Nature-Lovers Guide To South Florida Vacation Spots

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I like to think I’ve seen a lot of Florida but at the same time, I know there is so much I haven’t gotten to do yet.

Strangely, I would say the majority of what I have seen and done here though is in South Florida which is weird since I live in north Florida.

This is all about the best south Florida nature vacation spots. And while there are tons of great things to do in Miami Beach, you won’t find them in this list.

Though I’m sure there are great things to do there, it’s just not a place I’m dying to visit right now and I just don’t know enough about it.

There is no official “south Florida,” it will depend on who you’re talking to just like what counts as “out west” in the US (I want to hear your opinion on that, too) but for this, I’m counting south Florida as anything below Sarasota. This map is a good region reference and what I usually go with.

I haven’t been to every place on this list yet but will hopefully be able to make a dent in the ones I haven’t been to over the next few years. I’m just so excited to do all the things in Florida and hope you get to do all the things, too!

Also to note this list is the places to go in south Florida, so general parks and some islands. I’ve included hikes and things to do in the descriptions but each major point on the list is a general place.

Now lets get planning those south Florida road trips! This post has made me so excited to get back down there this winter and maybe even summer to see the super ghost orchid!

This post is organized basically as a Florida road trip from Miami (since it’s an easy place for flights) and starts with the Keys then goes across to southwest Florida then up the west coast, ending in Sarasota.

This is not a south Florida itinerary. There are no daily schedules or anything like that, it’s just the best places to visit in south Florida for nature lovers in list form.

Travel Services I Recommend:
AllTrails – This is my favorite hike tracking app.
America the Beautiful – The national park pass is essential. – This is great for finding and booking hotels.
Get Your Guide – I recommend Get Your Guide for booking tours.
National Park Obsessed – This is the best national park planner.
Skyscanner – Skyscanner is great for finding and booking flights.
Enterprise – This is my rental car recommendation.
See all my resources here.

Map of places to visit in south Florida

National Park Goodies

Short list of best South Florida vacation spots (according to me):

  • Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades City
  • Lovers Key State Park
  • Everglades National Park
  • Sanibel
Dry tortugas national park florida
Dry Tortugas is one of the most unique places to visit in South Florida

Dry Tortugas National Park

Cost: $200-634 per person

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: First up is Dry Tortugas, one of three national parks in Florida and by far the most difficult and expensive to visit.

The park is located off the coast of key West (one of the sop South Florida vacation spots) and can only be reached by ferry, sea plane, or private boat.

The cheapest is the ferry but that is still $200 per person. The sea plane is probably the coolest but will set you back about $600 per person. And private boat is probably the most difficult and expensive to charter unless you know people.

And what makes it even harder to plan is that you have to either book them as soon as they become available or call to see about cancellations like, every day. It’s a bummer it’s so difficult to visit but it looks entirely worth it.

This is easily one of the best places to visit in South Florida because of its beautiful blue waters and historic Fort Jefferson. There are a few islands you can visit but most people just go to Garden Key, the main one with the fort. You can even camp here which is something I would really love to do when I get to visit eventually.

I haven’t been to the Keys at all yet because they’re so expensive but it’s one of the top places I want to go in Florida. Particularly this and the next two on the list.

Get a 7 day Florida national park itinerary here.

Photo by Matt Kieffer Flickr

Bahia Honda State Park

Cost: $8 per vehicle

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: I want to beach camp at Bahia Honda SO BAD but they fill up extremely fast. I actually just checked out of curiosity and there is literally nothing available at all.

But this state park is great for all things beach. You can go paddling, shelling, hiking, snorkeling, stargazing, bird watching, biking, and boating.

If you don’t have your own boat, they have boat tours you can join to go snorkeling at the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. This is a great place to experience the Florida Keys and all they have to offer.

While the weather is cooler in the winter, this is a better park to visit in the summer if you plan to be in the water or snorkeling at all.

Photo by Bebatut Flickr

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Cost: $8 per vehicle

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: At the opposite end of the Keys, on Key Largo, you’ll find John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, another perfect beachy state park great for camping and snorkeling.

The park is 70 nautical square miles and most people experience it on glass bottom boat tours but an even better way is to go snorkeling or scuba diving. There is a dive shop in the park and four snorkeling tours thats leave throughout the day.

There are also three short hiking trails in the park if you want a break from the beach. This would be another fun park to camp at but is also difficult to get reservations for.

This one is also better to visit in the summer if you plan to snorkel a lot, which is really the best thing to do here. If you just want to stay on the beach, winter is perfect.

