If you’re looking for a swimming and nature adventure with springs, wildlife, and mermaids (oh my!), then look no further than Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, located off of U.S. 19 in Weeki Wachee, Florida, about an hour north of Tampa. Our article takes you through some of Weeki Wachee’s 70-plus year history in the Sunshine State and tells you what things to do and see at Weeki Wachee.
First, let’s share some highlights and fun facts from the park’s esteemed history:
–Weeki Wachee began when former U.S. Navy man Newton Perry was searching for a site to start a business and eyed U.S. 19, at that time, a small two-lane road. “More alligators and black bears lived in the area than humans,” according to the park’s website. Perry had a background training Navy Frogmen to swim underwater in World War 2, and he began to experiment with underwater breathing hoses and a way to breathe underwater with a free-flowing air hose that supplied oxygen from an air compressor. He also began to hire local young women to train to swim with the air hoses. They would perform by doing aquatic ballets and had spectators watch them from a newly built 18-seat theater. The theater allowed visitors to watch the show but also to view the sparking, clear water from the springs. Weeki Wachee was born and offered its first show in 1947. The name Weeki Wachee means “little spring” or “winding river” in the Seminole Indian language.
–Word spread about Weeki Wachee, and by the 1950s, it was one of the most popular roadside attractions in the U.S. Park attractions included the mermaid shows, orchid gardens, “jungle cruises,” and a new beach. Movies like “Mr Peabody and the Mermaid” were filmed there.
–Believe it or not, ABC (as in the TV network) purchased Weeki Wachee in 1959 and began to promote the park. It built a 400-seat theater still used today located in the side of the spring and 16 feet below the surface. It also developed themes for underwater shows. Potential mermaids came from around the world to try out and perform in shows like, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan.” They gave eight shows a day to sold-out crowds. Find some cool pics of the mermaids and the park at the link here.
–ABC sold the park in 1984 to Florida Leisure Attractions, and it was then sold to Florida Leisure Acquisition Corp. By 2008, it became part of the Florida State Parks System.
–Although not as heralded as it was in the past, Weeki Wachee and its famous mermaids still make appearances throughout pop culture, including in the Kelly Clarkson video for “Stronger,” in a 2023 Netflix documentary called “MerPeople,” and as the backdrop for a Penn and Teller comedy special. During our visit, an appearance of the mermaids during a Jimmy Buffett concert in Tampa was shown before their performance (Buffett even once swam with them).
—Weeki Wachee Springs has the deepest freshwater cave system in the U.S. It’s so deep that the bottom has yet to be found. “Every day, more than 117 million gallons of clear, fresh 74-degree water bubbles up out of subterranean caverns,” according to the park’s website.
Things to Do at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Fast forward to modern times, and just what is there to do at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park? We’re glad you asked. Let’s get some basics out of the way and then we’ll fill you in.
First, the park is open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Expect to pay $13 for each adult and $8 for kids ages 6 to 12. Those 5 and under are free.
When the park reaches its capacity, it will not allow new people in–and it does indeed get busy on certain weekends and holidays. When we arrived around 9 a.m. for our visit over Labor Day weekend, we found a snaking line of people ahead of us. Everyone had to wait (im)patiently beside a variety of mermaid statues.
Once in the park, you’ve got a few different choices:
—Hang out at Buccaneer Beach. The beach area consists of some sand and grassy areas and a decent-sized area in the springs for swimming. Their “lazy river” is a small, roped off area beside the swimming area. There are also water slides that are sure to be a hit for the young’uns. (Note that the water slides are open seasonally, although swimming remains open.) You may wonder if there are alligators at Weeki Wachee when you swim there. The good news is that there are not. They prefer darker waters, not the clear spring water–which is constantly monitored anyways so if something unexpected did come through, park officials would know.
—Take a river cruise. Although we didn’t have a chance to do the river cruise, we feel confident it’s a beautiful ride. The Wilderness River Cruise runs between 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Seating is first-come, first-served.
—Watch the mermaid show. Part of the allure of Weeki Wachee is enjoying the clear springs, and the other allure is its majestic mermaid history. If you’re serious about wanting to discover more mermaid history, then you must check out one of the mermaid shows at 11 a.m. or 3 p.m. There’s no additional cost for the show beyond your admission to the park. When the park is busy, seating fills up quickly in the theater for the shows. Get in line early if you can. While waiting, there are some TV monitors that will show you video and images from the park’s history. The mermaid show itself is visually stunning, both in terms of how the mermaids and other actors move around effortlessly underwater but also for how the springs appear underwater (including fish!). Even if the 30 minute or so show itself isn’t calling out to you (it’s more geared toward kids), it may be worth a visit so you can say you’ve seen an underwater show.
—Learn more about the park’s wildlife in the Ranger Experience. Park rangers will fill you in on local wildlife, including tortoises, snakes, and alligators. It’s a cool, low-key show for the animal lovers in your group, taking place at 10 a.m., noon and 2:15 p.m. daily.
—Go kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding. Enjoy the springs and Weeki Wachee River (which flows 12 miles into the Gulf of Mexico) by renting a kayak or stand-up paddleboard. Rentals are available from Weeki Fresh Water Adventures, or the company can help you launch your own equipment if you have it. The kayaking and paddleboarding experiences in the river are said to be easy even for beginners. One tip: Use non-disposable food and water containers for your river adventure; throwaway, single-use items aren’t allowed. Find out more about that rule here.
—Grab a bite to eat. You can bring a picnic to Buccaneer Bay or grab something to eat at the Mermaid Galley, Captain’s Quarters, Pirate’s Grubb, Snack Shack, or Tiki Bar.
The park also has a gift shop, restrooms, a shower station (good for getting sand off before driving home), and a playground. Plus, there are a couple of mermaid statues where you can pose and snap a few pics.
A Few Final Tips for Your Visit to Weeki Wachee
–Arrive early for cooler temperatures and fewer crowds. The beach area gets crowded as well, which is another reason to arrive early.
–Use the park map to help you. It’s available in this brochure, but we prefer the map we received onsite. See a picture of it earlier in this story.
–Kids’ floatation devices (including life jackets) are allowed in the park; other floatation devices are not allowed but can be rented at the park. Get the skinny on park rules here.
–Have everyone in your party with you when you purchase admission to the park.
–It’s OK to bring food and drinks to the park, but keep them in outside areas (such as the beach).
–Know that admission fees are non-refundable, including for bad weather.
–If you like the somewhat kitschy, historical feel of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, consider visiting Silver Springs State Park, which was once operated by the same company as Weeki Wachee. Silver Springs, located in Ocala, also has a long history in Florida and even became famous in Hollywood movies and TV shows. Find out more about Silver Springs State Park in our article here.
–Sorry, wanna-be mermaids….costumes aren’t allowed in the park!
Central Florida’s Lakeland, located off of Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando, makes for a great day trip or weekend destination. If you’ve visited Lakeland in the past or lived there years ago as we once did, you’ll be surprised to see how much it’s evolved in recent years.
Before we share some of our top picks to visit during your Lakeland visit, let’s share a few interesting facts:
–Lakeland gets its name because (shocker) it has a lot of lakes.…38 of them within city limits as well as some smaller ones. The biggest lake is Lake Parker.
–Lakeland is home to the corporate offices for Publix, the behemoth supermarket associated with Florida as much as our alligators, a mouse called Mickey, and sunshine. Find out more about Publix history here.
–In 1956, Elvis Presley performed at the Polk Theatre in the downtown.
–Munnville, Redbug (named for the harvest mite insects once found there), and Rome City were all names proposed for Lakeland. We think people got it right by sticking with the current name!
–Lakeland High School has a beast of a football team and prior to the 2023-2024 season, it ranked 56 nationally, according to MaxPreps.
–In 2023, Lakeland was ranked #3 as a boomtown in the U.S. by LendingTree, due to its fast growth. It ranked even higher than Jacksonville and North Port, the two other Florida cities in the top 10. Metro Lakeland currently has 364,000 residents. Expansion at Publix and a nearby Amazon hub as well as its proximity to other major Florida cities and counties make it attractive to many. Plus, it’s more affordable than many Florida coastal areas.
