7 Cute Small Towns in Florida to Visit
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.
More reading: Shark Tooth Hunting in Venice, Florida: Answers to All Your FAQs
7 Ways to Search for Shark Teeth in Venice
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
What to Know Before You Visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
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
Seven Things to Do and See in Bradenton Beach, 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.
—MOTE Marine and Save Our Seabirds, two animal-geared places adjacent to each other
—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: What to Do, What to See for Your Safari Experience
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.
Here’s a video from Tom’s Road Trippin on YouTube that gives you a better idea of what to expect during a visit to Lion Country Safari and the Adventure Park. Here’s another video from Kayak7seas.
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.
Shark Tooth Hunting in Venice, Florida: Answers to All Your FAQs
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!
Myakka River State Park’s Canopy Walkway: What to See, What to Do
December 2022 update: After a closure due to Hurricane Ian damage, Myakka River State Park has now reopened for day use and camping, according to its website. 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.
Myakka State Park’s Canopy History
The idea behind the Canopy Walkway began with canopy scientist Dr. Margaret D. Lowman, executive director of the TREE Foundation. The canopy was completed in 2000.
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.
Fun Facts About Florida’s Colleges and Universities
If you’re looking for some fun facts about Florida’s many colleges and universities, you’ve come to the right place.
This listicle isn’t focused on rankings (you can go to sites like US News & World Report for that) but instead shares some quirky and historical facts about several of Florida’s colleges and universities.
So why are we at Florida Culture devoting space to the topic of colleges and universities in Florida? We’ve got a few good reasons:
—Even if you aren’t college-bound, many of the college campuses are still interesting to visit. Whether you want to attend a sports event, get a shirt at the bookstore, or just go for a stroll, there’s a lot you can get out of visiting many of Florida’s college campuses.
—We’ve visited seven different campuses over the past year...and a smattering of others before then. We once taught English as a second language for a year at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.
—One of our clients publishes Florida college and university lists each year, and we help compile info on enrollment and school president names.
So as you can see, we’re a regular Betty Coed around here.
15 Fun Facts About Florida’s Colleges and Universities…in No Particular Order
- There are 372 active colleges and universities in Florida, according to UnivStat.com. This includes a 200+ for-profit schools (generally speaking, these are schools that have a website ending in .com).
- The Florida public university system has 12 schools. The largest is the University of Central Florida in Orlando, with an enrollment of more than 70,000 students. As you can imagine, it feels like its own city when you visit. The smallest within the public university system is Sarasota’s New College of Florida, with around 700 students.
- The most expensive university in Florida? It’s “the U” aka University of Miami. Including both tuition and room/board, it’s an annual cost of more than $77,596 before financial aid.
- Speaking of the U, its campus is home to the world-renowned Bascom-Palmer Eye Institute, the leading eye hospital in the U.S. It attracts ophthalmologists and ophthalmologists-in-training from around the world.
- One reason to visit Florida Southern College in Lakeland is for the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture on campus. Thirteen of his structures are there. The campus offers both guided and self-guided tours. The campus is also located on scenic Lake Hollingsworth.
- The University of Florida in Gainesville is home to one of the largest occupied bat houses in the U.S., and it’s home to a staggering 450,000 to 500,000 bats. There’s apparently a time after sunset where you can keep a safe distance and watch the bats emerge.
- The University of Florida also is not far from Paynes Prairie, a large preserve and park that is home to wild bison, wild horses, and Florida’s favorite pre-historic creature, the alligator.
- The Miami Dolphins used the campus of St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens as their training camp for 23 seasons, from 1970 to 1992. For most of that time, the school was called Biscayne College, but it became St. Thomas in 1984 (STU’s roots actually started in Havana, Cuba, until the school’s land was seized by Fidel Castro.). St. Thomas went on to add its own football team, the Bobcats, in 2019.