Biscayne National park florida
I think Biscayne National Park is an underrated place to visit in South Florida

Biscayne National Park

Cost: Free!

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: The next national park is Biscayne National Park between Miami and the Keys. Most of this park is also under water so they best way to experience it is a boat tour and trip out to Elliot Key or Boca Chita Key. Camping on them would be an amazing experience, too.

While most of the park is underwater or off the mainland, it’s still worth visiting if you just have a couple of hours. There is a short mangrove trail near the visitor center and you can go kayaking right around here which looks pretty great.

There are even some Geocaches here! The park seems to be popular for fishing which we saw a lot of people doing while we were here. It’s a hidden gem not far from the main area of Everglades National Park and it’s definitely worth the visit.

Get an Everglades and Biscayne itinerary here.

Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park is for sure a top south Florida attraction

Everglades National Park

Cost: $30 per vehicle or national park pass

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: Everglades National Park is the most well-known national park in Florida and it is beautiful.

I’ve only been here once so far but very much look forward to going back to see and do even more. It’s probably one of the most popular south Florida road trip stops.

There are some shorter hiking trails here but it is best experienced via water, either on a bigger boat tour or kayaking through the mangroves and swamp. Which will mostly depend on what you’re comfortable with.

The park is huge and has three areas you can visit: the main Flamingo area, the Shark Valley area, and the Gulf Coast area.

Most people just go to the Flamingo area and Shark Valley is only accessible by bike or tram tours while the Gulf Coast area is best for kayaking.

If you’re short on time and not planning to go west to like, Everglades City, Naples, or Fort Myers, then skip the Gulf side. It’s not bad but there isn’t much to do over there unless you’re doing something else like Big Cypress or Fakahatchee.

Get a two day Everglades itinerary here.

big cypress florida
Big Cypress is my personal favorite South Florida attraction

Big Cypress National Preserve

Cost: Free!

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: Big Cypress is right next to the Everglades, stretching across south Florida. And while it’s right next to it, it definitely doesn’t get as much love.

If you can, visit both, if you can only pick one between Everglades and Big Cypress, it’s hard to say. If you do pick Big Cypress, camping there is a must.

I love Big Cypress so much. It’s incredible. It’s easily my favorite south Florida vacation spot. It’s so easy to get away from what little crowds there are and there is so much to do in the immediate area as well.

Everglades City is the best base for the area unless you want to camp, which I wold definitely recommend, just be prepared for all the mosquitos, even in the winter.

While you’re here, walk all the boardwalks, look for gators at the Oasis Visitor Center, drive the scenic Loop Road, hike the Fire Prairie Trail, and if you’re really feeling adventurous, hike the Gator Hook Trail.

Kayaking is another great way to experience Big Cypress if you’re up for that. Be sure to stop at the tiny Ochopee post office as you drive through, too! This is one of my own favorite places to go in South Florida.

Everglades City tours

marsh trail ten thousand islands florida

Ten Thousand Islands

Cost: Free

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: On the other side of Big Cypress is the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

This is best visited by boat, either renting one yourself or joining a tour. You could also kayak if you’re comfortable navigating it and paddling that much.

If you won’t be going by boat, the Marsh Trail is a nice easy hike great for spotting wildlife not far from Everglades City. I haven’t been on a boat here yet but very much look forward to it.

If you have a boat or are renting one and are feeling adventurous (and are comfortable with your boating/navigational skills) consider camping out on an island!

alligator on Fakahatchee hilton hike florida

Fakahatchee Strand State Park Preserve

Cost: $3 per vehicle

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: The Fakahatchee Strand State Park Preserve is one of my favorite places to go in south Florida.

There are two hikes here that I love but in different areas of the park. Someday I’ll hike the other trails in here, maybe next visit.

Right on the Tamiami Trail is the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk. This is an easy boardwalk hike that is great for spotting wildlife.

We’ve done this three or four times now and have seen tons of birds and gators and at least one snake each time.

Then, at the end of the Janes Scenic Drive is the East Main Tram Trail where you can hike to the Fakahatchee Hilton, a little swamp shack with a pond out back. This is a great spot to see a lot of alligators.

Photo by Larry W. Richardson/USFWS via USFWS Flickr

Florida Panther Preserve

Cost: Free!

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: The last stop in the immediate Big Cypress area is the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. There isn’t a ton to do here but there is one hiking trail.

We did this on my first visit to Big Cypress and I was a little nervous since the hike is through tall grass and it’s a Florida Panther Preserve but it was fine.

It’s a narrow trail but a nice short hike that will probably be pretty quiet. You could easily do this one your way in or out of the area depending on your route.

