Florida Day Trips to Explore the Endless Sunshine

Discovery and adventure await in Florida.

Paddleboarding on a coastal dune lake Paddleboarding on a coastal dune lake. Photos courtesy of VISIT FLORIDA

You already know Florida for its world-class theme parks and famous beaches. But have you met the Sunshine State’s nature-loving, outdoorsy, adventurous side? Quick trips from Florida’s biggest cities take you to the off-the-beaten-path places travelers are craving—with plenty of wide-open spaces and natural wonders to explore. Discover the many adventures waiting under the warm sun with these Florida day-trip ideas from five hub destinations.

Florida day trips from … Panama City Beach

Nestled in the geographic center of Northwest Florida, this Gulf Coast paradise is a favorite of water sports enthusiasts, who go kayaking, paddleboarding, sailing and kiteboarding on sparkling, blue St. Andrews Bay. Just minutes away are the white sands and emerald waters.

Scenic Highway 30A: Head about 30 minutes west to Walton County, where this coastline-hugging two-lane road snakes its way through quaint beach towns, from Rosemary Beach to Dune Allen. You can set out by car or pedal along the 19-mile paved bike path that parallels the road. Delights along the way include picturesque Seaside (where the 1998 movie The Truman Show was filmed), the cheerful resort town of WaterColor and the mile-long sugar-sand beach at Grayton Beach State Park.

Coastal dune lakes: The southern part of Walton County is home to 15 named coastal dune lakes, which are a rare natural feature found only in a few other places on Earth, including New Zealand, Australia and Madagascar. Formed as many as 10,000 years ago by wind redistributing the sand dunes, these shallow lakes are only about 5 feet deep. Grayton Beach and Topsail Hill Preserve state parks both offer access to the dune lakes for fishing, kayaking and paddleboarding or for simply hiking along the shorelines.

Florida day trips from … Jacksonville

In northeast Florida along the Atlantic Coast, Jacksonville has a lively downtown with a thriving food scene and cosmopolitan nightlife. But it also boasts a healthy dose of nature, with roughly 20 miles of wide beaches, the tranquil Intracoastal Waterway channel, the St. Johns River and one of the nation’s largest urban park systems.

St. Augustine: About an hour south of Jacksonville is the European-founded city in the U.S. that’s been continually inhabited the longest. Founded in 1565 by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles of Spain, St. Augustine is a treasure trove of history reflecting the city’s many influences, including African American, English, Greek, Native American and Spanish. Among the must-see sights: Castillo de San Marcos, a masonry fortification built by the Spanish more than 450 years ago; Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, where de Leon is said to have discovered magical healing waters; and the Oldest Wooden School House, which dates to the early 1700s.

Amelia Island: This unspoiled barrier island just north of Jacksonville is 13 miles long and just a quarter-mile wide in some places. The pristine, golden-sand beach may be the star, but Amelia Island’s other natural landscapes (think salt marshes and a coastal maritime forest filled with ancient live oak trees) create a stellar supporting cast. Among the ways to experience the island: kayaking and paddleboarding through the marshes, pedaling along the paved Amelia Island Trail, bird watching along Egans Creek Greenway and hunting for shark teeth on the beaches. Amelia Island is also one of only a handful of places around the country where you can ride horses along the shoreline.

Florida day trips from … Tampa

On Florida’s Gulf Coast, Tampa offers an eclectic mix of delights: a bustling downtown with vibrant nightlife, urban green spaces and sparkling waterways, hair-raising roller coasters, and a culture infused with Cuban and Spanish influences. It’s also a great home base for exploring Florida’s Nature Coast.

Manatees in Crystal River: About 90 minutes north of Tampa, the Crystal River is the only place in the United States where you can legally swim with manatees. Some 400 of these gentle giants make their home here in the winter, since the water temperature is a consistent 72 degrees year-round. (Some manatees even stay through the summer months.) As an endangered species, manatees are heavily protected by law, so be sure to go with a guide who can teach you the proper etiquette for swimming with the creatures. You can also see manatees on a guided boat or kayak tour.

