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Seeing Florida Like a Native

Updated on October 5, 2014
The butterfly garden at Rainbow Springs State Park.   (Photo by Cheryl Rogers)
The butterfly garden at Rainbow Springs State Park. (Photo by Cheryl Rogers)

Off the Beaten Path: Places to Visit

Florida is renowned for the gorgeous beaches which line its shorelines from Pensacola to Key West. But there is more to do in Florida than bask on the beaches and see Mickey Mouse. Florida's State Parks give nature lovers and budget conscious travelers plenty to do. Our parks are a great place to: See what Florida was like in days gone by, cool off in springs cool all year long, and view nature up close.

A Miami native, I've lived in Florida most of my life -- from Miami/Fort Lauderdale to Pensacola/Fort Walton Beach to Tampa, my current home. This lens will highlight some of the places I've enjoyed visiting through the years -- and some I hope to visit someday.

I love the beaches and they are always on my list of fun places to go. But if you want someplace inland to visit, this Hubpage will give you some new options.

Oh, by the way, I took this photo in an older butterfly garden at Rainbow Springs State Park near Dunnellon.

A waterfall at Rainbow Springs State Park  (Photo by Cheryl Rogers)
A waterfall at Rainbow Springs State Park (Photo by Cheryl Rogers)

Rainbow Springs State Park

Rainbow Springs is off the beaten path near Dunnellon Florida, a short jaunt from our Tampa home. Located off Interstate 75 near Ocala, Rainbow Springs used to be a popular tourist attraction before the interstate was built. Now during the week you can find the park a relaxing and quiet respite from your hectic lifestyle.

One of the more popular things to do at Rainbow Springs is tubing. Rent a tube and relax as the river carries you gently along its path. You can't take anything on the river that will cause pollution, however, so plan to have lunch before or after your float. The tubing season runs through the heat of summer so don't wait for cool weather to plan your trip!

At the park you also can swim, take a nature walk, rent canoes, and camp overnight. The park includes a concession area suitable for lunch or snacks. The photo shows a lovely waterfall off the nature walk.

Read more about the park here.

Another place to go tubing

If you are driving into from the north, or driving out of Florida for that matter, you may want to consider tubing the Ichetucknee River. I've never made it, but it seems to be the premiere place to go tubing in Florida.

You can read about Ichetucknee Springs State Park here.

You can see a video here from Chad Crawford, who hosts a television show called How to Do Florida. He'll show you what it's like.

Tubing on the Ichetucknee River

Read about Florida Vacations

The Sunshine State offers lots of varied vacation opportunities within an easy drive of many people in the southeastern United States. These book selections from Amazon may give you some more ideas of what to do and see.

Camping on the Beach

It has been many years, but I still remember very fondly the family vacation when we camped on Big Pine Key. Our destination: Bahia Honda State Park. In subsequent years I searched for others places to camp at the beach and I still remember Bahia Honda, which offers bayside and waterfront sites.

The park located on U.S. Highway 1 about 12 miles south of Marathon has cabins and three campgrounds. It has several white sandy beaches and offers bicycling, birding, boating, fishing, hiking, picnicking, scuba diving suitable for beginners, snorkeling and wildlife viewing.

The beach is a neat place to be; there's no doubt about that. And camping can be great fun. Combining the two is a winning combination.

Others parks which combine campgrounds and the beach include Fort DeSoto Park in Pinellas County near St. Petersburg along the Gulf Coast and Grayton Beach in Walton County in Florida's Panhandle. As you might expect, if you want to avoid the crowds, visit the Panhandle.

Key deer   (Photo by Cheryl Rogers)
Key deer (Photo by Cheryl Rogers)

Deer in the Wilds

Key deer are about the three foot high, the size of large dogs. At dusk, they roam. But they graciously came out when it was snack-time in the afternoon. It was easier to catch a key deer to photograph than it was to find a larger deer in mid-day at Kissimmee State Park in Central Florida. You'll need to stay overnight at Kissimmee in primitive camping to have your best chance.

Alligator  (Photo by Cheryl Rogers)
Alligator (Photo by Cheryl Rogers)

Canoeing Gets You Close to Nature

Communing with nature comes easy when you canoe on Florida rivers. As you feel the gentle breeze on your face while paddling, you'll likely hear crickets and birds along with the rhythmic splashes as your paddle hits the water. When you canoe, you can take things slow enough to relax -- while you are exercising! There are a number of rivers suitable for canoeing, but some do have alligators. So if you are planning a canoe trip with children, you should choose your destination accordingly. Small children and alligators are not a good combination!