8 Things to See and Do Around Lakeland
So, whether you’re checking out Lakeland as a potential place to live or you just need a getaway, here are 8 places you should see.
Circle B Bar Reserve
There are places in Florida with alligators, and then there are places with ALLIGATORS. We don’t necessarily mean a difference in gator size but just in quantity and how, well, wild the place feels. Circle B Bar Reserve fits into the ALLIGATOR category. The reserve is is truly the alligators’ home, and we’re just visiting it. Plus, you’ll find tons of birds and other wildlife. Circle B has a mix of trails from which to choose, whether you want an easy stroll with kids or you want to take your time to get nature shots (you’ll find many birders and photographers there). As always, we recommend going early and bringing water, sunscreen, and bug spray. Stay AWAY from any gators, even if they are blocking the trail, which happened to us last time. Show them respect and just turn around to go the other way! Find out more about Circle B in our previous story here.
Florida Southern College
Florida Southern College has been named one of the prettiest campuses in the U.S., and we can see why. It’s situated right beside scenic Lake Hollingsworth, and it’s home to the biggest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the world. In fact, the college even offers architectural tours and has a special visitors’ area where you can find out more about Wright’s buildings there. Home to about 3,000 students, if you still want to see more after your campus stroll, there’s a trail around Lake Hollingsworth, and there are some cute historic homes to see in the adjacent Lake Morton neighborhood.
If you’re into campus tours (self-guided or with others), then you should also visit Southeastern University, a growing Christian college also located in Lakeland. The campus has expanded a lot in recent years (it now has 8000+ students) and added a football stadium, Victory Field, in 2014. The campus architecture has a more modern feel to it with some peaceful touches like butterfly sculptures. Plus, there’s a Chick-fil-A on campus–need we say more?!
The Swans at Lake Morton
Swan City, baby! Lakeland is home to about 80 swans that live on Lake Morton in the downtown area. Believe it or not, #SwanLife in Lakeland started in 1926, when the city even established a Swan Department to care for the 20 swans living there. Unfortunately, they were dying out due to alligators, chemicals, and other reasons. Then, Queen Elizabeth II gifted two swans to the city in 1957. Here’s a link to an interesting story about how the swans got to Lakeland. Since then their ranks have increased, and you’ll notice that Lake Morton is also now home to a bevy of other birds, including ibises, ducks, and others. The city continues to monitor the swans’ health and rounds them up once a year to check on them. Visiting the swans to feed them or take pictures (at a respectful distance, please) is just part of Lakeland living. You’ll also find swan statues around Lakeland in honor of their historical role.
Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market
If you’re into farmers markets, you’re in for a real treat. We’ve watched Lakeland’s Downtown Farmers Curb Market on Saturdays grow into a big, popular happening. You’ll find ready-made food, produce, artisans, and lots of fun music and people watching. The market is located in the ever-changing downtown area (plan to stick around a bit and check out some nearby shops and restaurants), and it’s open 11 months out of the year. The market closes in August. Find a map of the market’s location here.
Hollis Garden offers an oasis of calm in a crazy world. Located in downtown right beside Barnett Family Park, the manicured 1.2 acres of Hollis Garden offers a free, public botanical garden with more than 10,000 flowers, native trees, and ornamental shrubs When we visited, the park was piping in some classical music, and we could take our time wandering the garden paths and looking out at Lake Mirror. We saw one family taking pictures there for a daughter’s quinceañera (15th birthday party celebration), so it’s definitely a place to keep in mind if you want special pictures. Just double check some of its photo rules online. You can also hop onto a path to extend your walk around the lake. If you’re visiting nearby Barnett Family Park for the kids, a quick stop at Hollis Garden could help you regain your composure! Check the schedule online as Hollis is closed on Mondays.
Safari Wilderness Ranch
See nature up close….like real close! Safari Wilderness Ranch brings you face-to-face with some of the most famous safari animals you can think of, like zebras, water buffalo, lemurs, gazelles, and more. Choose from a drive-thru safari experience (if you’ve been to Lion Country Safari in the Palm Beach area, it’s similar), an open-air tour with a group, a camel tour, an ATV and even a kayak tour. The animals live on 260 acres and roam freely, often in herds. Plus, we see that they now offer camping. Double check prices before you book as it’s not cheap, but Safari Wilderness definitely an unforgettable experience. Here’s a link to another time that we wrote about Safari Wilderness Ranch.
Common Ground Playground
If you’re on the go with kids, then you’ll definitely want to make time to visit Common Ground Playground, geared toward children of all ages and abilities. We remember visiting Common Ground not long after it opened and were impressed by the wide range of equipment in this “inclusive play experience,” as its website describes it. It’s a pretty big playground, so have a plan in place to keep your eye on wandering kiddos.
Want to see where wild horses and buffalo roam? You don’t need to buy a ticket to go out west. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville boasts a population of more than 50 wild bison as well as wild horses, alligators, and almost 300 species of birds. Here’s the scoop on its history and what to know before you visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.
History of Paynes Prairie Preserve — and How Did the Buffalo Get There?
As far back as 1774, naturalist and artist William Bartram wrote about the land that is now Paynes Prairie Preserve, calling it “the great Alachua Savannah.” Yet even before his writing, Native Americans (including members of the Seminole tribe) called the land that is now Paynes Prairie home, dating back 15,000 years. The land also was valued by Spanish explorers. The landscape that makes up Paynes Prairie has always attracted such interest because of its unique mix of marsh land, wet prairie, and open water, according to the park website. It 21,000 acres is also home to 430 vertebrate species. The park has 20 unique biological areas.
In 1971, Paynes Prairie became the state’s first official preserve. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2021.
Although Paynes Prairie is in the Gainesville area, it’s officially in the town of Micanopy (mick-a-no-pee), which has a charming small downtown area and was recently named one of Florida’s most charming small towns by Travel + Leisure. You can easily combine a day or two visit to both Paynes Prairie and Micanopy. Find out more about Micanopy here.
But what about one of the preserve’s most famous inhabitants, the bison? They were actually introduced to Paynes Prairie in the mid-1970s, after the land became a preserve. The wild horses are said to be descendants of the horses brought to the area by Spanish explorers. And the alligators? As you likely know, they are long-time residents in many, many areas of the Sunshine State, but places like Paynes Prairie give you a closer-up view.
What to Expect When You Visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
With its massive size, Paynes Prairie has a lot to offer, including:
–Hiking along its 10 trails
–Camping near Lake Wauburg
–Biking along the 16-mile Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail
–Horseback riding along the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail
–Spending time at the nature center
The trick is knowing where to go depending on what you want to do. The park’s many trails do not all branch out from the same location, which is why you may want to decide in advance what you want to do. Here is a link to a map of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park to help you plan ahead.
Alligator Spotting at Paynes Prairie
If your focus is wildlife photography, particularly alligators, the best recommendation is La Chua Trail, located beside a smaller residential community. The trail is 3 miles round trip. La Chua takes you briefly through a small stable (no animals in it; it’s a nod to the area’s cattle and horsing heritage), followed by a long boardwalk that goes over a marsh area. Then, the Alachua Sink is home to alligators sunning themselves. On the trail, you also encounter a platform that overlooks Alachua Lake. In recent times during our visit, part of the trail has been closed due to flooding or other reasons.
On our first two visits to La Chua Trail, both in late August, we actually didn’t see any alligators. Yet on a recent June visit during alligator mating season (from April to June), we saw literally dozens. They were sunning themselves in the water and occasionally jamming each other out of the way while we humans remained on an elevated boardwalk. A whole gaggle of them (perhaps 10 in one area) hanging out while we humans–either photographers or birdwatchers–stayed mesmerized by them. They were close to us but at the same time distant as we were elevated above water level. Yet watching them naturally interact and seeing so many at a time was truly memorable.
