Many people imagine bronze bodies strutting down Miami beach or families waiting in line at Disneyland when thinking of Florida, but the state has so much more to offer.
From white sandy beaches in the gulf to swamps teeming with life, Florida is a nature lover’s dream. The underwater marvels of the keys and the rugged nature of marshlands are just the tip of the iceberg.
There is also a vast number of historic forts and memorial sites on the East Coast as this is where the Spanish made landfall in the 1500s. Explore lesser-known historic sites to get away from the crowds of popular Florida attractions and be rewarded with tranquil scenes where oceans and swamps meet.
Here is a look at the best National Parks and Monuments in Florida for your next visit to the Sunshine State.
Florida National Parks and Monuments
Biscayne National Park
On the southeastern tip of Florida is one of the most beautiful national parks in the USA – Biscayne National Park.
And unlike most national parks, this one is almost completely underwater.
Snorkeling or diving in the azure waters allows you to see the majestic underwater treasures of Florida.
If you prefer to keep your feet dry, you can explore the surface on a sailboat or kayak.
Visit Stiltsville, a colony of stilt houses built in the water that has been battered by Florida’s notorious hurricanes.
You can only reach the reefs by boat and there are turtles, dolphins, and pelicans that live in the Biscayne Bay Lagoon.
Dry Tortugas National Park
In the Pirates of the Caribbean, Tortuga is a pirate haven full of misfits, but in Florida, it is a pristine national park with some of the best diving spots in the country.
It is 70 miles into open water from Key West and can only be reached by boat or seaplane.
On the island, you will find Fort Jefferson, the biggest of its kind from the 1800s. Only 1% of the park is actually on dry ground so pack your bathing suit and take to the water to explore the stunning scenes below the waves.
Crystal clear water and reefs bursting with life make this one of the most breathtaking Florida national parks and certainly one of the most unique East Coast parks.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park is one of the few places in the USA where you can experience the true wilderness, as it’s the 3rd biggest national park in the lower 48 states.
Alligators, turtles, manatees, snakes, frogs, and hundreds of bird species all live in the dense mangroves and swamps of the Everglades.
One of the most popular activities is to take an airboat tour, a thrilling ride taking you into the heart of Florida’s prime swamplands.
You can also enjoy a short walk on the trails, take on a kayaking adventure, go treasure hunting with Geocaching, or cycle through the park.
That’s not even mentioning the ample birdwatching opportunities that attract thousands of visitors to the park.
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest fort of its kind and sits in St. Augustine on the northeast coast of Florida.
It was completed in 1695 and was occupied into the early 1900s. The fort is made from coquina stone and it has proven to be amazingly strong protection from attacks.
Walk through the rooms of the castle to see how it has developed through the centuries and how soldiers protected the shoreline.
Rangers are dressed in period costumes adding another layer of authenticity to the fort. Visitors can also enjoy historic weapon demonstrations as cannons and muskets are fired on the weekends.
Fort Matanzas National Monument
Hop aboard the ferry to Fort Matanzas to see where the Spanish defended themselves against French invaders as far back as the 1780s.
Albeit small, the fort has its own charm and is surrounded by marshland ripe for exploring.
The sandy section of the marsh is a fascinating part of the ecosystem, acting as a natural filtration system and preventing the area from flooding.
Fort Matanzas National Park is also open to fishing and both fresh and saltwater fish are abundant in the area.
There is a delightful nature trail, protected by the dense tree canopy, that meanders along the oldest part of the barrier island.
It’s free to visit Fort Matanzas but just make sure to get your free ferry boarding pass from the Matanzas Visitor Center first.
Big Cypress National Preserve
Big Cypress is a neighbor to the more famous Everglades National Park and is comparable in size and beauty.
The dense swamps and mangroves are homes to thousands of critters including the American Alligator and the rare Florida Panther.
One of the most popular activities is a swamp tour or a trip on swamp buggies and when the sun sets there is the chance for stargazing as the night sky envelopes rural Florida.
There are also hiking and biking trails if you want to get your blood pumping or take to the water in a canoe with the alligators…if that’s on your Florida bucket list :)
Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve
In Jacksonville, the wild Atlantic meets centuries of history on the northern Florida coast.
The Timucuan Preserve is best known for housing the oldest standing plantation in the state, Kingsley Plantation. Visitors can learn about the dark past of plantations and how it shaped America today.
There are also several trails spanning across the 46,000-acre land with water access for kayaks from Cedar point.
Visitors also love clambering across the fine white sandy dune of America Beach, which in itself is steeped in historic value.
Canaveral National Seashore
Just east of Orlando is a pristine stretch of protected seashore. Canaveral National Seashore comprises both shoreline and a group of barrier islands that are inaccessible by road.
At the southern end of the barrier island, you can also visit Kennedy Space Center (perfect day trip from Orlando) with its fascinating exhibitions.
The park has an impressive array of flora and fauna with more than 1,000 plant and 310 bird species calling it home.
And there are several beaches you can relax on including two nudist beaches for those who prefer their beach time au naturel.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
What’s not to love about 160 miles of unspoiled shoreline and immaculate forests?
Visit the Gulf Islands National Seashore for an exquisite coastal experience in the Florida Panhandle. The park actually extends into Mississippi, but leapfrogs over Alabama’s coastline.
Do some backcountry camping on the white sandy beach, marvel at the illuminated night sky, or hike on the 7-miles of paths that wind through forests and along the coast.
There are also three forts within the park (Fort McRee, Fort Pickens, and Fort Barrancas), but the main attraction remains the impressive beaches.
Gulf Island is one of the best places for diving in Florida and there is plenty of room for boating, swimming, and bird watching.
De Soto National Memorial
Roughly 50 years after Columbus made landfall in the New World, Conquistador Hernando de Soto and his army set foot in Tampa Bay. He came looking for gold but instead he was met by indigenous people fiercely defending their land.
The memorial site aims to share this intrepid journey with travelers and also explore the immense impact their arrival had on indigenous communities.
There are also a few ways you can get active at De Soto Memorial. Rangers lead guided kayaking tours, there are hiking trails, and they have recently opened their escape room.
If you have kids be sure to check out the Junior Ranger program at De Soto, a fun and educational experience for children.
Fort Caroline National Memorial
Around 300 French colonials once settled in Florida, history that is all but forgotten for many. But at Fort Caroline National Memorial visitors can learn about this part of American history through fascinating exhibitions and historical reenactments.
If you prefer to enjoy nature instead of history, the park is still well worth a visit.
Various hiking and biking trails wind through the lush vegetation of eastern Jacksonville and the boardwalk around Spanish Pond is wheelchair accessible.
Final Thoughts on Florida National Parks
So, whether you like history, adventure, or relaxation, there is a Florida national park for every taste. Don’t hesitate to visit smaller less visited parks as they offer a chance to escape crowds and see the untamed nature of Florida’s landscape up close.