- Southeastern University in Lakeland started in 1935 in New Brockton, Alabama, as the Southeastern Bible Institute. It moved to Lakeland in 1946 and became a liberal arts college in 1970. Its campus includes a new football stadium, a Chik-Fil-A, and a sweet therapy dog at its tutoring center.
- You have to drive through orange groves to get to Webber International University in Babson Park. After all, it’s located in Central Florida in the heart of the citrus-growing territory. Webber is located on peaceful Lake Babson. If you’re in that area, you can also make your way over the Warner University, about 10 minutes away.
- Ave Maria University, located about 40 minutes from Naples in Southwest Florida, was founded by Dominos Pizza founder Tom Monaghan. The school originally started in Michigan but was then moved to Florida. The campus is part of a planned community geared toward the Catholic faith.
- Florida’s State College system (once known as its community college system) includes 31 schools spread all around the state.
- The Florida State University mascots are Osceola and Renegade. Osceola is in honor of the Seminole warrior of the same name, and Renegade is his horse. Osceola and Renegade appear before FSU’s home football games. Click here for a video of them at a game. If you go in person, it’s quite the sight to see and to feel the energy of the crowd.
- Some of FSU’s famous alumni include actor Burt Reynolds, golfer Brooks Koepka, fitness guru Richard Simmons, and football player Deion Sanders. Famous University of Florida alumni include sportscaster Erin Andrews, home improvement expert Bob Vila, and football player Tim Tebow.
- Some schools in Florida’s Panhandle, such as the University of West Florida in Pensacola, offer reduced tuition for Alabama residents. There are a few schools in Alabama that also offer the same convenience for Florida Panhandle residents as the two areas are geographically close.
Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton: How to Plan for Your Next Visit
Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton is a family-owned citrus farm, but it’s actually so much more than that. Whether you want to try homemade fudge or orange swirl ice cream, see a crocodile, feed koi fish, or hold a special event like a wedding, you can do it there.
Mixon Fruit Farm has been part of the Bradenton community since the late 1930s. As you likely know, oranges have been a huge part of Florida agriculture, although a disease called citrus greening has pummeled citrus growth in the state over the past decade or so.
To diversify, the Mixon family now grows more than just oranges and other citrus fruit. It also grows a small number of star fruit, bananas, and papayas, among other items. The farm has focused big time over the past four or five years on organic Asper bamboo, which can be used in a variety of ways, including in textiles and for eating. It’s clear that the Mixons are adapting with the times.
You can learn all about the Mixon legacy — and a whole lot more — during their tram tours. Held three times a day in season (usually at 11 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm), the tram tours will give you a soup-to-nuts look at the farm’s agricultural growth, kids’ play place, and its Wildlife Rescue Center. If you have time for more than just a cursory visit to the retail store, we definitely recommend a tram tour. The cost? $12 for adults and $6 for kids.
10 Things You Can Do at Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton
OK, so let’s dive in and find out the many things your family can do at Mixon Farms in Bradenton:
—Enjoy the retail store. Think of their retail store almost like a Floridian Cracker Barrel store….and we mean that in a good way. It’s chock full of Florida-themed souvenirs, candy, and food. Whether you want sea salt harvested from local waters (Sea Salt Florida), a kids’ book about marine life, coastal art work, local honey, or gator jerky, you can find it here. All of that is in addition to the homemade and farm-type items available….and that brings us to our next item.
—Sample juices and other items, like homemade fudge. Well, you’re at a citrus business, so of course you have to try some fresh orange juice, right? Get yourself free samples of orange and grapefruit juices or lemonade. If that wasn’t enough of a sugar rush, then there’s the homemade fudge to sample. Plus, there are samples of Florida-made wines with names like Mango Mamma and Key Limen (three guesses on the flavors in those wines). It should go without saying that you should follow up your samples with some purchases of orange juice, fudge, and wine to enjoy at home.
—Grab a meal. If all the retailing and tram touring wipes you out and you and your companions are starving, don’t miss the Groveside Cafe. Menu choices include a Citrus Splash Salad, Mixon’s Renowned Cuban Sandwich, and the Italian Stallion sub. The cafe is also where you can try some of the yummy orange swirl ice cream.