Observation Tower and Visitor Center
If you want to really learn more about Paynes Prairie and try to see the wild bison, then go to the park’s main entrance. You’ll pay $4 to $6 at the ranger station, and drive a couple miles back to the Visitor Center. The rustic and recently renovated Visitor Center has historical information, exhibits, and “home on the range” type views that look out on to the prairie where the bison are often found. We strongly recommend the Visitor Center because of several cool features, including a gorgeous film that gives background on the park. If you have just arrived at the park, you’ll get your bearings at the center and you can check out the huge map of the park there. If you watch the film after walking around, the film gives you a short respite to cool off. The Visitor Center also has a visitor log (so you can see where people are from) and a nature log (where people can note the type of animals they have seen). From the Visitor Center’s back patio, you can take in the view and make your way down to Cones Dike trail to go toward the prairie.
Less than a five-minute walk away is the observation tower, where you up your chances of getting a great view of the bison if they are on the prairie.
The park’s main entrance includes the campground, several other trails, and Lake Wauburg. Although we weren’t camping there, it was interesting to look around the camping area and its fishing pier, barbecue area, amphitheater, and other amenities.
As you get to know the park, feel free to explore some of the park’s additional trails outside of the main park area. In addition to La Chua, these include Bolen Buff Trail, the Ecopassage Observation Boardwalk (really more of a scenic view than a trail), and the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail. Of note, the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail is paved and goes on for 16 miles. It’s a historical railbed between Gainesville and Hawthorne and is popular with bikers. However, the trail also has a grassy area, making it great for multiuse.
We explored Bolen Buff Trail (2.5 miles roundtrip) once to take a chance at seeing wild horses or the bison herd. Alas, no spottings, but we did see recent animal dung from one of these famous inhabitants.
8 Tips for Your Visit to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
We absolutely recommend a visit to Paynes Prairie to see “wild” Florida or for wildlife photography or birding. Here are a few tips to follow to help you plan your visit.
- Have a few dollars on hand. We know, who carries cash? The park entrance areas outside of the main entrance request that visitors pay up to $4 per vehicle, placed in a blue envelope. Once you pay, you can take a tag to hang in your car. It’s an honor system. There may be a way you can handle this transaction online instead, but we didn’t see how. Hence, have some cash on hand. For the main park admission, you can pay online.
- Know in advance that the major wildlife sightings are not guaranteed. Our big motivation is getting those primo wildlife shots, such as alligators, horses, and bison. We saw the buffalo from far away during our first visit. They were so far, even our telephoto lens on a nice camera couldn’t capture a clear shot. That said, we spotted a deer right away during one visit, and we’ve seen many types of birds. As mentioned before, there was no luck spotting alligators our first two visits and then we hit the gator jackpot the third time. Sometimes, it’s just dumb luck to see the animals you want to see.
- Know that weather may affect what you can do. If you visit in the summer (aka, Florida’s rainy season), water levels may affect certain trails. That’s what happened twice for us on La Chua Trail. On Cones Dike Trail, in the main park area, the walk lasted just a couple minutes before it started to get muddy (again, from rain).
- Use the park’s map to help show you where to go. Seasoned hikers likely already know this, but here’s a tip for the less experienced among us. You can have a link to park maps on your phone but also take a screenshot of them. That way, if internet signal is not available, you still know where the heck you are going. As mentioned earlier, use the maps to plan your visit as the options at Paynes are diverse.
- Find out which trails allow you to bring your best canine friend and which ones don’t. Understandably, not all trails allow pets because of the wild animals living there. Per the park map we have seen, Cones Dike, Bolen Buff, and La Chua trails do NOT allow animals. The Lake, Chacala, Jackson’s Gap, Ecopassage Boardwalk, and Gatesville-Hawthorne trails allow your favorite Fido or Fluffy.
- If you are fortunate enough to spot alligators, bison, or horses, leave them alone. They are not Disney characters. This is real-deal nature!
- Bring water, sunscreen, bug spray, and maybe snacks. The first three items should be obvious for anytime you’re out in Florida nature. Snacks are useful if you plan to be at Paynes Prairie for a while. That’s also because your food options are limited unless you drive a few minutes into Gainesville in one direction or into downtown Micanopy in the other direction.
- Check out the Observation Boardwalk if you don’t have time for a full park visit. The Ecopassage Observation Boardwalk (area 8 if you’re looking at the map) is just minutes from Interstate 75. In fact, you can see I-75 off in the distance when you stop there. The boardwalk, located off of 441, offers panoramic views of Alachua Lake, where you may spot fish, gators, and birds. It’s a great way to take a scenic break, especially if your visit to the area doesn’t include a longer park visit.
There are lots of great reasons to visit downtown St. Pete, Florida. If you’re looking for a good excuse to visit on a Saturday morning, there’s the Saturday Morning Market. Packed with more than140 vendors, you’ll have no shortage of food, artisans, and fun.
There are many other farmers/open-air markets in the Tampa Bay area, but we’re pretty sure the Saturday Morning Market is the biggest among them. It draws about 10,000 visitors each week, according to Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. The market website reports that it has more types of ready-to-eat food than any other U.S. market. That includes Belgian, German, Greek, Ethiopian, vegetarian, and many more.
The Saturday Morning Market in St. Pete is open 9 am to 2 pm October through May and 9 am to 1 pm June through September.
The Saturday Morning Market in downtown St. Pete combines ready-made foods from around the world along with Florida-based farm vendors and local artisans selling jewelry and other art. Here’s just a sampling of what to expect:
—Mr. Fun Guy, featuring mushrooms ready to eat and in powder and extract form
—Gulf Coast Sourdough, selling delectable baked goods like bread
—Worden Farms, a Punta Gorda-based organic farm famous for its wide selection and colorful sunflowers
—Big Crush Slush, with hand-crafted citrus and ginger seltzer drinks
—Mitch Armstrong Nursery, which sells a variety of plants including butterfly vines and succulents
We could go on, but you get the idea. Find the full vendor list here, which also serves as a map for the market.
One other cool thing at the Saturday Morning Market–or really, any farmers/open-air market–is the people watching. The St. Pete crowd has a nutty-crunchy, younger feel to it compared with some of the other nearby markets. A visitor buys coffee and an empanada for their breakfast while weaving through the market with their dog (more on the dogs a little further down). Parents with their young kid in a stroller amble while checking out Florida-grown produce. Another visitor enjoys a vegan smoothie as an antidote for the Florida sun while sitting and listening to the market’s live music. (Check the market website for details on weekly entertainment, available most times of the year except the summer.)
Saturday Morning Market’s Location in Downtown St. Pete
One thing to keep in mind with the Saturday Morning Market is that it changes location seasonally. In the summer, it moves to Williams Park (350 2nd Ave. North), which has more shade. There are usually fewer vendors in the summer, although the market remains big year-round. The rest of the year, the market takes place in the parking lot of the Al Lang Stadium (230 First St. S.). There’s on-street parking and some parking garages near both locations. For on-street parking, you may have to use and pay via the Park Mobile app.
5 Tips for a Great Visit to St. Pete’s Saturday Morning Market
For an enjoyable visit to the Saturday Morning Market, here are a few tips:
- Arrive early. This piece of advice serves you well in many situations so you can easily find parking, keep crowds to a minimum, and avoid Florida’s midday sun.
- Know where you’re going. If you plan to come to the market and just wander, kudos! We support you. If you’re more of a planner or you have a limited amount of time, use the market map online to scope out vendors you know you want to visit.
- Bring sun protection, reusable bags and a cooler. A reusable bag is an easy, sustainable way to carry your market goods. The sun protection is, well, obviously needed in the Sunshine State. A small cooler will help if you’re buying perishable items and plan to stay at the market for a while or have a long drive back home. You don’t necessarily need to carry the cooler with you, just have it in the car.
