Florida’s national parks attract more than 10 million visitors from across the globe annually. And for good reason: There is no better—or more affordable—way for families to experience the state’s incredibly diverse topography. You can’t go wrong at any of these. Just remember, watch out for gators!
Dedicated by President Harry Truman in 1947, Everglades National Park, at the state’s southern tip, is justly famous. Many of its 1.5 million acres are inaccessible, but there’s still endless ground to explore, from cypress swamps to mangrove forests. Some visitors choose airboat rides as a way to see the park fast, but noisy engines scare off the wildlife. A far better option is to take the two-hour Shark Valley tram with a ranger, or choose a trail to bicycle. Ranger-led campfire programs are a family favorite.
A 729,000-acre swamp next door to the Everglades, Big Cypress National Preserve was slated to become the world’s largest jetport, but in 1972, a coalition of hunters and conservationists saved it. And we’re glad they did: The preserve’s fresh waters are essential to the entire region. You can take a scenic drive through the park, but the best way to see it is on foot, the better to spy jumping spiders, wild orchids, gators and even Florida panthers. Another option is to hit nearby Billie Swamp Safari, which offers 2,200 acres of untamed Everglades to explore on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation.
In 1865, four men convicted of taking part in the Lincoln assassination were imprisoned on what’s now Dry Tortugas National Park, a small group of islands totaling about 47,000 acres near Key West. One declared it to be “the most horrible place the eye of man ever rested upon.” Today visitors consider it heaven on earth. The park is only accessible by boat; take the two-hour ferry from Key West, and remind the kids to look for turtles and dolphins. Spend the day exploring historic Fort Jefferson, snorkeling and birding.
Biscayne National Park, whose 173,000 acres are almost entirely submerged, protects one of the most extensive coral reefs in the world, and the longest stretch of mangrove forest on the east coast. It, too, was threatened by developers, back in the ’60s, but luckily, Congress preserved it. A road built during that era, now the park’s lone hiking trail, passes through a tropical hardwood forest. Kid-friendly activities include canoeing, kayaking and snorkeling.
Canaveral National Seashore, an hour east of Orlando, is better known for its rocket launches: When the windswept Cape Canaveral became a test site back in 1950, the government left 57,000 surrounding acres as a buffer. That buffer, which includes 24 miles of undeveloped beach, contains more federally protected species of plants and animals than any other Florida national park except Everglades. Both peaceful and wild, its unspoiled beaches are great for fishing, birding and manatee-spying.
De Soto National Memorial commemorates the spot where explorer Hernando de Soto came ashore in 1539 on his ill-fated 1,000-mile expedition across the South. The 27-acre park—located an hour south of Tampa, at the intersection of the Gulf of Mexico, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Manatee River—offers kayaking and canoeing alongside a fascinating history lesson. Take a tour with a ranger and see a recreation of De Soto’s encampment.
The 210,000-acre Gulf Islands National Seashore stretches for 160 miles, from the Florida Panhandle all the way to the Mississippi coast, making it the largest national seashore in the entire park system. The Mississippi part consists of islands that, like the Dry Tortugas, are accessible only by boat, but you can drive to the sugar-white beaches on the Florida side, touring the historic forts, picnicking, bicycling, swimming, snorkeling, canoeing, kayaking, sailing—you name it. Had enough of the kids? Hand them off, then stretch out and float on the gentle waves.