When picturing national parks, many people conjure up images of tall mountains and stunning canyons. Even though you will not find that in Florida, there is still plenty of natural beauty worth protecting as well and the National Park system has made sure of that. In this blog post, I will share all eleven national parks in Florida and what there is to experience at each.
Whether you would like to go hiking, kayaking, snorkeling or just see some historical sites, there are many national park options in Florida to do so. I have broken up this blog post into the main national parks, the national preserves, the national seashores, and the national monuments and memorials. These are spread out all over the state and each offers a unique piece of Florida to explore. Read on to find out more about the National Parks in Florida.
The Main National Parks in Florida
First up are the three main National Parks of Florida. Though all units of national park areas are equal, the designated National Park titles are usually considered the 63 main parks. Florida is tied with Arizona for 6th place in regard to most national parks in a state!
This section explains everything to know about the three main National Parks, which are all located in South Florida. These are worth adding to your bucket list, even though some are a challenge to visit!
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park is Florida’s most known National Park and for good reason! It encompasses over 1.5 million acres of wetlands and is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world! It also is the only place on earth where crocodiles and alligators cohabitate.
Making a plan to visit this park does include some preparation. You will want to figure out which visitor center to visit, as there are four different ones, each with unique options. I recommend Shark Valley for its convenience and tram tour or Flamingo for its pristine wetlands, but they all have something to offer. No matter if you take a tram tour, go kayaking, take a hike or go for a drive make sure to look for the alligators that reside here.
Biscayne National Park
Another Florida National Park just an hour from Miami is Biscayne National Park. This is a unique park to visit because of the fact that it is 95% water. You won’t do much hiking here, but you can explore the park’s coral reefs by snorkeling or scuba diving, or take a guided boat tour to see the park’s diverse marine life
You will also want to plan ahead before visiting this Florida National Park. Since most of the nature is in the ocean, you will need to book a tour through Biscayne National Park Institute to experience it. You could kayak or snorkel with your own equipment, but I think the tours do a much better job of educating and entertaining visitors.
There are so many different tours to choose from, from taking a full-day Island exploration and Snorkeling tour to a two-hour kayak excursion. We ended up doing one of the less popular tours because I learned from experience how quickly these tours book up.
Our tour was the Biscayne Sunset Cruise. Though it’s not super unique, we got to enjoy a relaxing boat ride and learn so much about this coastal ecosystem! The sunset views were the *chef’s kiss* to top off the cruise.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Off the coast of Key West, you will find the most stunning of the national parks in Florida, if not the country. Dry Tortugas is home to Fort Jefferson and is surrounded by clear turquoise waters. This 100-square mile park is mostly open water with seven small islands and accessible only by boat or seaplane.
The waters around the island feature a vast amount of coral reefs and marine life, so snorkeling is the top activity to do here. However, you will also want to explore the historic fort, relax on the beaches, and even camp here.
Don’t think you can just show up here without a plan though! Boat permits are required for private vessels and must be obtained ahead of time. If you don’t have a boat, you will need to take the Yankee Freedom Ferry or a seaplane. Both require at least a month for advanced reservations, if not more during busy seasons.
Though it’s not an easy national park to visit, I have heard it is worth the adventure. This is often at the top of people’s Florida bucket lists and it is definitely on mine as well!
Next up are the National and Ecological Preserves of Florida. These types of parks are established to protect certain resources. Florida has two and these areas provide a glimpse of the natural Florida landscape, as well as opportunities to learn about the local nature.
Big Cypress National Preserve
To experience some of the most rugged Florida terrain, head to Big Cypress National Park in Southwest Florida. This area encompasses over 700,000 acres of freshwater swamps, with a few areas open for visitors to explore. Though you can hike, kayak, or bike on your own, I recommend booking an activity with the Big Cypress Institute.
Both hiking and swamp buggy tours are offered by experienced rangers. This is preferred due to the unpredictable weather of this area, as well as the need for a permit and safety gear needed for hunting season. However, if you prefer to explore on your own, both Loop Road and Turner River Loop Drive are lovely scenic drives that give visitors wonderful views of the park.
