Florida Eco Adventures for Kids

for the Miami Herald

School is out and the pressure is on to make those summer vacation plans. To the beach?  To the mountains?  Fight the long lines at the airport!  Unpredictable gas prices at every interchange on the road!  So many choices…so little money!

Maybe this is the year for you to keep it simple and close to home. Make this the year to get back to nature and show the kids parts of Florida that are still unpaved and unplugged; where the only lines are the ants marching across your picnic table.  Best of all, but don’t tell the kids this, eco vacations are cheap!!!

Bahia Honda State Park, Monroe County, The Keys.

When Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad construction crews got to sun bathed Bahia Honda Key in the early years of the last century, they stopped. Officially they were trying to figure out how to span the deepest channel in the Keys.  In truth they just wanted to spend some time hanging out on the Keys’ best beach.

Bahia Honda State Park is an entire island in the middle Keys, just south of the famed “Seven-Mile-Bridge”. The beaches aren’t very wide or very long. The sand was replenished after several hurricanes washed away the old beach a few years ago.  But because of the remoteness in the Keys, Bahia Honda is rarely crowded, even on weekends.

In a way, small makes it perfect for a family with small children. The slope of the beach is indiscernible for nearly a hundred yards into the Atlantic, where the water is barely knee high on an adult.  And there is no pounding surf or tugging currents, thanks to the protection of the off-shore reef. Even in the shallows where the white sand meets the sea grasses, the snorkeling is great and youngsters can watch fish and other small sea critters scurry for cover.

Corkscrew Swamp, Collier County.

The National Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp is home to the largest Bald Cypress forest in North America.  These huge trees, some of which are more than 600-years-old, soar 130 feet high, and some of the oldest are 25 feet around. They were barely sprouts of cypress knees when Columbus sailed to the new world, and just beginning to develop limbs when Spanish explorers first mapped Florida.

Visitors tour the swamp on a 2.25-mile boardwalk that leads around trees and across wetlands dominated by what park workers call “lettuce lakes”. These are shallow ponds choked with vegetation that serve as wildlife cafeterias. Large alligators dominate the food chain, but Florida Black Bears and the nearly extinct Florida Panther are occasionally spotted in Corkscrew. This is a great bird watching spot with more than 200 species recorded, many of them year-round residents. Bring binoculars and a camera with a good telephoto lens.

Much of the boardwalk trail is in the shade, making it tolerable even in the hot summer months.  Strangely there is an absence of mosquitoes due to an abundance of fish in the lettuce lakes that eat the mosquito larvae.

The boardwalk makes this a great hike for families with kids in strollers, and you don’t have to worry about youngsters wandering off on their own. There is a shorter boardwalk that runs less than a mile.

Sebastian Inlet State Park, Brevard County

The beaches of Brevard County are among the top turtle nesting areas in the country.  Over 1,000 nests were recorded along the three miles of beach at Sebastian Inlet State Park in 2002.  Most are Loggerheads, but you’ll also find the rare Leatherback and Green Turtle coming ashore during the summer.

The park has organized turtle walks at night in June and July, when your chances are good of seeing a Loggerhead come ashore and lay her eggs. The free walks are by reservation only, and are limited to 25 people.  Spaces book up fast but there are still some spots available in June. Reservations for July will be taken by the park over the phone beginning June 15that 8 a.m.

Sebastian also is regarded as the best surfing beach in the state.  Bring the boards.

DeLeon Springs State Park, Volusia County

Pancakes and a refreshing dip in a crystal clear spring fed pool make for a hard-to-beat combination on a hot summer day.

The most unique attraction at DeLeon Springs State Park is the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant where you and the kids cook your own pancakes on a griddle built into the center of the table. The whole grain flour is made from an actual working mill at the restaurant.

Located north of DeLand on U.S. Highway 17, the park has three hiking trails, a large freshwater spring for swimming, and rentals for canoes and kayaks. The swimming area has steps leading into the water, making easy access for children.  The paddle trips on the spring run are in slow moving, shallow water, which is good for novice paddlers and nervous parents

Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, Citrus County

Is it a zoo?  Is it a park? Whatever you want to call it, Homosassa Springs is a place to see hundreds of native Florida animals and critters that have been injured and can’t be returned to the wild.  They are all easily visible from boardwalks that wander through the park, making it a great place for kids in strollers and wheelchairs.

Homosassa Springs is the only place in Florida where you can be sure to find manatees year round.  The permanent residents are joined during the colder months by other manatees that migrate into the warm spring waters.  There is an underwater observatory where kids can get a close up look as the manatees drift slowly by.

Homosassa Springs became a state park in 1989.  Since then the animal inhabitants have been restricted to native species in need of a place to recover from injuries.  They include Key Deer, two year-old Florida Black Bear cubs, and pink Flamingos. Recently a Whooping Crane was added to the population.  The Whoopers were introduced into Florida about ten years ago as part of a federal-state experiment to save the species.