That said, alligators are naturally afraid of people. They've never given me any trouble even when I've gotten fairly close to them to photograph them. Alligators should not be fed and enticed to lose this natural fear of man, however.

We have safely taken our young son canoeing or kayaking at Fort DeSoto Park, where the brackish water deters gators. Even when your child is old enough, the experience of being up close to the alligators may not be appealing. This is an issue you'll want to discuss if you plan to canoe on the Hillsborough River around Tampa.

I have successfully canoed in the Blackwater and Coldwater rivers in the Pensacola areas without seeing any alligators on more than one occasion. I also have paddled the Manatee River without seeing any alligators. On that occasion, I had enough to deal with already without gators. A horrible storm was coming through which made the paddling a bit of a challenge for us.

On my list of places to try are Rainbow Springs State Park, where the last boats go out at 4 p.m., and the Withlacoochee River near Brooksville, which offers seasonal rentals.

If you like to canoe in Florida, please let me know where you like to go so I can share this with the others.

Canoes from Amazon

See Florida's rivers, bays and even Gulf waters close to shore from your own boat! Check out these canoes for your next trip.

Sun Dolphin Mackinaw Canoe (Green, 15.6-Feet)
Sun Dolphin Mackinaw Canoe (Green, 15.6-Feet)

You have a lot more freedom to come and go when you have your own canoe. But if you are canoeing on a river, be sure to arrange for a pickup at your destination.


More about Kayaks

Kayaks will get you faster and farther in the wind, but you can expect to get wet. You can get kayaks for the beach or inland waters.

Canoeing/Kakaying Off the Beaten Path

Check out Fred Howard Park in Pinellas County on the central Gulf Coast. Enjoy the mangrove trails or launch into the Gulf of Mexico. But remember safety is first and avoid any bad weather.

Fred Howard Park

Fred Howard Park:
Fred Howard Park, Howard Park Causeway, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689, USA

get directions

Are you Up for a River Adventure?

If you're adventurous, you may want to plan a canoeing trip along the Suwannee River in north Florida near where Interstates 10 and 75 crisscross. Canoe by day through Florida's backwoods and sleep along any of six river camps accessible from the river.

There are a number of other outdoor recreational opportunities along this Suwannee River Wilderness Trail besides canoeing: Swimming, hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, and fishing. There also are several state parks including the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park at White Springs, the Suwannee River State Park near Ellaville, Peacock Springs State Park near Mayo, the Ichetucknee Springs State Park near Branford, and the Manatee Springs State Park west of Chiefland. Besides the Suwanee, boaters can access the Withlacochee, the Alapaha and the Santa Fe rivers from the Suwanee as it winds towards the Gulf of Mexico at -- you guessed it -- Suwannee.

Do your homework before you come. You may need a permit or you may want to reserve your place at one of the river camps, which are kind of like screened porches, but restroom facilities and electricity are provided. You also may want to have vendors bring you supplies as you journey along the river.

Learn more about the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail here. In case you are wondering, I have not yet experienced this wonderful nature trip. I am definitely intrigued.

Why don't you watch the video from Chad?

Do you Want to Experience Cuban Culture?

Okay, okay. Miami is not exactly off the beaten path. But it's my hometown, okay? So I'll offer a few insights and places to see in Miami too.

You don't need to leave Florida's shores without experiencing the exotic culture of Cuba, once known as the pearl of the Caribbean. Miami is full of the sights and sounds of the Cuban people -- their language, their food and their customs. Speaking a combination of English and Spanish is common here and has been for years, so if you don't know Spanish that's okay.

Be sure to visit Calle Ocho, that's Eighth Street, the Cuban business district. Be sure to visit downtown, where there are eye-catching highrises. I may be a bit biased, admittedly, but I believe downtown Miami is quite impressive. Although we lived in the suburbs, we went downtown to visit the lovely fabric shops and buy material for our sewing projects.

Sewing may not be very popular today, but sewing is pretty important, at least in old world Cuban circles. And my mother was Cuban, so my sister and I definitely learned to sew.

