my sweet sixteen/Someone’s built a candy brain/And filled it in.” By the way, Coral Castle was even featured in an episode of the TV series In Search Of … (titled “The Castle of Secrets”) hosted by Leonard Nimoy that first aired in 1981 and featured this dramatic lead-in: “In Search Of … has investigated the mystery of many ancient monuments – the Pyramids, Stonehenge and Easter Island – a solution to these puzzles may be concealed in Florida’s Coral Castle.”
WHERE: 28655 South Dixie Highway, Homestead, Florida 33033 | WHO: (305) 248-6345
4 | Bonnet House Museum & Gardens – Fort Lauderdale | A 35-acre wilderness oasis nestled amid the concrete jungle of towering condos and sprawling development along Fort Lauderdale Beach, Bonnet House allows visitors to explore a unique slice of old South Florida. Bonnet House was constructed in 1920 by Chicago-born artist Frederic Clay Bartlett on oceanfront property gifted to him and his second wife, Helen, by her father, wealthy Chicago attorney and real estate investor Hugh Taylor Birch (Terramar, Birch’s own 180-acre estate, later became Hugh Taylor Birch State Park). Tragically, Helen died of breast cancer in 1925 and in 1931 Frederic married Evelyn Fortune Lilly (who had divorced pharmaceutical industrialist Eli Lilly in 1927). Frederica passed away in 1953 and Evelyn continued to live at the Caribbean-style plantation house until she died at the age of 109 in 1995. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Bonnet House provides a fascinating glimpse of pre-development Fort Lauderdale, as well as a showcase of artistic treasures of the Birch and Bartlett families. It also boasts one of the finest orchid collections in the United States. Owned by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation and designated a Fort Lauderdale Landmark, the Bonnet House is one of only three house museums in the Sunshine State (along with Vizcaya in Coral Gables and Whitehall in Palm Beach) to be accredited by the American Association of Museums. Daily guided tours of the Bonnet House are available (keep a look out for the family of Brazilian squirrel monkeys that live on the grounds!).
WHERE: 900 North Birch Road, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33304 | WHO: (954) 563-5393
5 | Historic Smallwood Store – Chokoloskee | Known as one of Florida’s last frontiers, the remote community of Chokoloskee borders the Ten Thousand Islands near Everglades City and is home to the Historic Smallwood Store, which today serves as a fascinating museum chronicling Florida’s pioneer history. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Smallwood Store first opened its doors as a frontier trading post in 1906. Billed as “a time capsule of Florida pioneer history,” the Historic Smallwood Store is home to the Tigertail Gift Shop (named after Chief Charlie Tigertail of the Seminole Tribe), which sells books related to Florida history, authentic Seminole crafts and woodcarvings, artwork and photography from local artists, alligator heads, T-shirts and more.
WHERE: 360 Mamie Street, Chokoloskee, Florida 34138 | WHO: (239) 695-2989
6 | Fort Matanzas National Monument – St. Augustine | Only 15 miles south of St. Augustine lies Fort Matanzas, a Spanish fort built in 1742 and made entirely of coquina (just like the more famous Castillo de San Marcos up the coast). To reach the fort, which overlooks Matanzas Inlet, visitors must take a free, 36-passenger ferry that runs on the hour (passes can be picked up from the Fort Matanzas Visitor Center and are available on a first-come, first-served basis). Frequent living history demonstrations and reenactments are held here. The premises also include a 0.5-mile boardwalk nature trail. By the way, “matanzas” translates to “slaughters” in English and refers to the Spanish massacre of French Huguenots here in 1565.
