Need a Break from the Theme Parks? Enjoy an Outdoor Adventure in Central Florida
Few visitors to Central Florida venture beyond world-famous theme parks such as Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando. Although these attractions are part of an essential itinerary for any first-time visitor during their Orlando vacation, adventurous travelers may wish to take a day off from the theme parks to explore the “real” Florida. Outdoor recreational options in Central Florida include hiking a trail and viewing native wildlife, taking a refreshing swim in a natural spring, canoeing or kayaking a scenic river, taking an airboat ride adventure or simply wandering around one of the area’s popular city, county and state parks.
Take a Hike: Managed by The Nature Conservancy, the 11,500-acre Disney Wilderness Preserve borders scenic Lake Russell near Kissimmee and provides a great locale for wildlife viewing (it’s home to more than 1,000 animal and plant species!). In addition to a one-mile trail that leads to Lake Russell, hikers can take a 2.5-mile loop trail that provides an in-depth view of the Preserve. Hikers must first register at the Information Center. Nature buffs will also love the Tibet-Butler Preserve, which offers four miles of hiking trails and the Vera Carter Environmental Center. Wildlife that call the Tibet-Butler Preserve home include alligators, gopher tortoises, owls, foxes, raccoons, wild turkeys and armadillos, as well as a variety of bird species, including bald eagles. Featuring more than 20 miles of roads and woodland trails, Orlando Wetlands Park winds through hardwood hammocks and marshes, and along beautiful lakes. The Park features an Education Center, Wildlife Garden and picnic facilities. Part of the Orlando Trail Network, Orlando Urban Trail runs three miles from Lake Highland through Loch Haven Park to Mead Garden in Winter Park. One of Florida’s most popular rail-trails, the West Orange Trail winds its way 20.8 miles from Apopka to the Orange County/Lake County line near Clermont and provides the perfect venue for hiking and biking. The West Orange Trail meanders past the Oakland Nature Preserve, which offers six unpaved hiking trails and a wheelchair accessible boardwalk to Lake Apopka, the third largest lake in Florida. Less than an hour’s drive from Orlando in Seminole County lies Little Big Econ State Forest, which features 16.3 miles of hiking trails, including eight miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail.
Swim in a Spring: Nestled at the headwaters of the Wekiva River, Wekiwa Springs State Park provides a cool spring for swimming and snorkeling, as well as canoe and kayak rentals, hiking and equestrian trails, picnic areas, playgrounds and campsites. In fact, 42-million gallons of water flow each day from Wekiwa Springs into Wekiwa Springs Run. Once known as Clay Springs, Wekiwa Springs became a state park in 1969. Plan to arrive early at the immensely popular Kelly Park/Rock Springs Run, a local favorite for tubing that lies in Apopka, just Northwest of Orlando. Rent a tube just outside the Park and take a 25-minute leisurely float down the Rock Springs Run. Rock Springs also offers the ideal locale for swimming and sunbathing. Encompassing more than 2,600 acres, Blue Spring State Park in Volusia County features the largest spring on the St. Johns River and serves as a designated manatee refuge (manatees can typically be viewed here between mid-November through March). Blue Spring is the ideal locale for swimmers and snorkelers, as well as certified scuba divers. In addition, river boat tours are available through St. Johns River Cruises. Just 20 miles North of Blue Spring lies De Leon Springs State Park, which overlooks the scenic Spring Garden Run. Popular activities here include swimming and snorkeling. Canoe, kayak and paddleboat rentals are also available. De Leon Springs is also home to the Sugar Mill Restaurant, where diners can cook their own pancakes.
Paddle a Scenic River: Just East of Wekiwa Springs State Park lies Wekiva Island, which lies along the Wekiva River and offers canoe, kayak and paddleboard rentals. After your paddling adventure, chill out with your favorite beverage at the Tooting Otter (a bustling outdoor bar), enjoy a friendly game of sand volleyball, or simply relax and unwind in one of the Adirondack chairs on the boardwalk overlooking the Wekiva River. Kings Landing near Kelly Park in Apopka offers canoe and kayak rentals along the scenic Rock Springs Run. Ideally located at the headwaters to the Florida Everglades, The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek at Shingle Creek Regional Park offers single and two-person kayak and two- to four-person canoe rentals.
Enjoy an Airboat Ride: The Central Florida Everglades and the multitude of scenic lakes throughout Central Florida are the ideal launching spots for a wildlife adventure aboard an airboat. Orlando airboat rides are a fun and educational way for the entire family to explore Florida’s natural heritage. Central Florida Airboat rides can be arranged through such operators as Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo, Boggy Creek Airboat Rides, Wild Willy’s Airboat Rides, Black Hammock Adventures, Marsh Landing Adventures Airboat Rides and Wild Florida Airboats & Gator Park, among others.
Stroll through a Park: An immensely popular destination that lies in the heart of downtown Orlando, Lake Eola Park features swan-shaped paddleboat rentals, a 0.9-mile walking/jogging path, picnic tables, Walt Disney Amphitheater and playground. Another local favorite, Bill Frederick Park at Turkey Lake, features boat rentals, nature trails, fishing, an outdoor pool, picnic areas and barbecue facilities. Magnolia Park on Lake Apopka offers picnic tables, playgrounds, basketball and volleyball courts, a boat ramp and tent campsites. It also serves as a trailhead for the Lake Apopka Loop Trail. The nearby Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive is the perfect locale to view alligators in their natural habitat. Just North of downtown Orlando lies another gem, the beautiful Harry P. Leu Gardens, which were donated to the City of Orlando in 1961 and boast Florida’s largest formal rose garden and the largest collection of Camellias in the United States, as well as 50 acres of tropical plants and ancient oaks. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the restored 19th-century Leu House is now a museum.
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