A great white heron stretches its wings across a dazzling sunset while swooping into blue waters for its next meal. Rivers flow through miles of mangroves and tropical foliage. A manatee peaks its nose above the water’s surface. These are some magical sites you may see when exploring the wonders of Florida’s coastal state parks.
With more than 175 state parks, the Sunshine State is packed with so many seaside gems that it merits a two-part series. Hike trails for all levels, enjoy watersports along gorgeous beaches, sightsee historic lands and camp out on the coastline at these national treasures. Here we explore some of the top state parks along Florida’s Atlantic Coast.
Overlooking the St. Mary’s River along the Florida-Georgia line, an historic fort lies within this 1,400 acre-park. Stroll the beachfront and catch monthly Living History Weekends, where you can see re-enactors work in the blacksmith shop or bake bread.
“When you tour the fort, it feels as if if it were still functioning at the height of the Civil War, so you get to experience going back in time,” says Kelli Akers, administrative assistant and former park ranger at Fort Clinch. “We have a three-mile-long covered canopy road, so even driving through the park under the live oak and Spanish moss is quite charming.”
What to Do: History tours, camping, biking, birdwatching, shelling, shark-tooth hunting
Where to Dock: Oasis Marinas at Fernandina Harbor
Just south of Fernandina Beach within Florida’s sea islands, these two parks neighbor one another along the coast. Launch your boat, rent kayaks or hike to the shoreline on Blackrock Trail, or cruise to the marsh on Big Pine Trail. Minutes away, discover ancient dunes on Little Talbot Island’s five-mile stretch.
Bordering the parks along the southwest side, the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve spans 46,000 acres of wildlife habitats, wetlands and stunning waterways.
What to Do: Hiking, biking, birdwatching, boating, camping, fishing
Where to Dock: Fort George Island Marina
Located in the oldest city in the nation, Anastasia is rich in history and abundant with wildlife. With more than 196 identified bird species, this region is a major stop on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. Spot colorful roseate spoonbills and various species along the white sand beaches. Hike the Ancient Dunes Nature Trail, bike along the beach and stay overnight at one of the 139 campsites. Be sure to visit the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum at the northern tip of Anastasia Island.
What to Do: Camping, hiking, biking, birdwatching, picnicking
Where to Dock: Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor
Timucuan Native Americans once dwelled on this land before Spanish explorers showed up in the early 1600s, and European disease eventually wiped away the native population. The site is now a preserved sanctuary with a boat ramp for easy access to the Tomoka River. Enjoy water activities and the historic grounds where the Nocoroco Village, plantations and indigo field once stood.
What to Do: Camping, canoeing, fishing, hiking
Where to Dock: Daytona Beach Marina
Situated along the Space Coast between New Smyrna Beach and Titusville, here you find majestic waters that are home to one of Florida’s largest manatee and sea turtle habitats. Dock at the park’s 24-hour ramp, hike Castle Windy Trail and watch rocket launches from the beach. The local area is packed with museums and attractions such as the Kennedy Space Center.
What to Do: Kayaking, fishing, hiking, sightseeing
Cruise to this lovely island that’s only accessible by boat and dock for a $3 entry fee. Discover a huge sea turtle nesting home, hike a half-mile trail, or head below surface level to witness 3,500 acres of unspoiled waters and protected coral reef. Look for loggerhead and leatherback turtles and wading birds such as great blue herons, egrets, ibis, sanderlings and purple plovers.
“There’s only four boat slips right now but we’re in the process of adding 10 more,” says Park Services Specialist, Emily Harrington. “What amazes people the most here is how much beach you have all to yourself, which is so rare in Florida. You can go out there and be completely on your own for long stretches of time — it can be very peaceful.”
What to Do: Swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, surf fishing
Where to Dock: St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park Boat Ramp
As the largest state park in southeast Florida, this coastal haven provides plenty of natural wonders to get lost in. Named for a merchant whose vessel shipwrecked nearby in the 1600s, this historic site was home to Camp Murphy, a top-secret radar training school during WWI.
Visit the mysterious Trapper Nelson Interpretive site, climb to the top of the Hobe Mountain observation tower, or rent kayaks, canoes and motorboats to journey through century-old cypress trees and Spanish moss along the Loxahatchee River. Better yet, take a park equestrian tour when the horses arrive around late October and stay until April.
What to Do: Horseback riding, riverboat tours, fishing, mountain biking
Where to Dock: Loggerhead Jupiter Marina
Just outside the hustle and bustle of Miami, a tropical escape awaits at Key Biscayne’s southern tip. Witness a birds-eye, panoramic view of Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Coast from the top of the Cape Florida Lighthouse, the oldest-standing building in Miami-Dade County. Dock your boat overnight in No Name Harbor and canoe or kayak along Biscayne Bay’s seawall.
What to Do: Swimming, picnicking, dock and dine
Where to Dock: No Name Harbor anchorage
Spanning 70 nautical miles of marine splendor, this underwater state park is one of Florida’s best-kept treasures. As the country’s first underwater park, the mangrove-lined waterways are known for snorkeling and scuba diving alongside colorful coral reefs and marine wildlife. Explore the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and take a Glass Bottom Boat Tour on the flagship vessel, Spirit of Pennekamp.
What to Do: Snorkeling, scuba diving, boat tours, camping
Where to Dock: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park Marina
This region of the Keys holds geological treasures rooting back to Florida’s 20th century history. Eight foot-high walls and stones made of ancient fossilized coral make up a quarry that was used to build Henry Flagler’s railroad in the early 1900s. The quarry operated until the 1960s, and you can still witness some machinery preserved at the park. Hike tropical trails through a hardwood hammock to see more than 40 species of native foliage and historic remnants of Key Largo limestone.
What to Do: Hiking, guided tours, picnicking
Where to Dock: Plantation Yacht Harbor Marina