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Florida's best parks have something for every interest

Posted by Jennifer Frazier on July 22, 2016

Did you know Florida's state parks include an underwater cave, a Civil War-era fort and even a cigar museum?! Our list of 8 of Florida's most fascinating parks.

With 161 state parks scattered throughout the state of Florida, it’s hard to choose which one to visit. In fact, with those state parks, plus 10 state trails spanning nearly 800,000 acres and 100 miles of sandy white beach, making a decision is almost impossible. From an underwater wonder and magical cavern to a cigar attraction and a secluded beach, Florida state parks offer something for everyone, whether you are a water lover or a history buff.

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This is the part of a series of articles about favorite state parks in the Southern United States. See also

We highlight eight of the best parks in Florida below:

1. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Where: Key Largo

This state park isn’t about all you can walk around and explore in nature. That’s because this unique attraction is largely underwater, encompassing 70 nautical square miles.  While by no means the largest state park, it does win for most unique. A few on-land trails allow visitors to see the flora and fauna of the area, as well as the shoreline landscapes and mangrove swamps. But the highlight of visiting John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is to hit the water, enjoying a view of reef life. Take a glass bottom boat tour, scuba dive or snorkel. Be sure to see the quirky Christ of the Abyss statue, a replica of Italy’s famous underwater statue, at the bottom of the sea.

Note: Visitors snorkeling at this park are pictured above. Photo courtesy of Coral Reef Park Company.

2. Ybor City Museum State Park

Where: Tampa

Could cigars really serve as the centerpiece of a state park? It’s true! Ybor City was born as the brainchild of Don Vicente Martinez, when he came to the area near Tampa creating the “Cigar Capital of the World.” From the opening of the first cigar factory in 1886 until the 1930s, Ybor City flourished. This urban park is dedicated to the preservation of Ybor City's unique cultural heritage. Housed in the historic Ferlita Bakery, this museum details the history of the area and its beloved cigar. Don’t expect a tour of nature and a swamp, here: it’s all about the cigar and Ybor.

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The courtyard at Ybor City State Park. Photo courtesy of DEP.

3. Lovers Key State Park

Where: Between Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Beach

Once upon a time, this gorgeous place, boasting secluded and pristine beaches, was accessible only by boat, making it a true treasure for visitors. Today, still a gem, this two-mile long beach is one of four barrier islands that make up this state park. Find West Indian manatees, bottlenose dolphins, roseate spoonbills, marsh rabbits and bald eagles, all while searching for shells, sunbathing and swimming.

4. Ichetucknee Springs State Park

Where: Fort White

Tourists flock to this park in the summer to go inner-tubing down the slow-moving, crystal-clear waters of the Ichetucknee River. It stretches six glorious miles under a canopy of stunning old hardwood trees, with cypress knees popping up along the shoreline. The park is also a hub for canoeing, hiking, swimming and picnicking. Its largest spring, Blue Hole Spring, is available to cave-certified scuba divers to explore. The rest of us can get a view from above: even from shore, the opening of the spring is clearly visible.

5. Bahia Honda State Park

Where: Big Pine Key

Located at Mile Marker 37 outside the quirky and beloved Key West, this 524-acre state park houses a picturesque, gorgeous beach. If you don’t care for beach life, you might be better suited at another Florida state park, as that’s the feature that reigns supreme. Here, visitors can enjoy more subtropical flowers, including thatch palms, key spider and tiger lily, sea lavender, bay cedar, gumbo-limbo and satinwood, than anywhere else in the Keys, not to mention an array of ocean birds for birdwatchers (white and blue herons, gulls, egrets and pelicans).

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Swimming under a historic bridge at Bahia Honda State Park. Photo courtesy of DEP.

6. Florida Caverns State Park

Where: Marianna

This 1,319-acre park is one of the few state parks with caves. People leave here talking about the dazzling formations of limestone stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, flowstones and draperies. Also, this is the only state park in Florida offering 45-minute cave tours to the public (each one mildly strenuous, as trekking through the caves isn’t for the faint). Go ready to learn, and ready to hike.

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7. Grayton Beach State Park

Where: Grayton Beach

With favorite Route 30-A destinations Seaside, Rosemary Beach and Alice Beach as neighbors, the city of Grayton Beach has tough competition. This state park, though, provides a way to get into this beloved area without the hassle of the traffic and lines of people. Stay in a full-facility campground or modern campground. The fallout of a land lease from the Florida Board of Education in 1964, Grayton Beach State Park was dedicated and opened in 1968 and remains as one of the true gems of the state. Especially for beach lovers.

8. Fort Clinch State Park

Where: Fernandina Beach

If you want a park with variety, Fort Clinch State Park is where you’ll find it. The park is on Amelia Island, community known for its upscale resorts and quaint downtown, on Florida’s northernmost barrier island. The park is home to a Civil War-era fort that brings history to life with reenactors the first weekend of every month. The park’s 1400+ acres also include 3 miles of secluded beachfront; off-road hiking and biking trails; a historic canopied drive under Spanish moss dripping from live oaks; and 68 campsites.

And that’s just the beginning of what Florida has to offer. You can read about all of Florida’s State Parks at floridastateparks.org.

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A tour group marvels at the inside of a cavern at Florida Caverns State Park. Photo courtesy of DEP.

Jennifer Frazier

After 10 years as a travel writer for Southern Living Magazine, Jen Frazier traded in the corporate world to stay home with her two children, three dogs and three hermit crabs.

Now she juggles carpool and laundry with writing for the Great American Country website, AAA Texas Journey Magazine and Texas Monthly Magazine, as well as blogging for thejensource.blogspot.com While she lives in the big metropolis of Dallas, she longs for weekends in the country. To learn more about this award-winning writer (recipient of the Barbara Jordan Award and the Luce Award), visit her website at jennifermfrazier.com

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