1. Silver Springs State Park
On the outskirts of Ocala, this beautiful park is best known for its glass-bottom boat tour. But if you prefer your on-the-water activities to be done under your own power, it’s also a great spot for paddling. The spring is billed as the United States’ largest and while the glass-bottom boats give a great view of the colorful geology, you can also see plenty from a paddleboard. Paddling also gets you back up into the park’s dense forests. Guided paddling tours are available, and you can also rent paddleboards, kayaks or canoes and explore on your own.
On land, the park offers 15 miles of trails for hiking or off-road biking. If you want to get even more into nature, Silver Springs is next door to Ocala National Forest. There are also plenty of horseback riding opportunities, not surprising considering Ocala’s reputation as the horse capital of Florida.
The park is also home to an old Florida replica village and the Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center, which teaches about Florida history and the science behind this fascinating place.
The park’s campground has cabins and tent sites in addition to sites for RVs. Other camping and lodging is available in and around Ocala.
2. Indian Key Historic State Park
If you don’t have a boat and paddleboarding is your only form of transport, you’ll probably want to be a somewhat confident paddleboarder to take on Indian Key – the only way to get there is over the water. Don’t worry, though; the short trip over the seagrass flats from Islamorada isn’t exactly open-ocean treachery. Once there, you’ll be able to enjoy an unspoiled gem that’s right next door to some of the Keys’ best and most boisterous nightlife but still a world away.
It might not look like it now, but the key played a big role in early settler history in South Florida. In 1836, before there was a Monroe County (or a Broward County, for that matter), Indian Key was Dade County’s first county seat. That distinction didn’t come about because early settlers managed to cram a thriving metropolis onto the tiny key, but because it was home to perhaps the most important business in the Keys at the time – men who salvaged goods from shipwrecks. In the early-to-mid 1800s, there was a small but thriving town on the key.
The remnants of that place, which settlers left after a Seminole attack in 1840, still exist today. There’s a ghostly feel to an island that’s completely empty of people but where you can still find roads and paths, and the foundations and ruins of buildings. The natural world has now taken over, and the island also offers plenty of mangroves and other lush Floridian flora to paddle around.
The nearest place to stay is actually the legendary Bud n’ Mary’s Marina, which is of course also an excellent place to find a fishing charter. There are also plenty of other accommodation options elsewhere on Islamorada and nearby.
3. Holmes Creek
Located about halfway between Tallahassee and Pensacola, Holmes Creek is a trek. But if you don’t mind driving for beautiful Florida springs, great hiking and nature, it’s worth the time.
The creek is a tributary of the Choctawhatchee River, and it runs about 16 miles with launch points all along.
The nearest town is Vernon, which is also home to several watersports outfitters who can help you with gear if you’re not bringing your own. (Or if you realize somewhere around Lake City that you left a paddle in Fort Lauderdale.) The 400-acre Seacrest Wolf Preserve in nearby Chipley offers tours and learning opportunities to meet its “wolf ambassadors”. Meanwhile if you want to pay respects to one of the wild’s other noble beasts, head to Wausau and visit the town’s possum memorial. It is exactly what it sounds like. The imposing stone monument notes, among other things, that the North American possum is “a magnificent survivor of the marsupial family pre-dating the ages of the mastodon and the dinosaur,” and that it has “provided a source of nutritious and flavorful food in normal times and has been an important aid to human survival in times of distress and critical need.” Good ol’ possum.
Most hotel options are north of the town, near I-10. Several campsites fall under the remit of the Northwest Florida Water Management District, which runs them and books camping through its website.