Collier semeinole state park hike palm trees

Collier-Seminole State Park

Cost: $5 per vehicle

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: Next up is Collier-Seminole State Park. This is also right along the Tamiami Trail and has a few hiking options.

In the main area of the park there is really just a short boardwalk but you can also kayak here.

Off the the Tamiami Trail are a few other slightly longer, but not too long, hiking trails.

These you need to register for at the ranger station to get maps, information, and access. This is also a great park to camp in if you want to be out of the main Big Cypress area.

I would like to do a couple of the longer hikes next time we’re in the area. We just did the boardwalk trail and I did enjoy that one! This is a nice little park off the beaten path in south Florida.

Tigertail beach marco island florida
Marco Island is a popular beach getaway and south Florida vacation spot

Marco Island

Cost: Free to be on the island, $8 for beach parking at Tigertail and South Beach

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: We’re headed back to the beach on Marco Island this time. This is a great place for relaxing and shelling.

You could easily spend a week here or even just a few hours as you pass by and you can’t go wrong either way.

My favorite thing to do here is go shelling on Tigertail Beach (my favorite south Florida beach) but you could also go shelling on South Beach, visit Keewaydin Island, or join a Ten Thousand Island shelling tour.

What to bring shelling in Florida

Sunscreen If you plan on being outside, you’ll want sunscreen.  I like the Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch a lot AND it’s reef safe! If you’re sensitive to fragrance though, it’s not a good choice. I also like the same one but specifically for your face.

Shell bag I usually use a plastic grocery bag for shells but will be getting these mesh bags for shells for my next beach adventure. I think any mesh bag should work pretty well you just want to make sure the holes are small enough so little shells don’t fall out. This kind would be better if you’re snorkeling for shells.

Shell scoopA Sand Dipper shell scoop can help you get shells that are under water if you don’t want to snorkel/swim. They can also help just on the beach so you don’t have to bend over. You can scoop the shells right up. Buy a shell scoop here.

Sun hatI got this giant sun hat and I love it! Mine doesn’t have the lining underneath but they do have some with UPF 50+ linings. Buy my hat here.

Water bottle It’ll be hot and you’ll need to stay hydrated.  Even if it’s not hot you need to stay hydrated.  A Hydro Flask will keep your water ice cold all day long.

Headlamp – I tend to carry my headlamp around all the time when we’re hiking.  This isn’t the exact one I have, but it’s similar and if I needed to replace mine, I’d probably get this one.

sand dollar on Tigertail beach marco island florida
Actually Marco Island

Keewaydin Island

Cost: $44 per person round-trip

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: Keewaydin Island is a barrier island between Naples and Marco Island that can only be reached by boat.

You can either take your own boat, rent a boat, or take the Hemmingway Water Shuttle to get to this south Florida attraction.

This is a great place to relax on the beach, hop in the water, and do some shelling. This is another place I haven’t been but have been wanting to visit since I found out about it.

Corkscrew Swamp Florida
Corkscrew Swamp is a unique place to visit in south Florida

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Cost: $17 per person

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: A bit further north now, kind of in the middle of nowhere, is the Corkscrew Swamp Boardwalk, the longest boardwalk in Florida and home to a super ghost orchid! If you plan to visit this or the Fakahatchee, The Orchid Thief is a must-read.

This is kind of expensive for what it is but it’s a really nice walk so I’d still say it’s worth it, especially if you’re there and the orchid is blooming.

They post all blooming activity here. It’s still a great boardwalk even if the orchid isn’t blooming though.

Photo by Carol VanHook Flickr

Naples Botanical Garden

Cost: $25 per person

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: Now over to Naples. I don’t know why I like Naples so much, but I do. And we really haven’t done much there but sleep and eat. But I still like it.

One thing I want to do on our next south Florida road trip is go to the Naples Botanical Garden. It looks beautiful and since we’ve gotten to Florida, I’ve wanted to go to all of them for some reason.

This is a great place to still enjoy the outdoors without the ruggedness of a lot of places nearby. Take a casual stroll through 170-acre garden while admiring all the beautiful plants.

This is a little different than the other places on this list but I still think it deserves a spot here. After all, a botanical garden is a great South Florida attraction for a nature lover.

While you’re in Naples, you could also walk around the fancy downtown area or do some shelling at Clam Pass Park or one of the other beaches right around here.

Delnor wiggins pass state park florida

Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park

Cost: $6 per vehicle

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: Between Naples and Fort Myers is Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, a great beach park with lots of shelling. We didn’t find much here but it was a nice beach. It’s long but very narrow.