WHERE: 8635 A1A South, St. Augustine, Florida 32080 | WHO: (904) 471-0116
7 | Indian Key Historic State Park – Islamorada | Frequent visitors to the Florida Keys will tell you to stop at bustling Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada (Mile Marker 77) on the way to and from Key West. Not only can you grab a casual meal at the Hungry Tarpon Restaurant, feed the giant tarpon from the docks for a fee and stroll around the open-air shopping area, but also rent kayaks to take a kayaking adventure to Indian Key Historic State Park. To reach Indian Key, you must kayak under the Overseas Highway into open waters for about half a mile. Once you dock your kayak at Indian Key, you are free to wander around the trails, explore the historic ruins and climb the wooden tower for a spectacular view of the surrounding area. In the 1830s, the island was the site of a flourishing settlement established by a wrecker named John Jacob Housman. During the Second Seminole War in 1841, Housman and some other Indian Key settlers were killed by Calusa Indians during a raid (reportedly they had caught wind of Housman’s offer to the federal government to capture and/or kill all of the Calusa Indians in the Upper Keys for a fee). Housman’s grave is located on Indian Key.
WHERE: Overseas Highway, Islamorada, Florida 33036 | WHO: (305) 664-2540
8 | Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park – Flagler Beach | Take a scenic hike to the ruins of the former Bulow Plantation, a “monument to the rise and fall of sugar plantations in East Florida,” according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The 150-acre site features not only the ruins of the former plantation, but also a sugar mill, spring house and slave cabins. The park also offers an interpretive center, picnic facilities, boat ramp, fishing and the 6.8-mile Bulow Woods Trail for hiking and mountain biking.
WHERE: 3501 Old Kings Road, Flagler Beach, Florida 32136 | WHO: (386) 517-2084
9 | The Ghost Town of Ellaville – Madison | Founded in 1861 by businessman (and future Florida Governor) George Franklin Drew on the banks of the Suwanee River, Ellaville (named after Ella, one of Drew’s African-American servants) prospered after the Civil War when a huge steam-operated sawmill was built here. At its peak, Ellaville was home to approximately 1,000 residents, although a fire at the mill in 1898 followed by a series of floods in the early 1900s and later the onset of the Great Depression all eventually contributed to the town’s demise.
WHERE: Near Suwannee River State Park on U.S. 90, Live Oak, Florida | WHO: N/A
10 | Historic Haile Homestead – Gainesville | Built by slave labor between 1854 and 1856, the Historic Haile Homestead at Kanapaha Plantation, one of the few remaining antebellum homes in Florida, is known for its “Talking Walls” – almost every room and closet in the 6,200-square-foot house is covered with writing (more than 12,500 words in all) and artwork! Writings include personal reminiscences, poetry and prose, household inventories, doodles, recipes, names of visitors, growth charts and even business records. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Historic Haile Homestead served as a filming site for the 1979 movie Gal Young Un, which was directed by Victor Nunez (Ulee’s Gold) and based on a short story by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (The Yearling). The premises include the new Allen & Ethel Graham Visitors Center & Museum.
WHERE: 8500 S.W. Archer Road, Gainesville, Florida 32608 | WHO: (352) 336-9096
11 | White Sulphur Springs Ruins – White Springs | Billed as “Florida’s Original Tourist Destination,” White Sulphur Springs flourished starting in 1835 when the land surrounding the spring was purchased by Bryant and Elizabeth Sheffield. The Sheffields soon set about building a hotel and bathhouse, while promoting White Sulphur Springs as a “cure-all health spa.” Famous visitors to White Sulphur Springs over the years included President Theodore Roosevelt and automobile magnate Henry Ford. Today, visitors can view the ruins of the four-story wooden bathhouse. By the way, White Springs is home to the annual Florida Folk Festival, a three-day celebration held during Memorial Day weekend at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park.
WHERE: On River Side of U.S. 41 near Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, White Springs, Florida 32096 | WHO: N/A
12 | Braden Castle Ruins – Bradenton | In the 1840s, two brothers, Joseph and Hector Braden, headed down from Tallahassee and eventually (with the use of slave labor) created a 1,100-acre sugar cane plantation and adjoining two-story mansion dubbed by locals as “The Castle.” After Hector died and Joseph’s fortunes took a turn for the worse, the mansion fell into disrepair and eventually succumbed to a fire in 1903. A couple of decades later, so-called “tin can tourists” headed south for the winter and camped around the remains of mansion – eventually leading to the community of Braden Castle Park, which is today a Florida Historic District.