Airboat rides in Crystal River: Another way to experience the flora and fauna of the Crystal River area, airboat rides send you skimming over the surface of the water with the wind whipping your hair. One-hour or 90-minute tours with Ozello Boats take you along the Crystal and Homosassa rivers, where you could see dolphins, sharks, stingrays, sea turtles, alligators, tons of bird species and, of course, manatees.

Florida day trips from … Orlando

The city built on dreams and wonder brings plenty of theme park magic for lovers of Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter, Star Wars, and the Marvel universe. Beyond the parks, Orlando boasts fine-art museums, world-class golf courses and high-end outlet shopping.

Space Coast: Just 45 minutes east of Orlando, the Space Coast region awaits with 72 miles of Atlantic beaches, 20,000 acres of freshwater rivers, Florida’s largest sea turtle habitat, legendary Cocoa Beach (home of the largest Ron Jon Surf Shop) and, of course, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. One of the region’s most magical experiences is a nighttime kayak tour on bioluminescent rivers and lagoons. Chemical reactions within tiny organisms in the water cause them to glow, creating an otherworldly light show. The darkest nights are the best times to go—typically five days after the full moon—between July and September.

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex: No visit to the Space Coast would be complete without diving into the history of U.S. space explorations. The sprawling visitor complex boasts a range of exhibits that take you inside NASA’s pioneering endeavors, from Apollo to the space shuttle program to the Hubble Space Telescope. Get close-up views of Space Shuttle Atlantis and replicas of Mars rovers, experience a simulation of what it’s like to launch into space onboard a shuttle, remember the astronauts of the Challenger and Columbia, and discover the story behind the unsung heroes of the Apollo program: Mission Control. And don’t forget: AAA Members get special discounts on admission.

Florida day trips from … Miami and Fort Lauderdale

These neighboring cities on Florida’s southeastern coast are known for beaches of golden sand, glamorous hotels, and lively arts and entertainment scenes. Miami’s colorful nature comes through in the whimsical architecture of the Art Deco district, the bold murals of Wynwood Walls and the energy of the Little Havana neighborhood. Downtown Fort Lauderdale lures shoppers to Las Olas Boulevard, lined with chic boutiques and sidewalk cafes.

The Palm Beaches: Offering 47 miles of pristine Atlantic Coast beaches nestled along southeast Florida, The Palm Beaches have plenty of miles to space out, and provide the perfect playground for outdoor adventures. Filled with historic splendor, a vibrant blend of cultures, and a lengthy list of one-of-a-kind experiences, the destination boasts genuine hospitality that welcomes everyone.

Among the activities, visitors can immerse themselves in the colorful gardens of Mounts Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach and soak up the unspoiled beauty of Peanut Island, home to the John F. Kennedy Bunker. And in between, dozens more adventures await—from snorkeling in the warm Gulf Stream waters, to walking and bike riding on natural Florida trails, to teeing up at Palm Beach Gardens’ golf haven.

Everglades National Park: Just west of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, this vast park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. It’s a World Heritage Site; an International Biosphere Reserve (jointly with the Dry Tortugas); a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance; and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty. Plus, it’s home to rare and endangered species, including manatees, American crocodiles and Florida panthers. There are many ways to explore, but one of the most fun is via an airboat ride at Sawgrass Recreation Park. Glide over the sawgrass and cattails, and then hold an alligator in the animal exhibit areas. The park is home to more than 100 adopted and rescued mammals and reptiles.

Florida Keys: Leave the mainland, head south via the scenic Overseas Highway (U.S. 1) and go island-hopping in the Florida Keys. Although you could get all the way to Key West in about four hours, instead take your time and plan for plenty of stops along the way. On Key Largo, go snorkeling in the country’s first undersea park, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Visit the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key to see these endangered creatures that stand no more than about 39 inches tall. And on Key West, socialize in Mallory Square, explore the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, and stop in at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. For an even more remote adventure, take the ferry from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park, composed of a group of islands some 70 miles away in the Gulf of Mexico.

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