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.
For Nature Lovers
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.
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.
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.
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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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.