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Travel Guide to Florida

ECOTOURISM

Exploring the Big Cypress in Southwest Florida. • © Naples, Marco Island, Everglades CVB

Discover Florida Untamed

Known for glistening sugar-sand beaches and sparkling turquoise waters, Florida draws visitors from around the world. With more than 80 different ecosystems and a vast array of natural resources, this sun-kissed state, known for balmy winters and sultry summers, offers something for everyone.

The glittering depths of Williston’s subterranean underwater caverns of Devil’s Den and the saltier explorations around the shipwrecks from Pensacola to Port St. Joe, serving as artificial reefs to the local marine life on the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail, beckon avid scuba divers. Hiking enthusiasts find themselves drawn to the challenges of the 1,400-mile Florida Trail, the state’s National Scenic Trail stretching from the Everglades to Pensacola Beach. Others prefer to drink in the vista views from the canopy walkway of Myakka River State Park or climb the limestone bluffs above the whitewater rapids at Big Shoals State Park.

Eleven thousand miles of waterways, the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the cooler Atlantic, entice paddlers to investigate the wilds and anglers to cast their lines in hopes of snagging a bass or prize-winning cobia.

With an extensive variety of natural resources available, it can be difficult for travelers to choose how to spend their time. These top 10 Florida ecotours not only aid the state’s ecotourism through public education, but also give back to their community to help maintain these diverse native assets for future generations to enjoy while allowing visitors unique opportunities to experience wild Florida.

1. Swim with the Manatees, Nature Coast

Crystal River, a winter playground to the West Indian manatee, attracts between 400 and 500 of these gentle giant sea cows when water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico begin to drop. Manatees like to frolic in the warmer waters of the spring systems around Kings Bay and are often spotted in the Three Sisters Springs at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Though no longer on the endangered list, they remain a “threatened” species. Local outfitter River Ventures takes guests to swim and snorkel with the manatees. Manatee season is from November to April, but they can be spotted around Crystal River year-round. Tours leave from 498 SE Kings Bay Drive, Crystal River, Florida. 1-877-581-8401. riverventures.com

2. Snorkel living reefs at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida Keys

Vibrant tropical fish dart past, ducking to hide in the depths of the colorful living coral and sponges at Dry Tortugas National Park, situated within the Everglades & Dry Tortugas Biosphere Reserve. This 100-square-mile reserve encompasses seven islands and the tail end of a reef that stretches from Miami to this national park, 70 miles from Key West. The remote location has minimized human impact on the reef, making it one of the best underwater snorkeling and diving locations in America. The Dry Tortugas can be reached via daily ferry from Key West. The Yankee Freedom III is the official national park ferry and departs from 100 Grinnell Street, Key West, Florida 33040. 1-800-634-0939. drytortugas.com

3. Experience bioluminescence in a kayak, Indian River Lagoon

In the darkness of the night, kayaks glide across the Indian River Lagoon and Mosquito Lagoon in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Every swish of the paddle and movement in the water spawns swirls of glowing electric green color through the water. This glow-in-the-dark phenomenon, caused by a combination of single-celled microorganisms called dinoflagellates, warm temperatures and water salinity levels, occurs from June through early October. Come November through May, bioluminescent jelly combs, a creature similar to a jellyfish but without the sting, congregate in the waters of the Indian River Lagoon to illuminate the cooler nights. A Day Away Kayak Tours offers guided tours year-round. The tour launch point is at Haulover Canal, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, Florida. 1-321-268-2655. adayawaykayaktours.com

4. Walk through a wildlife haven at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary & Blair Audubon Center, Naples

A pristine wilderness, dating back more than 500 years, greets visitors at this 13,450 acres swamp. It is home to the largest old-growth bald cypress forest in the world, as well as the largest nesting colony of endangered wood storks in the U.S. It also provides an important habitat for numerous other endangered species, including the Florida panther and rare plants such as the ghost orchid. A 2.25-mile boardwalk meanders through wet prairie, marshlands and pine flatwoods where around 200 species of birds reside, such as the swallow-tailed kite, hooded merganser, roseate spoonbill and sandhill crane. 375 Sanctuary Road, Naples, Florida. 1-239-348-9151. corkscrew.audubon.org