- Think in advance about bringing Fido. The Saturday Market is dog-friendly, which is great. Our beef is that we see many dogs that look hot in the Florida sun, with their tongues wagging way too far. Thankfully, many vendors have water bowls for your canine friends. Yet think in advance if you really want to bring Fido or Fluffy. The sun can make the asphalt temperature reach 100 degrees or above, dangerous for your dog’s paws. If your dog is a heat-sensitive breed, older, has joint issues, or is iffy about crowds or other dogs, they’ll probably be happier at home.
- Consider making a day of your St. Pete visit. In addition to its nearby famous beaches, there’s a lot to do in downtown St. Pete. We share a few suggestions below.
More Things to Do in or Near Downtown St. Pete
While you’re in town, consider playing tourist with a few other attractions:
––St. Pete Pier: The beautiful redone pier features a splash ground for the kids, a restaurant, a gorgeous view of Tampa Bay, special events, nature spotting and lots more. On the weekend, the pier even has its own small craft market. The St. Pete Pier is about a 10-minute walk from the market’s Al Lang Stadium location, although you’ll walk at least another 10 minutes from the start of the pier to the end of it. Consider using the pier’s free tram if you want to save steps.
—Salvador Dali Museum. This world-famous museum features art work from the famous Spanish artist as well as like-minded artists.
—James Museum. Consider this museum if you enjoy Western art, featuring the West’s open spaces, cowboys, and Native Americans.
—Chihuly Collection at Morean Arts Center, feature Dale Chihuly’s glass art.
—Downtown murals. The Central Arts District has a cool collection of murals to check out, but also keep your eyes open for street art all around the city.
If your visit to the Saturday Morning Market merely whets your appetite for more open-air/farmers markets, then you’re in luck. St. Pete Beach has a Sunday market, the weekend Pinellas Flea and Farmers Market in Clearwater features a large number of Asian food vendors, and there’s an active network of Tampa Bay markets. Plus, we’ve got the scoop right here on markets in the nearby Bradenton/Sarasota area, including the popular Sarasota Farmers Market on Saturdays and Farmers’ Market at Lakewood Ranch on Sundays.
Myakka River State Park in Sarasota is popular for its vast open land and abundant wildlife–including an estimated 4,000 alligators that call it home.
While there’s lots to do at Myakka River State Park, photography is one activity that lures shutterbugs from around the world. In fact, photographer Clyde Butcher began to take his famous black and white photos at Myakka River State Park just a few years ago. His time in Myakka contrasted and complemented the oodles of pics he’s taken down in the Everglades. (Fun fact: He now has a darkroom, gallery, and studio in nearby Venice.)
As Myakka River State Park is so large–58 square miles with more than 39 miles of hiking trails–you may wonder where are some particularly key spots if you want to get great photos, including those of its famous gators (at a safe distance, of course). Here’s where our guide below comes in handy.
Our list is by no means exhaustive. We’ve been to Myakka River State Park many times, but we haven’t explored its more remote trails nor have we camped there. Feel free to comment and add additional areas at the park that you think are perfect for your pics, whether you use a smartphone or a fancy-schmancy camera (we use both).
Using the main entrance at Myakka Park off of SR72, you’ve got about a four-mile drive toward the concession area and Myakka River. About halfway there is a bridge that overlooks a wide swatch of water where you can literally see dozens of gators at once. On some days, you may visit and see a handful of gators resting in the water or gently gliding. On others, you hit the jackpot and will see many gators in all states of activity. We recently caught one large gator bellowing (a loud, scary sound) before getting a smaller gator in front of it to move. We also saw another gator who literally travelled with an island–a somewhat small patch of land that was on top of its body. (Visit our Instagram page, @Florida_Culture, for videos of these encounters.)
Part of the fun at the bridge area is people watching, especially for those visiting from out of town who are seeing alligators for the first time. Just be smart and don’t head down below the bridge! It’s a sure way to tempt fate and you’re not guaranteed solid ground to escape quickly from these apex predators.
There’s a quieter, small turn-off on the left past the bridge area called Fisherman’s Loop that can be terrific for photos, whether it’s looking out onto the open fields, watching the trees, or scouting for gators in the creek. We’d almost say it’s a secret area but we recently have seen more people there–so, not really a secret but best enjoyed early before more people come. As the name implies, Fisherman’s Loop has a small loop-shaped parking lot, a picnic table, some benches, and some walking trails. Every time we’ve gone, we’ve seen gators. We also recently saw a family of wild hogs, including babies, in the woods. Watch the water and you’ll notice a gator hanging out in the water under some large tree branches. You’ll also see them glide by in the water and then stop and rest. You can see all this from a slightly elevated vantage point as you look down at the creek.
Fisherman’s Loop is enjoyable as it’s quiet and more intimate than the bridge area, but again Use your telephoto lens or zoom, and keep a safe distance. Although gators aren’t actively looking to attack–they’re actually quite shy–you don’t want to risk taking extra steps and falling in the water.
Myakka River and Concession Area
After driving the four miles into the park to where it meets Myakka River, you’ve got several choices on what to do next, all of which offer some great potential pictures. Spend time right on the edge of Myakka River, and you’ll likely get some terrific bird shots. The birdwatching folks we’ve seen there can fill you in on what’s hanging out. If it’s in operation, the Myakka River Boat Tour will give you a few right on the water. (As of April 2023, the water levels were low so the boat tour wasn’t operational.) There are often alligators that hang out in the water, near where the boats dock. You can also take a tram for an interior view of the park; call in advance or look online to find out its hours.
From the area beside Myakka River, you can venture off into the woods onto some trails where you’ll find wildflowers and gators sunning themselves in the water and on land that’s on the other side of where you’re walking. Watch out for dragonflies, honeybees, and more.
And perhaps it’s not photo worthy, but a stop at the gift shop never hurts. The restrooms also are located there as are kayak and bike rentals.
After getting damaged by Hurricane Ian in September 2022, Myakka River State Park reopened the birdwalk boardwalk in April/May 2023. The birdwalk takes you closer to Myakka River so you can watch the birds and other wildlife.
As you walk along the peaceful boardwalk/birdwalk, you’ll also find a picture from the park of the different types of birds you can find in the park, like ibises, herons, and many more. Here’s more info from the park about the birdwalk.
Plus, there’s a small walking trail adjacent to the boardwalk that will take you toward the river, where you still might get some good pictures. FYI, we’ve found that Friends of Myakka River, either on its website or on social media, has done a great job of updating everyone on the state of the park during its hurricane restoration.
The Canopy Walkway
Myakka River State Park has a famous canopy walkway that gives you a bird’s eye view of the land around it. It’s a popular attraction and definitely worth the five-minute or so walk from the road once you park. You’ll see some cool angles for pics when you’re there. The Canopy itself also was damaged during Hurricane Ian and hasn’t yet reopened. However, the trails around it are open. We hope the Canopy is fixed and reopens soon.
The Open Fields
There’s a time period in the spring, usually in or around May, when Myakka’s open fields are filled with brightly colored flowers. We’ve seen people do photo shoots in the fields of themselves or with their kids or dogs. Whether you’re looking for a selfie spot or just nature shots, seeing the fields of flowers are definitely worth it. Just check in advance to make sure they are in bloom. Even if they’re not, Myakka’s open fields are still interesting. We spotted a group of wild turkeys in the same spot during our past two visits and got a few shots.
Deep Hole is a permit-only area of Myakka River State Park that allows up to 30 visitors a day. Show up at the park first thing in the morning to get a permit. It’s about a two-mile walk to get to Deep Hole, so plan accordingly with your water, sunscreen, bug spray, and camera equipment. The walk there may remind you of views from Africa, with open savana-like areas. Deep Hole itself is an area filled with alligators, which is why it attracts committed visitors. Be ready with good walking shoes and use a good telephoto lens instead of getting too close. Here’s a video from Sarah’s Outdoor Adventures with more info on Deep Hole and getting the permit.
Some Final Tips for a Great Visit to Myakka River State Park
–-If you have something specific you want to do, call the park in advance to make sure it’s open. As you may have guessed, many activities in the park are weather-dependent or may still be recovering from Hurricane Ian. You may or may not find the info you seek on the main website for the park, which is why we advise calling.