—Buy citrus. Naturally, you can load up on oranges and grapefruits at Mixon, and we’ve heard of many snowbirds who stop at citrus sellers like Mixon in the spring to buy a bag full of oranges before they drive back home to Indiana or Michigan. You can do that, or you can buy some citrus fruits to take home to your local abode as well. Don’t miss out on the citrus fruit samples, including a massive-sized fruit called a pomelo. Gift shipping of citrus also is available at Mixon’s.
—See wildlife. Aside from the store, our favorite location at Mixon is the Wildlife Rescue Center that is part of the tram tour. Damien Hurd, of Wildlife, Inc., in nearby Anna Maria, gives the scoop on his scaly and furry friends. They include a crocodile, smaller alligators, a leucistic raccoon (basically, a raccoon without pigmentation so it’s white), owls, an emu, and other creatures. Hurd’s friends were all rescued locally, and many come with offbeat #FloridaMan or #FloridaWoman type stories. Hurd and the folks at Wildlife Inc, rescue about 4,000 animals a year and give them a place to live.
As part of the wildlife experience, youngsters and the young at heart can hold a small (maybe 2 or 3 feet) alligator so you can take pics to share with Aunt Zelda and your friends back at home. Hurd also shares some tips on how to live safely around gators–because let’s face it, there are about 2 million alligators here so they’re about as common as human sunbathers. Keep a safe distance if you spot one and never feed them.
—Visit the packing plant. Attached to the Mixon retail shop is its packing plant, where the oranges are processed for orange juice and other purposes. You can see the goings on in the packing plant from a vantage point in the retail store.
—Feed the fish at the koi pond. The koi pond at Mixon is chock full of fish, and you can buy some feed to keep them happy and full.
—Play at the play space. If you need a surefire way to tire out the kiddos, Mixon has a children’s maze and a play place. You can also rent these areas for special events.
–-Get married. Well, maybe don’t come to Mixon’s and decide to get married right there on the spot. You’re not in Vegas, so that may not work out. But if you book in advance, you can rent the farm’s wedding pavilion, which bills itself as “Vintage Charm with a Southern Twist.” You and your partner can get pics in the orange grove to show how your love has blossomed.
—Attend a special event. Mixon’s is always attracting new visitors with its special events. In March 2022, it will hold its Taste of Mixon’s and Blossom Craft Fair. The website’s Calendar of Events will keep you up to date on special events.
3 Ways to Prepare for Your Visit to Mixon Fruit Farm in Bradenton
For the most part, you can just show up and have fun at Mixon’s Farm, but we’ve discovered some tips that may help you be better prepared:
- Buy your tram tour tickets online, in advance. This is especially important in the busy winter months. If you just show up minutes before a scheduled tram ride, you may find that it’s full. Buying online in advance helps ensure you get on the tour that you want.
- Double check hours on the website. It’s typically closed on Sundays and Mondays. In the summer, there are a few weeks when the business is closed to the public. Retail store and tram tour hours are usually reduced in the summer.
- Have your kids wear shoes they can run in. You may show up just for the retail store or tram tour, but when your kids see the play area or koi pond, they’ll want to run around a lot more than you may have thought.
5 Day Trips From Tampa and the St. Pete Area
If you’re looking to get away from the Tampa Bay/”Champa Bay” area for a day or the weekend, you’ve got plenty of options. Although Orlando is just an hour or so away, you actually have many more day trip options near Tampa that you may not have considered yet. Here are five day trips from the Tampa/St. Pete area to check out next time you need a nearby getaway.
The tiny town of Micanopy, Florida, is small in size but big on charm and history. Located just 15 minutes from the University of Florida (go Gators), Micanopy (pronounced mic-uh-NO-pee; population: 700) is the oldest inland town in Florida, according to the Town of Micanopy website. The town has served as an Indian trading post, farming town, and Hollywood movie setting in the past. Now, visitors flock to Micanopy for antique shopping and other unique stores and a friendly small town experience. If you can stay overnight, the Herlong Mansion Bed & Breakfast is the place to hang your hat. Built in 1845, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Herlong offers just the right kind of feel for a visit to Micanopy.
