South Florida Attractions: Nature Centers and Wildlife Preserves

Updated on September 16, 2017
Lily Rose profile image

I am a believer in being a tourist in your own town (and state) —so few people take advantage of what's in their own back yards.

South Florida is one of the most popular vacation spots in the country. There’s something for everyone to do there. If you are a nature lover and are planning to visit Florida, you’re in luck. There are so many great nature centers and wildlife preserves located throughout the South Florida area.

Gumbo Limbo Nature Center

Located in Boca Raton, Florida, this nature center consists of seawater that’s pumped directly into large outdoor aquariums filled with representatives of native marine fauna. There are classrooms both indoor and outdoor, interpretive displays, aquariums, visual presentations, a butterfly garden, a 40-foot high observation tower, as well as an elevated boardwalk through the hammock and mangrove communities. All this offers visitors a unique opportunity to be educated about the environment.

Both endangered and rare species, like the manatee, brown pelican, osprey, and sea turtles, can often be observed both from and on the facility. You will also find here coastal relics like a shell from Pre-Columbian Native Americans and pond apple trees from the Spanish River, the original freshwater body. There’s a lot of living history to be found at Gumbo Limbo, even a cannon, and anchors that were found on the shore of Red Reef Park.

Release of Sea Turtles with tracking devices at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, Florida
Release of Sea Turtles with tracking devices at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, Florida

Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

Located in Boynton Beach, Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge is home to the American alligator as well as the endangered Everglades snail kite. In addition to being home to lots of wildlife, this refuge has many recreational activities. There are walking trails, canoeing trails, bike trails, boat ramps, fishing areas, observation towers, a butterfly garden, and a visitor center.

The refuge encompasses 147,392 acres. Most of it is Everglades habitat, and about 400 acres of it is cypress swamp, the largest remaining remnant of a cypress strand that once separated the pine flatwoods in the east from the Everglades marshes. There’s a boardwalk into the swamp that gives visitors an opportunity to get an up-close swamp experience without getting your feet wet.

Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge
Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

Billie Swamp Safari

Located in Clewiston, Florida, on a real Seminole reservation, Billie Swamp Safari is the place to go to ride on a “swamp buggy," where you’ll see all kinds of native and exotic animals. You can even sleep in a Seminole chickee and listen to Native American folklore around a campfire. Take an airboat ride across the grass and water, part of the 2,200 acres of its Big Cypress Reservation that’s open to the public.

Things that you may see here are alligators, deer, wild hogs, water buffalo, bison, swamp chickens, blue heron, hawks, eagles, and other rare birds—unbelievable, right? If you think that’s cool, there are even Florida panthers in the area that you may get a glimpse of!

If you’ve never seen one, “swamp buggies” are customized motorized vehicles that are specifically designed to provide riders with an elevated view of the area while riding comfortably through the wetlands and cypress heads. They are camouflage painted, are covered with a canopy, and have padded seats. They really look like a safari adventure vehicles.

Just a quick ride from the safari, on the reservation, there’s complete camping facilities with all amenities. There’s a restaurant there, too, where you can sample local specialties like frog legs, gator nuggets, catfish, and fry bread with honey. For those not so adventurous, there’s also a regular American-style food menu!

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Billie Swamp Safari "swamp buggie""swamp buggie" and air boatSeminole Chickee
Billie Swamp Safari "swamp buggie"
Billie Swamp Safari "swamp buggie"
"swamp buggie" and air boat
"swamp buggie" and air boat
Seminole Chickee
Seminole Chickee

Hugh Taylor Birch State Recreation Area

Located in Fort Lauderdale, this was once the location of an oceanfront estate. It is now a rambling preserve with woodlands that contains the last of the significant remnants of a maritime hammock, or tropical hardwood forest in the country. It’s home to several endangered and threatened animals. Visitors can rent a canoe and can paddle along a mile-long freshwater lagoon. You can also fish from the seawall. There are a couple of different beautiful hiking trails where you can learn about the local plants and wildlife in the area. Additionally, there’s a paved park road where visitors can bicycle or skate, and you can take a pedestrian tunnel that goes underneath A1A, the Ft. Lauderdale “strip," to gain access to the beach.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
gorgeous Banyan tree at Hugh Taylor Birch State Recreation AreaAerial of Hugh taylor Birch State Recreation Areatunnel exit on beach side of Hugh Taylor Birch, across A1A
gorgeous Banyan tree at Hugh Taylor Birch State Recreation Area
gorgeous Banyan tree at Hugh Taylor Birch State Recreation Area
Aerial of Hugh taylor Birch State Recreation Area
Aerial of Hugh taylor Birch State Recreation Area
tunnel exit on beach side of Hugh Taylor Birch, across A1A
tunnel exit on beach side of Hugh Taylor Birch, across A1A

Anne Kolb Nature Center

This area has over 1,500 acres of wilderness and mangroves and is located minutes from the Ft. Lauderdale beach. There is lots to do here, like biking, hiking, fishing, canoeing, racquetball, and tennis. There is a ton of nature, canoes, and trails with viewing areas to observe the wildlife. An exhibit hall and observation tower is also present. There’s a marina where sports equipment can be rented and you can take a narrated boat tour from there.

Mangroves at Anne Kolb Nature Center
Mangroves at Anne Kolb Nature Center

Everglades National Park

This fantastic nature park is located in south Dade County and the main entrance/visitors center, Ernest F. Coe, is located west of Homestead and Florida City. There are three additional visitor centers, Royal Palm, Shark Valley, and Flamingo.

map of Everglades National Park
map of Everglades National Park

Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center

This great center offers hands-on marine exploration, hikes in the coastal hammocks, walks along the fossil-rock reef, bike trips, and local history lectures. There’s a display room with aquariums that are full of aquatic wildlife, sea turtle demonstrations, and stories about the Tequesta Native Americans. You may even observe artifacts from actual archeological digs.