—Remember that you’re not at a theme park and those aren’t animatronic gators. The alligators at Myakka are very real. When you go to Myakka, you’re visiting their home so act accordingly. Keep a safe distance and leave them alone. We’re not trying to nag but there has been an increase in gator attacks in the past year or so as more people move to Florida and may not know how to give them the respect and distance they deserve. As the park brochure says, “Do not approach, tease, frighten, touch or feed”…and that applies to all wildlife there.
—Keep pets on a six-foot, handheld leash–or leave them at home. Your favorite Fido is allowed in limited areas of the park, with good reason due to all of the wildlife there.
—Have a little bit of money handy (or your card). If you’re traveling there alone by car, it’s a $4 entry fee; $6 if you’re with a car full of people. You can also pay your admission fee in advance online. The tram and the boat rides each cost $22 each for adults and $12 for kids.
–-Visit at different times of the year. Due to changing weather, you could get a completely different experience. That can make for some great variations in the photos you take.
—Plan to use the main gate off of SR72. There’s a north gate that’s only open 8 am to 5 pm on the weekend and during state holidays.
For more info on the wonders of Myakka River State Parks, here are some links to our previous stories:
Let us know in the comment section if you have other photo-worth places in the park you like to visit.
Wildflower at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota.
Looking for a cute small town to visit in Florida? You’ve got your pick! Even though high-rise development is famous for creeping along the coasts of Florida and residential communities are moving further inland, there are still many areas of the Sunshine State that retain small-town charm. Whether you want to visit these areas for a day trip, a weekend stay, or for move-in potential (#RemoteWork), you’ve got your choices.
Our list of seven cute small towns in Florida is by no means a complete list. These are some of our faves, but we can expand the list in the future. Plus, there are many other charming small towns right here in Florida that we’d still like to visit. Let us know if you know of other cute small towns in Florida you’d like us to feature.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
7 Charming Small Towns in Florida
Location: Northeast Florida, about 45 minutes south of Jacksonville, 2 hours south of Orlando, and 3 hours away from Tampa
America’s oldest city aka St. Augustine, established in 1513, offers a ton of history along with nearby beachy fun. The downtown commercial area features St. George Street, a busy pedestrian-friendly street with stores and restaurants. Nearby is Castillo de San Marcos, a Spanish fort constructed in 1695. Take advantage of Old Town Trolley Tours to get an enjoyable, complete lowdown on St. Augustine’s history. Take pictures at the Bridge of Lions (complete with lion statues) that crosses over the Matanzas River. Matanzas means “massacre” in Spanish, so that gives you some sense of the violent history in St. Augustine (explorers and pirates and ghosts, oh my!). In fact, the city is said to be haunted, and there are both walking and trolley ghost tours at night. When you’ve had enough history, you’re just minutes away from beautiful St. Augustine Beach, the St. Augustine Lighthouse (it’s haunted, too) and Vilano Beach. The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park is a pretty cool destination as well. Tip: For an early morning treat, get to the St. Augustine Pier to watch the sunrise.
More reading: Here Are Six Things to Do When You Visit St. Augustine
Location: About 30 minutes south of Sarasota and 90 minutes from Tampa
Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast is more well-known than Venice, but Sarasota continues to grow like wildfire. So, if we’re talking about small towns, we’ll focus this time on Venice, which has somewhat of an Italian flair just like the city of the same name in Italy. Venice is a retiree mecca, with its cute downtown, a vibrant weekly farmers market, sunny weather, and popular beaches. In fact, Venice is known as the “Shark Tooth Capital of the World” because of the millions of shark teeth that have been found on its beaches through the years, including Venice Beach (great pier) and Caspersen Beach. Within downtown, you’ve got a couple of popular breakfast spots, including Croissant & Co., which had a waiting line outside one recent weekend. You’ll also find several Italian restaurants and Abondanza, an Italian deli/store. Tip: Sea Pleasures & Treasures in the downtown area sells your typical beach souvenirs but also has an interesting display of shark teeth and alligator heads.
Anna Maria Island
Location: A little over an hour south of Tampa, about 2 1/2 hours from Naples
Travel + Leisure has named Anna Maria one of the best small towns in Florida, but we locals have known that for a long time. What was once an Old Florida secret has now become a must-see destination on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Located near Bradenton Beach and near Sarasota, Anna Maria Island has gorgeous beaches and a family feel. You can enjoy a drink right on the beach at places like The Sandbar or cast a line at the Anna Maria City Pier or the Rod ‘N’ Reel Pier, both of which also have restaurants on site. The piers look onto Tampa Bay and Skyway Bridge, a picturesque large bridge that carries traffic from Manatee County into St. Pete. Visitors to Anna Maria enjoy “the good life” with regular bikes and walks and shopping at areas like Pine Avenue. Tip: As word has gotten out about Anna Maria, traffic has increased. Leave early in the day for less traffic and to make it easier to find parking, especially if you’re going to places like Bean Point at the tip of the island. If you don’t have any luck, make it over to nearby Holmes Beach, Bradenton Beach, or Coquina Beach, where parking is more abundant.
More reading: 9 Free Things to Do on Anna Maria Island
Location: About 20 minutes from Gainesville and 90 minutes from Jacksonville
Micanopy (pronounced mic-ah-no-pee) is a small town near Gainesville (home to the University of Florida) that’s filled with a few antique shops, some cute restaurants, a historical society, and the Herlong Mansion, a bed and breakfast. It’s truly a small Southern town with a lot of history. Yet if you want to expand your experience, visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, which also has a Micanopy address. The expansive preserve has wild horses and bison, several trails, a visitor center, and a cool observation tower where you just may catch a view of the buffaloes roaming. Travel + Leisure also named Micanopy one of the best Florida small towns. Tip: You may be able to spot gators at Paynes Prairie, but keep in mind that some trails get flooded and may be closed during the rainy season in the summer.
More reading: Things to See and Do in Micanopy, Florida
Location: About a half hour from Sarasota and an hour south of Tampa
Florida is known for its fresh seafood and fish, but there aren’t that many authentic fishing villages still around. Cortez is a real fishing village, located just minutes away from Anna Maria Island. Cortez is not your destination if you’re looking for shopping or sunning yourself on the beach, although you can get all of that just minutes away on Anna Maria Island or at Bradenton Beach. Instead, go to Cortez for history and some really good seafood. Star Fish Company and Tide Tables are two standouts in Cortez for your shrimp and grits or grouper sandwich, and you may spot commercial fishing boats as well as fishing charters and recreational boaters while you eat. The commercial fishermen are busy catching mullet, grouper, and stone crab, according to this interesting article about Cortez. Make the Florida Maritime Museum part of your visit for the lowdown on the town’s history. Tip: Celebrate Cortez all you want during its annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival, typically held in February and attracting 20,000 people daily.
More reading: Commercial Fishing Still a Way of Life in Cortez
Location: About 45 minutes north of Tampa and about two hours from Ocala
Opa! Tarpon Springs celebrates its Greek and sponge diving heritage. This seaside town has a long history of sponge divers who dive for–you guessed it–sea sponges, used in cosmetics and for bathing. That, along with the long history of Greek natives who came to call Tarpon Springs home, give Tarpon Springs a special flare. On a sunny day, with Greek music piping out of some stores, you may even convince yourself you’re in Greece. Save room for a Greek meal or a dessert like baklava. Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral is a gathering place for the local community and is interesting to see.
More reading: Here Are 5 Things to Do in Tarpon Springs
Location: About an hour and 20 minutes south of Sarasota; about two hours north of Naples
Boca Grande, located on Gasparilla Island and north of Fort Myers, is less well known than places like Fort Myers or Sarasota, but we think they like to keep it that way. This exclusive waterside enclave has welcomed well-known residents and visitors, from University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban to the Bushes (as in, the presidential family). Boca Grande is home to a walkable, quaint downtown area with some cute shops and restaurants as well as beach areas and a lighthouse. (Actually, there are two lighthouses in the general vicinity). The Gasparilla Inn is an upscale place to stay and features The Pink Elephant Restaurant and a few other places to eat. Boca Grande incurred some damage during Hurricane Ian in September 2022 but appears to have generally recovered.
