Florida State Parks: A Mom’s Guide to Enjoying the Real Florida

FloridaStateParksMomsGuideFBPreviewIf you ask my kids what their favorite family vacations have been, their answers might surprise you. Although we’ve traveled to various states, big cities and major amusement parks, it’s the memories made during our adventures in the Florida State Parks that has stuck with them. Snorkeling at Bahia Honda, catching crabs on St. George Island, tubing down the river at Itchetucknee Springs and kayaking at Little Talbot are just a few of their favorite vacations.

Florida boasts 161 state parks, with several of them right here in Jacksonville, or just a short day trip away. In addition to camping, most parks offer a wide variety of additional activities–trails for bike riding, canoe rentals, and their free junior ranger program for the kids.

If camping in tents isn’t your thing, then consider visiting one of the 21 parks that have cabins for rent inside the park. Wakulla Springs State Park even has a lodge you can stay in that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Before you load up the kids and head out to explore the Real Florida, here are a few tips from a mom who’s been there.

  • Reservations for cabins and camping sites are open 11 months in advance through Reserve America. Yes, people do book their vacations 11 months in advance. Also, please note that your reservation must be paid for in full when you make the reservation.
  • The entrance fee into most state parks ranges from $4.00 to $8.00 per vehicle, up to eight people. Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers are $2.00 per person. There may be additional fees for camping, tours and museum entrances. Check the park’s website for specific information. Note that if you’ve made a reservation to stay in a cabin or at a campsite within the park, you do not have to pay an additional entrance fee. Be sure to bring cash, State Parks don’t accept credit cards for entrance fees.
  • If you want to fish in a State Park, you will need a fishing license. Kids under the age of 16 do not need a license. You can obtain a fishing license by visiting The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.
  • Almost all Florida State Parks are open from 8:00am to sunset, 365 days a year. But be sure to check with the specific park before planning your trip.
  • Be sure to pack plenty of snacks and drinks for your visit. Some parks do offer concessions inside the park, but many of them don’t.
  • Many (but not all) of the Florida State Parks participate in a Junior Ranger program. This is a free program available to kids. Kids complete activities within the different parks and can earn rewards such as badges, patches, and pins.

State Parks in the Jacksonville Area

StateParks1JacksonvilleFort Clinch State Park
Fort Clinch State Park is located just north of Jacksonville in Amelia Island. Fort Clinch offers plenty of family-friendly recreational activities including swimming, fishing, sunbathing and wildlife viewing.  Shelling and shark-tooth hunting are popular activities near the pier and along the St. Mary’s Inlet. The park has 68 campsites for tent or RV camping and plenty of trails for hiking and biking. Fort Clinch State Park participates in the Junior Ranger for kids.
Hours: Fort Clinch State Park is open from 8:00 am to sunset daily.
The Fort is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm daily.
Admission Fees: $6.00 per vehicle, 2-8 people per vehicle entrance to the park. $2.00 per person Fort admission.

Big Talbot Island State Park
Big Talbot Island State Park is located just northeast of Jacksonville. Big Talbot Island State Park is primarily a natural preserve providing a premier location for nature study, bird-watching, and photography. Kayak rentals and guided paddle tours are available at Kayak Amelia. The unique beach at Big Talbot Island State Park is famous for the salt-washed skeletons of live oak and cedar trees that once grew near the shore. There is no camping at this park making the perfect spot for a day trip. Big Talbot Island State Park participates in the Junior Ranger for kids.
Hours: Big Talbot Island State Park is open from 8:00 am to sunset daily.
Admission Fees: $2.00 per person to access the George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier, $3.00 per vehicle entrance fee to access the Bluffs picnic area, Blackrock trailhead and Big Pine trailhead, $4.00 to use the boat launch.

Little Talbot Island State Park
With more than five miles of beautiful, white sandy beaches, Little Talbot Island State Park is one of the few remaining undeveloped barrier islands in Northeast Florida. Maritime forests, desert-like dunes and undisturbed salt marshes on the western side of the island allow for hours of nature study and relaxation. The diverse habitats in the park host a wealth of wildlife for viewing, including river otters, marsh rabbits, bobcats and a variety of native and migratory birds. There are 36 campsites available for reservation at Little Talbot Island State Park, and this park participates in the Junior Ranger Program for kids.
Hours: Little Talbot Island State Park is open from 8:00 am to sunset daily.
Admission Fees: $5.00 per vehicle, 2-8 people per vehicle.