You could easily spend all day here if you’re properly equipped but it’s just as nice for a few hours. There are bathrooms and concessions here. This is a fun place to visit in south Florida for a great afternoon (or morning) at the beach.

It’s not my favorite park down here but it is very much still worth taking the time to visit. If you want to get a prime beach spot and to avoid the crowds, I would get here nice and early.

Other shelling posts you may like:

lovers key state park florida

Lovers Key State Park

Cost: $8 per vehicle

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: Lovers Key State Park is probably technically in Fort Myers and it’s my second favorite beach in south Florida AND it’s where I found my first whole sand dollar!

This is another great park for both relaxing on the beach or shelling. It’s one of my favorite South Florida attractions and one I’ll probably keep going to.

They even have a few hiking trails here! I haven’t done them yet but would like to try and squeeze them in on my next visit. This is a beautiful park and one I definitely think you shouldn’t miss.

I think it is best to get here right when they open because it can definitely fill up later in the day. There are bathrooms and concessions here as well as beach rentals.

Ding Darling wildlife refuge sanibel florida
Sanibel is one of the top South Florida vacation spots for shelling


Cost: $6 for the toll and most beach parking is $5 per hour

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: Just outside of Fort Myers Beach is Sanibel, one of the best places to go shelling in the US, if not the world.

While that is why a lot of people visit Sanibel, there is plenty more to do here either for a day or a week.

There are three whole bookstores here, a shell museum, and the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The best way to get around if you’re staying on Sanibel is by bike and it could be fun to just bike around for the day anyway.

The two main shelling beaches (and the only ones I’ve been to so far) are Lighthouse Beach and Blind Pass Beach but there are three or four more you can also go to. I will be trying the other ones next time I’m there.

While you’re on Sanibel, you can head over to Captiva Island, too. There is much less to do there but it is still good for relaxing on the beach and a must-visit south Florida vacation spot.

Photo by John St. James Flickr

Cayo Costa State Park

Cost: $2 for the park entrance, plus the ferry which is $35 from Pine Island, $45 from Sanibel/Captiva (+$6 toll if you’re not staying here), $48 from Punta Gorda

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: Finally, Cayo Costa State Park, another state park only accessible by boat.

The Cayo Costa Ferry leaves from Punta Gorda, Pine Island, and Sanibel/Captiva. You can go as a day trip or for a camping trip.

This park has nine whole miles of untouched beaches perfect for relaxing and shelling. You can rent kayaks from the gift shop, hike or bike the nature trails, fish, and even snorkel and dive off the shore.

Cayo Costa is very high on my Florida bucket list and we definitely plan to camp there for a few nights. It looks so beautiful and is one of the best places to see in south Florida.

Photo by Melanie Lauren Flickr

Venice Beach

Cost: Free as far as I can tell

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: Venice Beach is popular but it’s popular for a reason: shark teeth. This is one of the best places to visit in south Florida if you’re a beachcomber and want to find shark teeth.

Thanks to the location of Venice Beach on a slope, not a drop off, and our good old friend erosion, shark teeth are always being uncovered, just waiting to be found.

It can get pretty busy here (are we really surprised?) so I would go early, or late, pack your patience, and hope for the best. If you love sharks or just really want to find shark teeth, it will be worth it.

Myakka state park canopy walk
Myakka River State Park is a great place to visit in South Florida for hiking and birding

Myakka River State Park

Cost: $6 per vehicle, plus camping and tour fees if you’re doing either of those.

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: This is a great place to experience the woods of Florida. It’s primarily made up of pinelands, prairies, hammocks, and wetlands.

There are plenty of hiking trails throughout the park and it’s great for birding and camping, too. They offer boat tours when water levels are high enough.

The canopy walk is a cool way to see the park from above (pictured) but Deep Hole is a great hike that’s a little more adventurous. It requires a permit but takes you to a pond full of alligators.

lighthouse beach sanibel florida

Turtle Beach

Cost: Free as far as I can tell

Why it’s one of the best places to go in South Florida: Turtle Beach is a great beach for shelling near Sarasota. But it also has a mangrove lagoon perfect for paddling!

You can rent paddleboards and kayaks or join a tour if you would prefer a guide. Turtle Beach also happens to be a turtle nesting site meaning some areas may be blocked off for that.

This is a great hidden gem beach park in Florida and at the top of my list for the next time I’m in the Sarasota area, whenever that may be.

cottonmouth snake in Big cypress Florida
My friend Reggie the cottonmouth in Big Cypress, my favorite south Florida vacation spot

Florida posts you may also enjoy:

What is your favorite place to go in south Florida? Have you been anywhere on this list? Where do you want to go on your south Florida road trip?

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