More reading: 7 Things to Do in Boca Grande, Florida
If you’re planning a vacation to Bradenton Beach in Southwest Florida, then you’ll want to find out all there is to see and do in this beautiful beach town right on the Gulf of Mexico.
To give you some context, Bradenton Beach is located just minutes away from Sarasota, Lakewood Ranch, and Bradenton. Of course, those could be some long minutes if you’re caught in snowbird traffic (“snowbird” is the nickname for the retirees, often from the Midwest New York, or Canada, who live in Florida for part of the year).
Bradenton Beach is located on Anna Maria Island, which is home to the town of Anna Maria, Holmes Beach, and Bradenton Beach. Anna Maria is well known and often celebrated for its “old Florida” feel and family atmosphere. We agree that it’s terrific, but don’t forget about the rest of “the island,” as locals call it.
Just south of Bradenton Beach, once you cross over Longboat Pass Bridge, is the tony beachside town of Longboat Key.
When you cross the Cortez Road bridge into Bradenton Beach, you’ll definitely get a small beach town feel, as the Gulf of Mexico view is visible ahead of you and you see pedestrians making their way to lunch or dinner The Beach House, a well-known restaurant right on the Gulf.
Tourists (who wear swimsuits even if winter temperatures are in the 60s–“Yikes!” exclaim Florida natives) stroll along to make their way back to their Bradenton Beach hotel or rental and stop for ice cream along the way. If you make your way down Bridge Street, you can find a treasure trove of shopping (more on Bridge Street in our tips below).
The Bradenton Beach area is so scenic that a few movies have been filmed nearby, including “Out of Time” with Denzel Washington. We’ve seen local restaurants that once had signs that said, “Denzel Washington ate here.”
Here’s our guide for what’s fun to see and do when you visit Bradenton Beach.
7 To-Do Tips for a Visit to Bradenton Beach, Florida
—Hang out at the beach. Well, this is an obvious tip, right? The good news is that there’s some nuance to it. “Bradenton Beach” isn’t just one stretch of beach in town. Although much of the beach area is called “Bradenton Beach,” there’s a smaller stretch called Cortez Beach that we like for fishing, picture taking, and hanging out the beach without too many people (usually). Then there’s Coquina Beach, a popular stretch of beach that includes a ton of parking, a playground, picnic areas, and a restaurant. Coquina Beach also features some shady spots. Arrive early if you want to make Coquina Beach your destination and you plan to use one of the grills or if you want a good parking spot.
Whatever beach area you pick or can find parking at, you’re likely in for a treat. The Gulf waters are usually clear or turquoise, and you’ll find white or light-colored sand. Although the waters can get fierce during a bad storm or any other turbulence in the Gulf, most of the time it’s smooth sailing and swimming. As you may know, the Gulf is known for its calm waters versus the Atlantic side’s waves.
—Watch a sunset. If you’ve come to the west coast of Florida, then you probably know that you’re in for a sunset treat. On your phone, check your weather app to verify what time you can watch the sunset or visit this site. In the summer, it can be as late as 8 or 8:30 pm. In the winter, it’s closer to 5:30 or 5:45. Anywhere on the beach is a good place to be to watch the sun quickly make its way down the horizon. You’ll likely be there with many new friends (aka tourists from Indiana and Michigan) who have the same idea as you, but it’s OK. Everyone seems to be in a good mood.
—Visit the Bridge Street Pier and Bridge Street shops. Surprisingly, Bradenton Beach has a bayside pier and some shops that not even known by all locals. The Bridge Street Pier is an ample-sized, long pier that makes a great destination to watch the sun rise, fish, or watch traffic crossing the Cortez Road Bridge. You can find the pier by looking for clock tower at the beginning of it.
Then there are the shops, bars, and restaurants on Bridge Street. Although Bridge Street isn’t long, it’s a nice eclectic mix. You’ve got mini golf (The Fish Hole Miniature Golf), a bar that loves the Green Bay Packers (The Bridge Tender Inn and Dockside Bar), a Colombian coffee shop (Tintos), a spa (Sea-renity Beach Spa), and several more finds. Take a walk along Bridge Street and you may surprise yourself with some new favorite shopping.
–-Eat! Like any good beach town, Bradenton Beach has several restaurants you can enjoy. The Beach House is well known and prides itself on sourcing much of its food locally. It’s also typically big and crowded. Daiquiri Deck is a local, well-known chain that has some cool Gulf views, as does Bridge Street Bistro. Anna Maria Oyster Bar is located right on the Bridge Street Pier. There are plenty of other local choices. Of course, don’t forget about ice cream during your beach vacation on Bradenton Beach. Island Scoops is one popular choice.
–-Enjoy water sports. Whether you want to fish right off the shore or do a charter trip, you’ve got your choice. There’s also boating, dolphin boat tours (although you’ll sometimes see dolphins right from shore), parasailing, and scuba diving. Bradenton Beach isn’t well known for snorkeling–the waters are clear but not usually filled with colorful things to see as beaches in the Caribbean. However, anyone in your group who enjoys throwing on a snorkel mask may see a few interesting shells or fish. Best to ask the folks at any local dive shops about their snorkeling recommendations.
–Visit some other nearby cool places. You could make a whole vacation of just hanging out at Bradenton Beach if you’re a real beach bum. Yet while you’re in the area, you may as well check out some other popular and cool places to see. Here are a few suggestions:
—Robinson Preserve, a peaceful oasis of parkland about 15 or 20 minutes away by car.
—The Ringling art museum in Sarasota
—St. Armand’s Circle in Sarasota, a popular shopping and restaurant destination
—Cortez, a historical fishing village located just on the other side of the Cortez Street Bridge. There’s a small museum and a few restaurants.
—Take a calming stroll at Leffis Key Preserve. One lesser known area of Bradenton Beach is called Leffis Key Preserve, located on the bay side of town. Leffis Key Preserve has a few walking trails and some pretty nifty views of the bay. There’s even a 26-foot “hill”–a big deal in flat Florida!
Some final tips for your visit to Bradenton Beach:
—Think early. Over the 10+ years we’ve lived in Bradenton, we’ve watched Bradenton Beach go from feeling distinctly more crowded in the winter and spring because of tourists and snowbirds to staying busy year-round. Your best strategy is to arrive to the beach early. Otherwise, you’re likely going to be stuck in traffic going over the bridge and while driving around Bradenton Beach’s limited number of streets. Which brings us to our next tip….
—Walk or use the trolley when you can. If you’re staying in a Bradenton Beach hotel/rental or anywhere on Anna Maria Island, there’s a free trolley that goes from north Anna Maria Island (specifically, the Anna Maria Pier) all the way down to Coquina Beach. Take advantage of it to minimize driving, or walk when you can.
–Grab a map. This may sound old school, but the maps that you’ll find in free newspaper-sized kiosks include large views of the island (bigger than your phone) along with local ads for businesses you might want to use. Those maps are helpful.
Lion Country Safari in Florida’s Palm Beach area gives you a safari experience without the price of a plane ticket to Africa. This drive-thru safari park began in 1967 with several free-roaming lions and other animals. Nowadays, there are nearly 1,000 animals on site that roam among the preserve’s 320 acres.
Just what can you expect if you visit Lion Country Safari? Are you really going to get up close with some of the animals there? Here’s the scoop on what to expect, the cost to visit Lion Country Safari, and some tips for your visit.
What to Expect When You Visit Lion Country Safari
Lion Country Safari is a bit off the beaten path in Palm Beach County. In other words, rhinos and giraffes are not crossing your path while you’re shopping for Louis Vuitton bags in downtown West Palm Beach. Expect to drive about a half hour along 98 from downtown West Palm to get to Lion Country Safari, which is in the town of Loxachatchee. It’s about an hour from Miami.