If you want to learn more about the park and endangered species, like the Florida panther, that live here, visit between December through April when ranger programs are offered. This is also a great time of year to go camping (you will need a permit) and see the stars at this certified dark sky park.
Bug Cypress National Preserve plays a vital role in the Florida ecosystem and everyone should see it for themselves if the opportunity arises. Whether you like exploring a forest or venturing out on the water, you will definitely not be bored.
Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve
Another nature-focused Florida national park worth exploring is the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve in Jacksonville. This area protects a salt marsh, a maritime hammock, and pine flatwoods. This leads to quite a diverse ecosystem, as well as some historically significant places that have been preserved.
Nature lovers will want to explore the 600-acre Theodore Roosevelt area and the American Beach. You can also rent a kayak and go for a guided paddle as well!
Those more interested in the history of the area should check out the Kingsley Plantation, the Ribault Club, and Fort Caroline. Each of these three areas opens a window to a different time when Florida was a lot different than it is now.
Florida’s history isn’t all sunshine, with plenty of horrific stories of slavery and the destruction of nature. However, visiting Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve provides an opportunity to learn more about this past and what people can do to make things right in the future.
Florida is home to two National Seashores which are areas known for their pristine shorelines and diverse marine ecosystems. The goal of national seashores is to protect the ocean area, while also providing education and recreational ocean activities. I find national seashores to be some of the best places to spend a day at the beach because they do not get too crowded and are much cleaner than other beaches.
Canaveral National Seashore
Located on the Atlantic Coast, Canaveral National Seashore is one of my favorite beaches. You can access it from both New Smyrna and Titusville. Apollo Beach is accessible from the north entrance in the north and Playalinda Beach from the south entrance. Visitors can swim, surf, and fish in the park’s crystal-clear waters. You can even relax on the beach au naturale if you go to Playalanda’s nude beach at Boardwalk 13!
National seashores are not just about the beach and Canaveral has a variety of hiking trails to explore. You can hike Castle Windy Trail in the Apollo Beach District, where you will be surrounded by the coastal hammock forest. The park also has plenty of areas for scenic drives with opportunities to stop and admire the diverse bird life, and even alligators! Whether you like going to the beach, hiking, kayaking, or birding, there is plenty to do and see at Canaveral National Seashore.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Along the Panhandle, Gulf Islands National Seashore spans from Florida to Mississippi to protect some of the prettiest beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. The barrier islands are home to shorelines, live oak forests, and historic forts, with so much to see and experience.
On the Florida side, Johson Beach on Perdido Key is a big highlight for swimming and boating. Okaloosa and Opal Beach are also lovely spots to relax at.
You can find two forts on the Florida side: Fort Barrancas and Fort Pickens. Here you can go inside the forts, learn about the battles that occurred here, and see the concrete batteries built to protect from intruders.
Whether you prefer the forts or the beaches, everyone should also visit the Naval Live Oaks area. This wooded area is ideal for hiking, picnicking, and even camping. The Emerald Coast is a beautiful and historic area to explore, solidifying this as a beloved national park of Florida.
National Monuments and Memorials
Last, but not least, Florida has four national monuments and memorials that were established to protect the history of the area. These are the best national parks in Florida for history buffs to visit, as you can learn about the events that took place at iconic forts. Though there are some natural areas around the monuments or memorials, these parks are more focused on preserving history than nature.
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
The one Florida national monument most people know about is Castillo de San Marcos. This is the St. Augustine Fortress located right on the edge of the historic district. Believe it or not, it is actually the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States and has been standing since 1672.
You can explore both inside and outside the fort, but I definitely recommend going inside to learn all about it. There are tons of exhibits regarding the design and the different occupations of the fort before becoming a part of The United States. Most exciting, are the musket and canyon demonstrations that take place most weekends.
Between the coquina construction to the legendary battles, there is a lot to see and learn here. If you are eager to find out more about St. Augustine’s history, Castillo de San Marcos is a must-visit.
