Florida: mild yet rewarding

My first few trips to Florida did not capture my imagination.  The acres of asphalt, strip malls, and bland landscapes did not appeal to my adventurous interests.  Then I started exploring places outside the urbanized areas of southeast Florida and gained a new appreciation for the natural wonders of the state.  Is Florida a destination for the adventurous traveler?  Perhaps not, but if you are looking for mild yet rewarding experiences then the Sunshine State is well worth your attention.

On my most recent visit in February and March of 2017 with my adventure buddy Jenna Rizzo, I discovered some new corners of the state that will appeal to travelers seeking nature and wildlife:  Rainbow Springs and Myakka State Park.

Rainbow Springs is located in north-central Florida.  It’s not close to any major cities, so unless you happen to be in the area for other reasons the park is a long journey to reach.  This is part of the attraction – being far from major population centers it doesn’t feel crowded.  Jenna and I enjoyed a multi-sport day in the park:  swimming, kayaking, and hiking.

The main draw of the park is the water.  Rainbow Springs emerges from the ground at a constant 72 degrees and the park has a swimming area for those who want to sample the springs.  As someone who loves swimming in Puget Sound and the glacier-fed rivers of Washington, this water feels tropical.  It’s clear and delightful for a dip.  Are there alligators?  I didn’t see any, but hey – this is Florida, so I wouldn’t venture into the water at night.

The headwaters of Rainbow Springs - could be a Caribbean beach.

The cover of Nirvana's "Nevermind" 26 years later.

Next to the swimming area is a boat rental facility.  Jenna and I paddled a tandem kayak along the Rainbow River for a couple hours, exploring side channels and silently observing the locals in their habitat:  egret, ibis, anhinga, heron, turtles, and more.  There is residential development along one side of the river so it’s not a wilderness experience, but still – well worth it to get a feel for the place.

Lunch with an anhingha.

The fountain of youth must be back here somewhere...

Past the butterfly garden is a network of walking trails.  There isn’t much going on out here, the longest trail is 2 miles, but if you want more distance you can link them together.  It’s a drier landscape than around the springs, with the fragrant and scrubby forest typical of central Florida.  My recommendation:  hike in the morning when it’s cooler, swim in the heat of the day, and go kayaking later in the afternoon.

No elevation change, but it's a scenic walk.

Myakka State Park is about half an hour outside Sarasota near the Gulf coast.  The Myakka River flows through it, forming two shallow lakes along the way.  Many years ago Jenna had come out here for a backpack trip with friends and wanted to introduce me to the area.  We arrived early and booked seats on the air boat tour.  Our captain and guide gave an excellent overview of the ecosystem and its inhabitants, with typical guide humor refined over the years to keep the tourists guessing.  As a former guide who used to convince his raft crews of the fictitious “apple juice pipeline,” the “wandering fig tree,” and other nonsense, I enjoyed listening to a raconteur at work.  We saw a fair number of gators and, a highlight for me, an osprey catching a fish.

Yes, there is a bloody great alligator keeping an eye on the heron.

Back on land we caught a ride on the tram tour, learning about the pioneer background of the area as well as the natural history.  Tired of sitting, we took a hike along a nature trail and climbed up the tree canopy tower.  Looking down on the forest of saw palmetto was a beautiful view and hiking through stands of trees enrobed in epiphyte air plants felt slightly prehistoric.

Strange lifeforms extracting nutrients from the air. And some epiphytes.

Palmetto forest-  miles of trail to explore.

If you need a break from the pristine, white sand of Siesta Key (“#1 beach in the USA!” as signs proclaim every 100m on the key) and want a sample of pre-European Florida, Myakka State Park is a refreshing contrast to the coast.

But really, can you grow tired of this?