Lion Country Safari tickets run about $41 per adult and $31 per child. Prices may fluctuate, and you may be able to find discounts for tickets online. Everyone must get a ticket except those age 3 and under. You can buy tickets online or at the gate.
When you enter the park, you can go to the drive-through safari area or the Safari World Adventure Park, which includes lots of kid-friendly activities. From a water playground (bring a bathing suit and sunscreen) to mini golf and a petting zoo, there’s plenty to entertain the kiddos at the Adventure Park. There are also ways to interact with other animals, including giraffes. The park also has a couple of places to eat. Although we didn’t make it to Safari World during our visit, it looks like a fun place for kids. We’ll focus on the safari portion of the park here.
The park also has premium experiences, such as a VIP guided tour. Advanced registration is required.
When preparing to enter the park, you’ll be reminded to keep your car doors and windows closed. This is for the animals’ safety and your own. You can also rent a vehicle from Lion Country Safari for $25 for 1 1/2 hours.
For all the reasons you can imagine, your pets also are not allowed on the drive-through safari. Lion Country Safari has kennels available for $5.
When you enter the park, you’ll be given a brochure and directed to a QR code that provides a link to an audio narration of your safari. You can also find a link to the audio tour here, both in English and Spanish. It’s a little over an hour long and follows the different reserves you’ll drive through (we name them below). It’s a lot of facts, but the narration and the map help you better appreciate what you’re seeing. Remember that the audio tour will use your cell phone data.
In the Safari at Lion Country Safari
The four-mile safari features acres upon acres of flat land where the many animals can roam. You drive through the park going through seven different areas (listed below in the order you encounter them….we also list some of the animals you’ll find in each area):
—Las Pampas, modeled after the area of the same name in Argentina. Find alpaca, brown pelicans, and marabou storks
—Buaha National Park from Africa, featuring ostriches and impalas
—Kalahari Bushveldt from southwest Africa, which includes ostriches, gemsbok (a type of antelope), and bongos (another type of antelope)
—Gorongosa Reserve, home to beautiful African lions
—Gir Forest, named for a national park in Gujarat, India. Find Asiatic water buffalo, scimitar-horned oryxes (they have very cool, long horns) and another type of antelope called nilgais
—Serengeti Plains, featuring wildebeests, watusi, and impalas
—Hwange National Park, named for the largest game reserve in western Zimbabwe and including some of better-known, beloved animals, like giraffes, Southern white rhinos, zebras, chimps, and giraffes.
Just how close do you get to the animals? It depends, but you can get pretty darn close. The animals seem pretty oblivious to the cars driving through but some of the more curious ones, like ostriches, will come up near the car. We had dozens and dozens of impalas crossing and walking ahead of our driving path (talk about a traffic jam). Because it’s the animals running the show, it all hinges on how close they feel like getting.
There are a couple of exceptions to this, including the chimps. The lions are behind protective, tall metal fences, and we noticed a couple of Lion Country Safari trucks nearby with staff. “They probably have tranquilizer darts,” someone said. “For the lions or the people?” we asked. Because after all, we are in Florida, where the people can be as unpredictable as the animals.
Seriously though, obey the rules and stay in your car. It may be hard to get a good lion shot with the protection there but you can get many other good animal shots.
You can take your time going through each protected area, even if the safari area is busy. That’s because there are many pull-off areas. So, if you want to stay and watch a certain group of animals and let some traffic go by, you can do so. Feel free to take your time, and remember that you can drive through the safari as much as you’d like on the day you buy your ticket.
If you’re in a bit of a rush, some of the areas, including Gorongosa Preserve (for the lions) have cut-through areas so you can skip them. Even if you’re doing this, just watch the speed limit signs as the animals have the right of way.
The park was an enjoyable visit on a sunny day. If you’re a photographer, bring your fancy camera or use your good phone camera. Some highlights included the curious and playful ostriches (at another safari park, we had ostriches chasing after our tram and then posing for us), the impalas crossing the road in droves, and the rhinos that were just eating and playing in the mud and grass. The zebras were pretty cool, too.
Going through the safari took about an hour and a half. If you add a visit to the Adventure Park, you definitely have a busy half-day visit or may be a full day if you stretch it out.
6 Tips for a Visit to Lion Country Safari
- Plan to visit when it’s raining or early on a sunny day. Surprisingly, the park itself recommends visiting on a rainy day as that’s when the animals are at their most active. If that doesn’t work, then early on a sunny day is their next recommendation (and ours). The park opens at 10 am on weekdays and 9:30 am on weekends. It’s open until 5 pm on weekdays and 5:30 pm on weekends.
- Consider staying at the adjacent KOA. Lion Country Safari KOA is adjacent to the park, and here’s the cool thing we’ve read: If you’re staying there, you can hear the lions roar. Otherwise, hotels are closer to West Palm.
- Watch out for other photo opps. The massive, open nature area that is Lion Country Safari naturally attracts other animals, so you may find other photo opps. For instance, we saw a heron snapping up and eating what we think was an eel or snake. It was a cool shot we could have missed had we not been paying attention.
- Use the map and audio narration to help you get to know the animals better.
- Drive slow and make use of those pull-off areas. Stay off your phone (unless you’re getting pictures with it) and look around.
- Remember that these are wild animals. The animals are part of a conservation effort, and they rule the roost, so to speak. Let them stay wild, and everyone will have fun and get along.
Over millions of years, shark teeth have accumulated along the shores of Venice Beach, Florida, and other nearby beaches. This leads hordes of tourists to visit this lovely Sarasota area town and search for pre-historic shark teeth. It’s earned Venice the moniker “Shark Tooth Capital of the World.”
As you may imagine, many questions come up before and during shark tooth hunting in Venice. What do the teeth look like? Is there a best place to find the teeth? What do I use to find shark teeth? You get the idea.
With shark tooth hunting articles among the most popular on our Florida travel blogs, here are simple answers to some of the most frequently asked questions (FAQs) on the topic. We hope these answers lead to some great toothy finds for you.
Why are there so many shark teeth around Venice Beach?
Throughout time, sharks apparently liked the Venice Beach area and gathered there for a feeding frenzy. Of course, it helps that sharks make 25,0000 to 30,000 teeth over their lifetime. Find more about the history of shark tooth hunting and the overall experience from a post on our other travel blog.
What’s the best beach to find shark teeth around Venice?
Caspersen Beach is where you’ll find the largest number of people serious about shark tooth hunting. Arrive around sunrise, and you’ll already find people with shark tooth hunting tools, combing for the (usually) tiny teeth. Yet you’re still good if you arrive later in the day. Families, couples, and solo travelers enjoy Caspersen both for shark teeth hunting but also to take in a relaxing day at the beach. You can get to Caspersen using the same road that Venice Beach is on.
What’s on Caspsersen Beach?
Caspersen Beach isn’t just a place for your shark tooth hunting. It has a playground, bathrooms, boardwalk, picnic area, and abundant wildlife (think birds, turtles, iguanas, and more). During our last visit, we chatted with a volunteer looking to start a Friends of Caspersen Beach group, to help preserve all that Caspersen offers.
What are some other good beaches for shark tooth hunting?
Venice Beach (where the pier is), Englewood, Nokomis, and Blind Pass beaches are all nearby beaches where you may find shark teeth. You’ll find most of those beaches on the following map from the Englewood Chamber of Commerce. There are other beaches all around Florida that are good for shark tooth hunting. Do your research online, and you may be surprised to find that another Florida beach destination is famous for shark teeth.
When’s the best time to go shark-tooth hunting?
The best time to go is low tide. Here’s a tide schedule for Caspersen Beach. During high tide, it’s harder to find the teeth unless you go in the water to search for them.
What should I bring for shark-tooth hunting?