You'll want to visit the port of Miami, where many cruise ships leave for the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Even if you don't plan to sail, you may be able to visit the ships when they are docked at the port prior to sailing. We enjoyed doing that years ago.

In Miami, you'll be able to experience Cuban cuisine. It's very reasonable and tasty. There is no shortage of palomilla, that's cubed steak, or frijoles negros, that's black beans. The adventurous may want to try the strong Cuban coffee; it's wise to have cafe con leche, so they'll add lots of milk. With that coffee, you might want to try a guava pie, called pastel de guayaba.

Other landmarks include the Plantetarium, Zoo, and Vizcaya on Biscayne Bay. You beach lovers will want to visit South Beach (Crandon Park) or Hollywood Beach to the north towards Fort Lauderdale.

A starfish on Sanibel Island

Sanibel Island starfish  (Photo by Cheryl Rogers)
Sanibel Island starfish (Photo by Cheryl Rogers)
Cheryl Rogers
Cheryl Rogers

About the Author

I'm a free-lance writer and photographer. And I loving writing about and taking photographs of Florida's parks. I feature my Florida photos in my Zazzle store, Florida Gifts and Cards.

I am the author of several books including:

* What You Should KNOW About Self Publishing, a primer for would-be authors, as well as Christian books aimed at various age levels.

* Fast Track to Victory, A Christian Guidebook, a non-denominational devotions book that gets readers up to speed on the biblical principles needed to live a Christian lifestyle. You'll learn how to really love and forgive others, why it's important to set aside pride, how to deal with tragedy and death and lots more.

* Making Choices: Life is Like Acorns, which teaches 5 to 10 year olds that things are not always what they appear to be. The story is about a baby squirrel named Peepsy who learns the lesson while being taught how to hunt for acorns.

* Just Like Jonah Wail Tales, a collection of exaggerated tales of woe that teach preteens and teens there is a price to pay when you disbobey. Just like Jonah learns in the Bible, these modern-day characters make bad choices, land in a heap of trouble, and turn to God for help. God is faithful to change their circumstances.

Visit my website at

Pensacola Beach  (Photo by Cheryl Rogers)
Pensacola Beach (Photo by Cheryl Rogers)

The Florida Panhandle

This Hubpage wouldn't be complete without the Florida Panhandle, an often forgotten part of the state. The Panhandle is a short drive from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana, making it a popular beach getaway.

The beach is particularly beautiful from Panama City to Pensacola. If you enjoy white sands, sea oats, and privacy, check out the Panhandle. The crowds will be smaller. But come October, the water will become chilly more quickly. And it won't be warm as a bathtub until June.

This photo was taken at Pensacola's Quietwater Beach at sunrise.

For some unusual caves, check out Florida Caverns Park in Marianna.

More about Camping

I grew up camping in Florida. We regularly made the trek from Florida to Ohio where my dad was from. So as a child and adult, I had camped in Florida. I've enjoyed picking fresh grapefruit from the tree in Central Florida, primitive camping sans electricity in the forest, and camping on the beach.

From Dry Tortugas National Park about 70 miles west of Key West, to the Gulf Island National Seashore in Florida's Panhandle, the Sunshine State offers you lots of opportunities to experience this beautiful state.

But. a word to the wise: Take some mosquito repellent. And if you are going to be outdoors at dusk, you may want some Skin so Soft for no-see-ums or sand fleas. These guys are so small they can sneak inside screening.

Lost in the Woods: A Bible Camp Mystery
Lost in the Woods: A Bible Camp Mystery

Backwoods Adventure

My Bible Camp Mystery series is based on my very real experiences camping in the Central Florida backwoods. Aimed at 10- to 14-year-old boys, the series explores topics like being in the woods when a hurricane is coming, facing an alligator, a forest fire, no-see-ums, and more.

The series features a former New York gang leader who takes a group of 10- to 16-year-olds to the woods to get closer to God. Invariably, they learn a few things. Most of all they demonstrate truth faith, the biblical path to salvation, and they have fun.

The first book in the series is Lost in the Woods: A Bible Camp Mystery about the mysterious disappearance of 13-year-old Zack in the middle of the night. In the second book, Alone in the Woods, the boys discover a woman who camping by herself far off the beaten trail. The third in the series is due out in late 2014.

The series is available at www.newchristianbooksonlinemagazine/store, Amazon Apple, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and other e-retailers.

© 2010 Cheryl Rogers


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