When still in private ownership in the 70’s and 80’s, the park was home to retired television stars like Flipper, Gentle Ben and Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion.  The only remaining exotic animal is “Lu”, a 43-year-old African Hippo, who was granted honorary Florida citizenship and permanent park residency by the late Governor Lawton Chiles.

Silver River State Park, Marion County

If you like the idea of the natural vacation experience, but the thought of packing the whole family into a tent for a couple of days causes nightmares and cold sweats, here’s another approach…cabins!

Many state parks have cabins for rent, but none are newer or more modern than those at Silver River State Park near Ocala.  The park just opened in 2001 and most of the cabins weren’t finished until this year. There are only ten cabins, so reservations may be tough to come by.  Each has a large screened porch, two bedrooms, a fireplace, and air conditioning.

No trip here is complete without canoeing or kayaking on the sparkling Silver River, one of Florida’s most picturesque paddle trips. Unfortunately the park doesn’t have a boat launch area or rentals, but there are private outfitters nearby.  If you’re lucky you will spot monkeys along the river bank. Their ancestors starred in Tarzan films that were made at Silver Springs decades ago, and were simply released into the wilds when the filming was done.

Silver River is a small park in a growing urban area, but there is plenty of wildlife.  We saw white tail deer, a Bald Eagle, red shouldered hawk, and wading birds in abundance. Along the river we spotted a family of monkeys, river otter, and gators.

Florida Caverns State Park, Jackson County

OK, here’s our opportunity to impress the kids. Remember this: stalactitesgrow from the ceiling, stalagmitesgrow from the floor.

Florida Caverns is the only place in Florida where you can walk through an underground limestone cavern that dates back 38-million years. The limestone formations grow at the rate of one cubic inch a year, which is roughly equivalent to the speed the kids do their chores around the house. The tour is a gentle walk of about a quarter-mile underground, and goes to a depth of 60 feet beneath the surface.   The ranger-guided tour lasts 30-40 minutes.  No strollers are allowed in the cave, so infants and toddlers have to be carried.  Kids have an advantage here.  They don’t bump their heads nearly as much as adults do.

Pack the van, get a Florida Atlas and Gazatteer, put fresh batteries in the GameBoys.  It’s time for a road trip.  Make this the summer for some Florida adventures that offer unique eco experiences for the whole family.

Sidebar/Directions/Phones/Web Links

Bahia Honda State Park is located off U.S. Highway 1, about 12 miles south of Marathon.

Park office, 305-872-2353

www.dep.state.fl.us/parks/district5/bahiahonda/index.asp

Corkscrew Swamp is located off County Road 846, about 17 miles east of Interstate 75, between Fort Myers and Naples.  Note:  Use exit marked for C.R. 846.  Do not use “Corkscrew Road” exit.

Sanctuary office, 239-348-9151

www.audubon.org/local/sanctuary/corkscrew/

Admission:  Adults $8, Teens and Children $3.50, Under 6 Free, Audubon members $5, student discounts.

Sebastian Inlet State Park is on U.S. Highway A1A, south of Melbourne and north of Vero Beach.

Park office, 321-984-4852

http://www.dep.state.fl.us/parks/district3/sebastianinlet/index.asp

DeLeon Springs State Park is about six miles north of DeLand, Volusia County, on U.S Highway 17.  It is approximately 50 miles northeast of Orlando, off Interstate 4.

Park office, 386-985-4212
Old Spanish Sugar Mill and Griddle House, 386-985-5644.

http://www.dep.state.fl.us/parks/district3/deleonsprings/index.asp

Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park is on U.S. Highway 19, six miles south of Crystal River.  It is approximately 75 miles north of Tampa.

Park office, 352-628-5343

http://www.dep.state.fl.us/parks/district2/homosassasprings/index.asp

Park hours, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Admission:  $7.95 for ages 13 and up, $4.95 for ages 3 to 12, Under 3 admitted free.

Silver River State Park is located off County Road 35, south of State Road 40, at Silver Springs.  It is approximately eight miles east of Interstate 75 at Ocala.

Park office, 352-236-7148

http://www.dep.state.fl.us/parks/district3/silverriver/index.asp

Florida Caverns State Park is north of Interstate 10, three miles north of Marianna, Florida, off U.S. Highway 90 and State Road 166.  It is approximately 55 miles west of Tallahassee.

Park visitors center, 850-482-9599

http://www.dep.state.fl.us/parks/district1/floridacaverns/index.asp

In addition to the regular state park admission fee there is an extra fee for the cave tour:  $5 for adults and teens 13 and up, $2.50 for children under 13, and kids under 3 are free.

State Park Camping Reservations:

www.reserveamerica.com, or 800-326-3521

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