Anastasia State Park
Located near historic St. Augustine, Anastasia State Park has many recreational activities to enjoy including hiking, swimming, beachcombing, bird watching, and much more. The campground contains 139 campsites all located within the beautiful maritime hammock and just a short walk or bike ride from the beach. Anastasia has concessions to provide guests with rental opportunities of bicycles, paddleboards, kayaks, sailboats and canoes. Anastasia State Park participates in the Junior Ranger Program for kids.
Hours: Anastasia State Park is open from 8:00 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year.
Admission Fees: $8.00 per vehicle, 2-8 people per vehicle.

State Parks Perfect for a Day Trip

FloridaStateParks2Ichetuknee Springs State Park
This is one of our favorite summer day trips. Ichetucknee Springs State Park is located about 2 hours west of Jacksonville. The crystal clear Ichetucknee River flows six miles through shaded hammocks and wetlands before it joins the Santa Fe River. From the end of May until early September, tubing down the river is the premier activity in the area. In addition to tubing, families can enjoy picnicking, snorkeling, canoeing, swimming, hiking, and wildlife viewing. Ichetucknee Springs State Park participates in the Junior Ranger program for kids.
Hours: Ichetucknee Springs State Park is open year round 8:00 a.m. until sundown.
Admission Fees: $6.00 per vehicle. Limit 2-8 people per vehicle for no river use. $5.00 per person, tubing during Summer Season (Begins the Saturday before Memorial Day through Labor Day). Children 5 and under are free.

O’Leno State Park
O’Leno State Park is a short drive from Jacksonville, located in High Springs Florida. O’Leno offers families the opportunity to unwind in a natural setting. You can enjoy a day of hiking or biking on the park’s shaded trails. The Santa Fe River is a beautiful spot to launch a canoe or try your hand at fishing along its banks. Pavilions are located along the river’s edge, providing a serene backdrop for picnicking and relaxing. Kids will love the suspension bridge. O’Leno State Park offers cabins and camping sites and participates in the Junior Ranger program for kids.
Hours: O’Leno State Park is open from 8:00 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year.
Admission Fees: $5.00 per vehicle, 2-8 people per vehicle.

Blue Springs State Park
Blue Springs State Park is one of my favorites, at less than 2 hours away from Jacksonville; it’s perfect for a day trip or even an overnight adventure. In the summer the spring´s crystal clear, 73-degree water can be enjoyed by swimmers, snorkelers, and certified scuba divers. During Manatee season, which approximately runs from mid-November through March, several hundred Manatee can be viewed atop the spring’s overlooks. This is a very popular park so if you’re planning to visit arrive early to ensure entrance into the park. Blue Springs State Park also offers cabins and camping sites if you’re interested in staying the night. Blue Springs State Park participates in the Junior Ranger program for kids.
Hours: Blue Springs State Park is open from 8:00 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year.
Admission Fees: $6.00 per vehicle, 2-8 people per vehicle.

Stephen Foster Folk Cultural Center State Park
Stephen Foster State Park is located just west of Jacksonville, near Lake City. Hiking, bicycling, canoeing, and wildlife viewing are popular activities. Miles of trails wind through some of the most scenic areas of North Florida. In Craft Square, visitors can watch demonstrations of quilting, blacksmithing, stained glass making, and other crafts, or visit the gift shop. Stephen Foster State Park hosts the annual Florida Folk Festival over Memorial Day weekend each year. This park has cabins and camping sites available, and they also participate in the Junior Ranger program.
Hours: Stephen Foster State Park Museum and Tower are open from 9:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M. daily.
Admission Fees: $5.00 per vehicle, 2-8 people per vehicle.

State Parks to Visit for a Weekend Getaway

StateParks3Lake Louisa State Park
Just on the other side of Orlando, Lake Louisa State Park is known for its beautiful lakes, rolling hills, and scenic landscapes. Lake Louisa, the largest in a chain of 13 lakes, is designated as an Outstanding Florida Water Way. If you go, be sure to bring fishing poles for the kids. There are plenty of opportunities for fishing, canoeing, and kayaking. Lake Louisa State Park has a large campground, as well as cabins available to rent.
Hours: Lake Louisa State Park is open from 8:00 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year.
Admission Fees: $5.00 per vehicle, 2-8 people per vehicle.

Silver Springs State Park
Located in Ocala, Silver Springs State Park used to be known as Silver River State Park. In 2013, the state took over the adjacent Silver Springs attraction area and now it all falls under the state park system. Enjoy the springs from a viewing deck, walk along the river on paved trails, see the ornamental gardens, and enjoy an easy stroll through the Real Florida. Families can enjoy a meal from the restaurant with a view of the spring. Glass bottom boat rides and canoe and kayak rentals are offered through our concessionaire. Silver Springs State Park has both cabins as well as campsites available to rent, and they participate in the Junior Ranger program.
Hours: Silver Springs State Park is open 8:00 a.m. to sundown, 365 days per year. Portions of the park are closed during concerts or other special events. The Silver River Museum and Environmental Center is open weekends and major holidays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Admission Fees: $8.00 per vehicle, 2-8 people per vehicle. $2.00 per person for entrance to the Silver River Museum and Environmental Center, children under six are free.