Fort Caroline National Memorial
Located on the southern end of Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, you can cross off two National Parks in one with a visit to Fort Caroline. This historic settlement tells the history of the short-lived French colony that resided here. You can learn about the war between the French and Spanish that took place here and see artifacts that are preserved in the museum.
Tours of the grounds are frequently offered for those looking to learn more. There are also a few hikes around Fort Caroline and the Theodore Roosevelt Area for those wanting to make a day of it. Bring binoculars if you have them and see if you can spot dolphins in the St. Johns River!
Fort Matanzas National Monument
Just south of Historic St. Augustine, another Florida National Monument offers a look at history and a free boat ride. Fort Matanzas is located on an island it was built as a watch tower by the Spanish Florida colony in 1740. You can take a ferry over and explore the fort, as well as peruse the nature trails that the park preserves.
Exploring Fort Matanzas is the draw for most visitors. The Coquina structure is impressive and there are occasionally weapons demonstrations. Others will appreciate the diverse bird population here and can try and spot the twenty different bird species found here. Regardless, most visitors should also check out the marsh trail. The boardwalk is half a mile long and has some interesting exhibits and great views.
Though often overshadowed by the larger Castillo de San Marcos, Fort Matanzas is a Florida national park worth visiting, both for its nature and history. You can cover most of it in a couple of hours or longer if you bring a picnic.
De Soto National Memorial
Not to be confused with Historic Fort De Soto near St. Pete, De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton commemorates the Spanish Conquistador de Soto’s 1539 expedition. This was the first extensive exploration of Florida by Europeans that shaped the history of the Southern United States. Unfortunately, it is also one of the many instances of native people being pushed out of their homes and persecuted.
There are lots of exhibits to learn about the landing of the Spanish at this location and what they went on to do throughout the area. However, nature enthusiasts can also enjoy hiking trails, beaches, and fishing at this Tampa Bay National Park. This is one of the few Florida national parks that allows dogs as well, and they can even get a BARK ranger badge here!
There is plenty to do and see for all ages here, from checking out informative movies and ranger talks to going boating or hiking. In the summer there are even ranger-led kayak tours to explore the waterways. A visit to De Soto National Memorial offers the chance to see the dark history of the United States and appreciate the nature that still resides here.
Know Before You Go: National Parks in Florida to Visit
There are so many beautiful national parks in Florida, each with its own unique experiences and ecosystems. Though the three main National Parks (The Everglades, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas) get the most attention, do not overlook these other national preserves, seashores, monuments, and more. Before you plan your own visit, keep these tips in mind:
- While exploring, make sure to leave nature undisturbed and always pick up trash. You can take shells home if you like, but make sure there are no living organisms in the shells when you do!
- Keep an eye on the weather whenever you are out and about. Florida weather can change quickly, especially in the summer with storms popping up. It may be good to have a backup plan inside in case of rain or high heat.
- No matter what you are doing in Florida, you will probably want to bring sunscreen and bug spray. I like reef-safe Sun Bum and these bug-repellent wipes.
- Another thing I recommend packing is binoculars! I used mine to get great views of birds and other wildlife.
- The peak season for National parks in Florida is November through April. Keep in mind reservations, campsites, and parking can fill up quickly on weekends and holidays during this time of year.
- Another tip for dealing with crowds is to wake up early on national park days! The crowds and traffic can be heavy, so be sure to go early and leave before the evening or stay even later.
- Most national parks in Florida do not allow dogs unless otherwise stated. I recommend bringing your pup to doggy daycare while you are out exploring.
- Even if you are not bringing a picnic lunch, I always recommend packing a cooler with drinks and a couple of snacks for day trips. This way you can enjoy nice, cold water or seltzer on the drive back!
How many national parks in Florida have you been to? I have only been to five out of eleven, so I have plenty of exploring to do! For more Florida activity ideas, check out my Florida Day Trips Guide.
Visiting during National Park Week? Be sure to read my guide full of tips for Florida travel in April!