Bring whatever you’d usually bring to the beach, such as a towel, sunscreen, swimsuit, etc. To help you find shark teeth, you can find a “Florida snow shovel”/sand sifter at local Walmarts and tourist stores. (See image above of a Florida snow shovel. Find out more about Florida snow shovels here, in one of our previous articles.) They also rent them on the Venice Beach Pier. However, a collander from your kitchen can help, and so can a homemade fossil/shark tooth hunting contraption (learn how to make them here, in a YouTube video).
The water around Caspersen Beach is rocky, so you may want to wear water shoes if your feet are sensitive or if you have diabetic neuropathy.
What are different ways to search for shark teeth?
You can use your “Florida snow shovel”/sifter, bring a collander from home, go snorkeling for shark teeth, and go diving for them. Diving will increase your chance of finding larger teeth. You can also scoop up a handful of shells/shell fragments and see what’s there. If you don’t have time to look but must bring home some toothy finds, you can also buy shark teeth at some local stores, like Sea Pleasures and Treasures. “7 Ways to Search for Shark Teeth in Venice,” posted on our other travel blog, will provide more details.
What do shark teeth look like?
Believe it or not, they are often black or gray. This is because they absorb the minerals surrounding them over time. They also are usually going to be tiny. Some will be sharp, others won’t. Here is a link to images of shark teeth.
What types of shark teeth will I find?
There are many! Nurse, bull, lemon sharks and many more have left their teeth around the Venice shores throughout time. The following post from FossilGuy.com has a lot of great info on what to expect during a shark tooth hunt around Venice Beach.
Will I find megalodon teeth at Venice Beach, Caspersen Beach, or other nearby beaches?
Probably not on shore. By way of background, the megalodon was the massive-sized shark that swam in the local waters and other parts of the world millions of years ago. They weighed as much as 30 large great white sharks–yikes! Look at this YouTube link to see the size of megalodon teeth (found by someone scuba diving for them at Venice Beach). It’s doubtful you’ll find one of those teeth just laying around on shore. However, some people who go diving for teeth get lucky and find one or more.
How far is the Venice Beach Pier from Caspersen Beach?
It’s just a couple minute’s drive….maybe a 15 minute or so walk?
Is shark-tooth hunting dog friendly?
Not really. Maybe your dogs would enjoy it, but they’re actually not allowed. However, Brohard Beach, located between Venice Beach and Caspersen, is geared toward dogs. It has a beach area for your favorite Fido and enclosed dog park areas on land for them.
What food is nearby?
The famous restaurant Sharky’s on the Pier is located right on Venice Beach Pier. It’s quite popular, and the pier offers a spectacular view of the area. It also has Fins at Sharky’s that’s a little fancier. Within a 5-minute or so drive, you’ll find lots of dining options in the town of Venice. If you’re around on a Saturday, check out the Venice Farmers Market.
Is Caspersen Beach a nude beach?
Technically, no. But we were amused to read online that because parts of Caspersen are secluded, there are some people who choose to sunbathe (or shark-tooth hunt?) in the nude. We’ve never seen them. But you’re forewarned!
Got another question about shark teeth hunting? Let us know in the comments and we may be able to answer it!
May 2023 update: The Canopy Walkway is still closed due to Hurricane Ian damage, although the trail to get there remains popular. Boat tours, cabins, and some other parts of the park remain closed. Check out the park website before you go for more information.
If you’re looking to keep your head up closer to the clouds, then visiting the Canopy Walkway at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota, Florida, is a must-see destination. Spanning 100 feet long, this canopy walkway is the only of its kind in Florida. It was also the first public treetop trail in North America.
As you may already know, Myakka River State Park is a popular destination in south Sarasota County for hiking, camping, and gator spotting (about 4,000 gators call it home). If you visit during its busiest times, it will have the slight feel of a theme park due to the crowds. Yet if you visit on a quieter weekday, you’ll hear more animals than people.
Here’s some background on how the canopy got started, and then we’ll share some practical tips for your visit. You can also find out more about the park from our previous articles, found here and here….and read this article for tips on best photography spots within the park.
Myakka State Park’s Canopy History
The canopy is made possible with several funding sources that include the Florida Park Service, Friends of Myakka River, the TREE Foundation, and The Selby Foundation. It also has other sponsors. There are small plaques along the walkway that show other contributors who helped make it possible.
In addition to serving as a park attraction, the canopy provides an outdoor research and education center. It includes an observation tower that reaches 74 feet high. The canopy itself is 25 feet in the air.
The Canopy Walkway is the only of its kind in Florida and one of only about 75 canopies around the world as shown on the following map from the TREE Foundation (see the second map at that link that shows canopies around the world).
Visiting the Canopy Walkway at Myakka River State Park
Now that you’ve got some background on the Canopy Walkway, here’s the scoop for your next visit to Myakka River State Park. Also, here’s a 2 1/2-minute video of the experience as shared by the Florida State Parks Foundation.
When you enter the park, you’ll pay an admission fee that includes access to the Canopy Walkway. In fact, it’s just one flat, very affordable admission fee of $6 per vehicle for all the park has to offer.
Many people take about a three-mile drive through the park to reach its store/concession area as well as the ticket booth for the boat and tram rides. A little over a mile into the three-mile drive, you cross a short bridge over the water where you can often see alligators. People commonly pull over to see what they can see from the bridge. It’s as if the alligators are Harry Styles or BTS, and everyone wants to snap pictures.
Access to the Canopy Walkway is between this well-known bridge area and the area with the concession/ticket booth. Driving from the main entrance, you will see a small, brown sign on the right side. The small parking lot may be busy.
One great thing about the Canopy Walkway is that it’s easy to access. You’re not walking 45 miles in the Florida heat to reach it. In fact, it’s a pleasant, family-friendly, five minute or so walk along a wide, attractive nature trail. If you want a longer walk, there’s another nature trail near the canopy. The park has many other trails as well.
Myakka Park is known for its gators but the trail where the canopy is located is not particularly close to water. You’ll have to go elsewhere in the park to see alligators.
Once you get to the canopy, be prepared to climb some steps. After all, it’s 25 feet in the air. Wear good shoes.
Depending on when you go, it may be busy. The walkway shakes a little when you walk on it, so keep that it mind if you’re afraid of heights.
There’s a tree growing through part of the walkway, so you may have to duck your head if you’re tall.
The walkway is one way only, so be prepared to do your walk, snap some pics, and then climb to the top of the tower for a fantastic view of trees and birds. Then you’ve got more steps on the way down.
A Few Final Tips for Your Canopy Walkway Visit at Myakka State Park
—Arrive early. The early bird truly gets the worm. You’ll have fewer crowds, easier parking, and a more peaceful visit.
—Plan to check out the rest of the park. Myakka River State Park is famed for its boat ride, birdwatching, gator spotting, camping, biking, nature photography, and much more. The canopy visit itself may not take that long, but you’ll have other things to see and do at the park.
—When visiting elsewhere in the park, keep a safe distance from wildlife in general and alligators in particular. After all, you’re traipsing around in their home. Gators actually prefer to be left alone but if provoked, they can be dangerous.
—Always have your water, sunscreen, and bug spray. Always.
And enjoy your visit getting closer to the clouds at the Canopy Walkway.
How much does it cost to visit Myakka’s Canopy Walkway?
It’s included in the price of admission to the park, which is $6 per vehicle for two people or more and $4 if you’re alone in your vehicle.
How long is the walk to the canopy?
It’s about 5 minutes.
Are pets allowed on the canopy?
From what we read online, they are not. However, leashed dogs are allowed on the nature trail to access the canopy.
How long is the Canopy Walkway? How high is it?
It’s 100 feet long and 25 feet high. However, the observation tower is 74 feet high.
Can I wear flip flops to reach the walkway?
You can, but it’d be better to wear sturdy shoes like sneakers. You’ll be climbing steps and walking through nature to access the walkway.
How early can I arrive to visit the Canopy Walkway?
The park opens at 8 am and closes at sunset year-round. You may have earlier access if you are camping there.
How can I help support the Canopy Walkway?
You can support the Friends of Myakka River.