5. Soar across limestone canyons with Canyons Zip Line & Canopy Tours, Ocala

The whirr of metal on metal takes guests flying through the air across the open landscape of natural Central Florida. The ground drops away to reveal the steep cliff walls and gaping limestone pits of a bygone era. Located on 100 acres of private property with expansive canyons, lakes and islands, Canyons Zip Line & Adventure Park offers visitors a unique look at Florida’s geology. The University of Florida discovered evidence of a prehistoric manatee and crustacean fossils in the limestone caves and walls and now visitors can explore this preserved environment from above, with nine zip lines, two rope bridges and a rappel across this area of wild Central Florida. 8045 NW Gainesville Rd, Ocala, Florida. 1-352-351-9477. zipthecanyons.com

6. CYCLE through Timucuan history and maritime forests with Kayak Amelia Tours, Jacksonville

Bike past sand dunes, through tree hammocks and pine flats. A Florida naturalist leads this guided tour through Big Talbot Island State Park on gently rolling nature trails teeming with Florida’s diverse wildlife. Paddlers unable to resist the call of the unusual beaches and rock formations around the Talbot Islands have the opportunity to try one of Kayak Amelia’s paddle tours to explore the tidal streams and sand bars. 13030 Heckscher Drive, Jacksonville, Florida. 1-904-251-0016. kayakamelia.com

7. Paddle with scholars in a National Estuarine Research Reserve, St. Augustine

Paddle the coastal backwaters of the GTM-NERR (Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve) with certified master naturalist instructors through one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet. Fresh water drains into the watershed, creating a habitat abundant with diverse aquatic plant and wildlife. Around 350 birds, 45 mammals, 40 reptiles, 20 amphibians and 580 different plant species reside in this unique ecological environment. Ripple Effect Adventure Outfitters, located in the town of Marineland just south of St. Augustine, also offers tours aboard the only vegetable-oil powered ecotour boat in Northeast Florida. 101 Tolstoy Lane, St. Augustine, Florida. 1-904-347-1565. rippleeffectecotours.com

8. Tube the crystal clear waters of the Ichetucknee River, Fort White

Float the pristine sapphire waters of the Ichetucknee River, a spring-fed river in Florida, declared a National Natural Landmark in 1972. Visitors can enjoy a tubing experience within Ichetucknee Springs State Park on this lazy six-mile river with opportunities to see natural Florida springs, otters, beavers and an occasional manatee. Tube, kayak, paddleboard and canoe rentals are available, and only non-motorized vessels are allowed on the river. 12087 SW U.S. Highway 27, Fort White, Florida. 1-386-497-1500. floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/Ichetucknee-Springs-state-park

9. Descend into the labyrinthine underground at Florida Caverns, Marianna

The only dry-air cave tour in a Florida state park can be found at Florida Caverns State Park in North Florida. Visitors take a 45-minute guided tour with a park ranger winding their way through narrow passages and around unique limestone formations like dripping stalactites, mounding sta-lagmites, flowstones and draperies. Cave salamanders, cave crickets and colonies of bat species can also be found in this unusual 65ºF year-round Florida habitat. 3345 Caverns Road, Marianna, Florida. 1-850-482-1228. floridacavernsstatepark.com

10. Beautiful surprises along The Great Calusa Blueway, Fort Myers

The Great Calusa Blueway in Southwest Florida’s Lee County soothes the eyes and calms the soul. And the only sounds you’ll hear are your own paddles—canoe, rowboat or kayak.  This watery trail winds through 190 miles of tropical vegetation and wildlife, past inlets and tributaries, and out to the Gulf of Mexico and quaint little islets like Palm Island, as well as Sanibel and Captiva islands. You can get on or off at numerous places along the Blueway, which was the ancient road of the Calusa Indians. Along the way see wildlife such as dolphins, sea turtles and river otters; long-legged wading birds like egrets; and, if you’re lucky, Florida’s beloved “Sea Cow,” the manatee. On the Great Calusa Blueway, there are natural surprises at every bend in the “road.” 2201 Second Street, Suite 600, Fort Myers, Florida. 1-239-707-7981. visitfortmyers.com/calusablueway

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