WHERE: Braden Castle Park, 1 Office Drive, Bradenton, Florida 34208 | WHO: (941) 746-7700
13 | Ancient Spanish Monastery – North Miami Beach | Believe it or not, a Spanish monastery dating from 1141 and originally known as “The Monastery of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels,” was dismantled stone by stone in 1925 at the bequest of newspaper magnate (and model for Citizen Kane) William Randolph Hearst and sent to the United States in crates. In the early 1950s, the monastery was eventually reassembled (Time magazine referred to it as “the biggest jigsaw puzzle in history”) in North Miami Beach of all places, where it currently serves as St. Bernard de Clairvaux Episcopal Church. Self-guided tours of the monastery are available.
WHERE: 16711 West Dixie Highway, North Miami Beach, Florida 33160 | WHO: (305) 945-1461
14 | John Gorrie Museum State Park – Apalachicola | Truly one of Florida’s most unique state parks, the John Gorrie Museum State Park celebrates the life and achievements of Dr. John Gorrie (1803-1855), a pioneer in the field of mechanical refrigeration and air conditioning (he received the first U.S. patent for mechanical refrigeration in 1851). Gorrie came up the idea while trying to cool off the sick rooms of his yellow fever patients (he allegedly believed that “the fever was caused by heat, humidity and decaying vegetation,” according to a Florida Historical Marker). Unfortunately, after being unable to get financial backing for his invention, Gorrie died in poverty and obscurity in 1855 at the age of 52. Visitors to the John Gorrie Museum State Park can view fascinating artifacts related to Gorrie’s life and a replica of his ice-making machine. In addition, his grave site lies across the street in Gorrie Square. In addition, Gorrie was honored by the State of Florida in 1914 with a statue of him placed in Statuary Hall within the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.
WHERE: 42 6th Street, Apalachicola, Florida 32320 | WHO: (850) 653-9347
15 | International Independent Showmen’s Museum – Riverview | A carny town located just southeast of Tampa off Interstate 75, Gibsonton (AKA Gibtown) once served as the home of legendary performers such as Priscilla the Monkey Girl, Alligator Man, Human Blockhead, Poobah the Fire Eating Dwarf, the notorious Grady “Lobster Boy” Stiles and many others. One of the last remaining remnants of carny life in Gibtown is the colorful Showtown Bar & Grill on U.S. 41 South. Learn about the fascinating history of the American carnival at the International Independent Showmen’s Museum in neighboring Riverview. Highlights include an antique Ferris wheel, 1915 carousel horse, carnival games, costumes, rare photographs, antique wagons and trailers, authentic sideshow banner art and much more.
WHERE: 6938 Riverview Drive, Riverview, Florida 33578 | WHO: (813) 671-3503
BONUS | Key West Cemetery – Key West | Established in 1847, the historic Key West Cemetery features a monument for sailors who died during the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in 1898, as well as a variety of quirky and downright bizarre epitaphs such as “I Told You I Was Sick,” “I’m Just Resting My Eyes,” “If You’re Reading This, You Desperately Need a Hobby,” “I Always Dreamed of Owning a Small Place in Key West” and “Devoted Fan of Julio Iglesias,” among others. The Key West Cemetery also serves as the final resting place for “Sloppy Joe” Russell of Sloppy Joe’s Bar fame, who was Ernest Hemingway’s fishing and drinking buddy; “General” Abe Sawyer, a legendary 40-inch-tall sideshow performer; William Curry, allegedly Florida’s first millionaire; and Stephen Mallory, a U.S. Senator and Confederate Navy Secretary.
WHERE: 701 Pauline Street, Key West, Florida 33040 | WHO: (305) 292-6718
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