There are three walking paths as well as a bike path through the exotic flora that lead to a beach that is characterized by an exposed fossilized rock reef area at low-tide. This view can only be seen in one other place in the world.

You can take a seagrass tour where you’ll first hear about the abundant sea life. The guides take you into the waist-deep warm, salty water, where you can see the sea life for yourself. You’ll even be given a net to run through the thick seagrass to find critters such as sea cucumbers, sea urchins, pipefish, spotted slugs, blowfish, spider crabs, tiny octopus, puffer fish, and all kinds of tiny fish. The animals, of course, are returned to the water and never harmed. This is a great place to take kids—they’ll never want to leave!

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Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature CenterMarjorie Stoneman Douglas quote at Biscayne Nature Center
Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center
Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center
Marjorie Stoneman Douglas quote at Biscayne Nature Center
Marjorie Stoneman Douglas quote at Biscayne Nature Center

There are many other wonderful places to see in South Florida, including the mysterious Coral Castle in South Miami, Lion Country Safari, Miami Metrozoo (Zoo Miami as of July 2010), Gold Coast Railroad Museum, Monkey Jungle, Parrot Jungle Island, Flamingo Gardens, Butterfly World, and the Palm Beach Zoo. If you’ll be visiting the South Florida area, I hope this serves as a good compilation of things to consider putting on your “must-do” list.

Questions & Answers

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      • Lily Rose profile imageAUTHOR

        Lily Rose 

        5 years ago from A Coast

        Thank you, ranjanrahul. I wish that I could take credit for all of the images, but only a few were actually taken by me. Thanks again!

      • ranjanrahul profile image

        Rahul Ranjan 

        5 years ago from Delhi

        Oh wow! what a hub it is..... The thing that impressed me so much are the images. So lovely... urges every one to have experience of the destination... Good Job done...

      • htodd profile image

        htodd 

        7 years ago from United States

        Thanks for posting

      • Lily Rose profile imageAUTHOR

        Lily Rose 

        8 years ago from A Coast

        Thank you for the comment - I hope that some day you'll be able to travel abroad and check out beautiful Florida!

      • Lily Rose profile imageAUTHOR

        Lily Rose 

        8 years ago from A Coast

        Adam - your timing is perfect! Morikami is not really a nature center, it's a museum, even though it does have those beautiful Japanese gardens...

        ...I actually just finished writing up my next two hubs, which are all about the museums of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and Palm Beach - and, yes, Morikami is included! Should be uploaded and published later today, so be sure to check it out and let me know if I left anything out. Thanks for visiting!

      • Adam9000 profile image

        Adam9000 

        8 years ago

        There's also the Morikami gardens in Delray/Lauderdale area.

      • PegCole17 profile image

        Peg Cole 

        8 years ago from Dallas, Texas

        Love the Florida Tourist Attractions and sight seeing opportunities along with the awesome things to do there. Toured the Everglades from Florida City years ago - amazing raw land and creatures. Used to go fishing there in the 60s. We've enjoyed so many of these places over the years, even more so now that we don't live there. Great hub made me homesick for Florida.

      • habee profile image

        Holle Abee 

        8 years ago from Georgia

        Awesome travel hub!

      • sheila b. profile image

        sheila b. 

        8 years ago

        The pictures showed such exotic places. What a country we have, from South Florida to Alaska, imagine that.

      • Lily Rose profile imageAUTHOR

        Lily Rose 

        8 years ago from A Coast

        There is an endless amount of wonderful places to go and see in Florida, that's for sure!

      • beccas90 profile image

        beccas90 

        8 years ago from New York

        Been to a few of the places but still much to see in South Florida.

      • Lily Rose profile imageAUTHOR

        Lily Rose 

        8 years ago from A Coast

        BPop - I don't know about that, I was just outside for a few minutes and it is HOT!!

        You'll have to get here someday, Money, just don't come for the first time in the middle of summer...

      • Money Glitch profile image

        Money Glitch 

        8 years ago from Texas

        This is an awesome hub on Florida travels, the pictures are just breath-taking. My brother was stationed in Florida once, however he moved before I had a chance to visit. Thumbs up!

      • breakfastpop profile image

        breakfastpop 

        8 years ago

        Wonderful hub. Right at this moment I wish I was there basking in the sun!

      • Lily Rose profile imageAUTHOR

        Lily Rose 

        8 years ago from A Coast

        You are very welcome, Hello, hello,

      • Hello, hello, profile image

        Hello, hello, 

        8 years ago from London, UK

        Thank you for such an excellent hub without I would have never heard or seen of it. Thank you.

      • Lily Rose profile imageAUTHOR

        Lily Rose 

        8 years ago from A Coast

        Rebakah - thank you! Hey, at least you're still in beautiful Florida, right? I don't know much about the west coast, but I've been to the Tampa area before and it's beautiful. LOVE the quote!

        Seryhu - thanks for visiting. Maybe one day you will be here - vacation, maybe?

      • seryhu profile image

        seryhu 

        8 years ago from Canada

        I love the pictures. Wish I was there.

      • rebekahELLE profile image

        rebekahELLE 

        8 years ago from Tampa Bay

        beautifully done! it's such a lovely area! I lived in south Miami many years ago, but I'm now on the west coast of Fl. I love the quote by Marjory stoneman Douglas. She was quite an activist long before these causes were so important. I have a book about some of the influential woman who helped explore the state of Florida, and she is included. I'll share one of her quotes which I love, "life should be lived so vividly and intensely that thoughts of another life, or a longer life, are not necessary."

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