Fanning Springs State Park
Located on the Suwannee River, this inviting source of cool, clear water is a major attraction for Fanning Springs Sate Park. Swimming or snorkeling in the spring is a refreshing activity on a hot day. White-tailed deer, gray squirrels, red-shouldered hawks, pileated woodpeckers and barred owls are some of the animals seen in the park. Manatees sometimes visit the spring during the winter months. Bring your bikes and ride along the Nature Coast State Trail where you can travel a total of 32 miles along paved bike trails. Fanning Springs State Park has cabins available for rent, but the only camping they allow is primitive camping, available only for those arriving by foot, bicycle or paddling on the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail.
Hours: Fanning Springs State Park is open from 8:00 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year.
Admission Fees: $6.00 per vehicle, 2-8 people per vehicle.

Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park
At a little over an hour outside of Jacksonville, Gold Head Branch State Park makes a great day trip, but I really recommend you visit for the weekend to take it all in. Families visiting the park can enjoy hiking and wildlife viewing along the park´s nature trails and a 5.44-mile stretch of the Florida National Scenic Trail. Bring your fishing poles and bathing suits for some fun water activities. There are three large campgrounds as well as lake front cabins available to rent. Gold Head Branch State Park participates in the Junior Ranger program for kids.
Hours: Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park is open from 8:00 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year.
Admission Fees: $5.00 per vehicle, up to 8 passengers per vehicle.

Favorite State Parks that are Worth the Trip

FloridaStateParks4

Falling Waters State Park
Falling Waters State Park boasts Florida’s highest waterfall. Falling Waters Sink is a 100-foot deep, 20-foot wide cylindrical pit into which flows a small stream that drops 73 feet to the bottom of the sink. The water’s final destination remains unknown. Families can enjoy beautiful native and migrating butterflies in the butterfly garden, take a dip in the lake, or have a family picnic. Park rangers host interpretive programs in the amphitheater. There are no cabins at Falling Waters State Park, so if you plan to go, you’ll have to camp. Falling Waters State Park participates in the Junior Ranger program.
Hours: Falling Waters State Park is open from 8:00 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year.
Admission Fees: $5.00 per vehicle, 2-8 people per vehicle.

Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park
St. George Island State Park boasts miles of undeveloped beaches on this barrier island providing the perfect opportunity for swimming, canoeing, boating, hiking, camping and nature study. Kids will love the generally uncrowded beaches, filled with tiny crabs for catching. There are no cabins available at St. George Island State Park but the camping areas are shaded and the facilities clean and family friendly. St. George Island State Park participates in the Junior Ranger program.
Hours: Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park is open from 8:00 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year.
Admission Fees: $6.00 per vehicle, 2-8 people per vehicle.

Florida Caverns State Park
Florida Caverns State Park is the only state park in Florida to offer cave tours to the public. Guided tours of the Florida Caverns lasts 45 minutes and is considered to be moderately strenuous. In addition to the caves, this park also offers boating, camping, fishing and swimming in Blue Hole Spring. There are no cabins at Florida Caverns State Park so you’ll have to bring a tent or RV and plan to camp. Florida Caverns State Park participates in the Junior Ranger program.
Hours: Florida Caverns State Park is open from 8:00 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year. Cave tours are not available on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
Admission Fees: $5.00 per vehicle, 2-8 people per vehicle. Cave Tour Fees: $8.00 per person, age 13 and older, $5.00 per child, 3 to 12, 2 and younger are free.

Bahia Honda State Park
I saved my favorite Florida State Park for last. Bahia Honda State Park is one of Florida’s southernmost state parks, located less than an hour north of Key West. Families can picnic on the beach, take a swim, or fish from shore. Kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and snorkeling gear can be rented at the park. Bahia Honda State Park has both cabins and campsites available to rent, but since this park is very popular, they fill up fast. If you want to visit, plan to book your trip 11 months in advance. My family spent two weeks in one of their cabins last summer, and it was amazing. Bahia Honda State Park participates in the Junior Ranger program for kids.
Hours: Bahia Honda State Park is open from 8:00 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year.
Admission Fees: $8.00 per vehicle, 2-8 people per vehicle.

So there you have it, a few of my family’s favorite State Parks. I could spend months writing about all the different adventures out there in the Real Florida, but now I want to hear about yours. What are your favorite Florida State Parks?

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2 Responses to Florida State Parks: A Mom’s Guide to Enjoying the Real Florida

  1. Mian Oct 19, 2017 at 6:17 am #

    Whats the situation after the hurricane?

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