Round out your visit to Micanopy with a few hours spent at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, where you may get lucky enough to see some wild buffalo and horses roam, as well as a few big alligators. Paynes Prairie, also located in Micanopy but away from the “downtown” area, has lots of trails to explore. Find our guide to visiting Paynes Prairie here.
Silver Springs State Park
Located in Ocala, Silver Springs State Park feels like a step back in time, which may not be a coincidence. After all, Silver Springs State Park has attracted visitors since the 1800s and served as a Hollywood set where shows like “Sea Hunt” and movies like “Creature from the Black Lagoon” were filmed.
What keeps visitors coming back, aside from the beautiful park itself (which actually feels like an autumn stroll up north if you visit during Florida’s winter months) are its glass-bottom boats. Step on the boats for a tour, and you can see down through the clear water to spot marine life and the occasional manatee and alligator. The park has many underwater springs, with some that are millions of years old.
In addition to glass-bottom boat tours, Silver Springs State Park attracts visitors for kayaking, paddle boarding, hiking, or trying to spot the 200 rhesus monkeys that live in and near the park.
Anna Maria Island
You’ve got some great beaches in the Tampa area, like Clearwater Beach and St. Pete Beach, but there’s something special about Anna Maria Island. Make your way through the town of Bradenton to reach Anna Maria Island for an “Old Florida” feel. Anna Maria attracts snowbirds and beach lovers who want a quiet pace of life. Anna Maria is home to two piers (including the recently remodeled Anna Maria City Pier), unique shopping that’s mostly along Pine Avenue, and miles of beaches that provide killer sunset views. Don’t forget seafood restaurants and the nearby authentic fishing village of Cortez. Oh, and if anyone in your group misbehaves, you can throw them in “jail”–Anna Maria City Jail, an open-air area that once housed those who were naughty, usually after a night of drinking.
Word about Anna Maria has gotten out, so best to arrive as early as possible for your day trip from Tampa. Pay attention to any parking signs, as visitor parking is often a topic of debate among year-round residents. You can also use a free trolley from MCAT to travel from the town of Anna Maria to the tip of Anna Maria Island, where you’ll find Bradenton Beach and Coquina Beach.
Myakka River State Park
There are alligators, and then there are ALLIGATORS. Myakka River State Park offers both small alligators and ALLIGATORS–the kind that you snap pictures of and share on social media to wow your non-Floridian friends.
Located in Sarasota, Myakka River State Park has been around since the 1934 and is considered one of Florida’s oldest parks. Among its 58 square miles, you’ll find hiking, camping, biking, and lots more. Want to get the real scoop on the park? Take a boat or tram tour. There’s even shopping at the Pink Gator Cafe.
And about those alligators: The park is home to 4,000–yes, 4,000–alligators. That’s why no matter where you go in the park, if you’re near water, you have a good chance of seeing one or multiple alligators hanging out and catching some rays. Keep a safe distance and use whatever close-up lens you have available to get the best shots. On the boat tour, the captain will take you near some park areas where you also may be fortunate enough to see a few more gators.
The affluent enclave of Boca Grande has quietly attracted visitors to its beaches, shops, and restaurants for decades. Still, its out-of-the-way location on Gasparilla Island in Lee County doesn’t mean it goes unnoticed. From the Bush family to Fox News host Tucker Carlson to Clemson U. head coach Dabo Sweeny, many celebs and politicians have spent some time in Boca Grande.
Once you pay a toll to cross the Boca Grande Swing Bridge, you’ll pick up on a different, laidback feel. Visit Boca Grande to fish (it’s the so-called Tarpon Capital of the World) and visit not one but TWO lighthouses. Boca Grande Rear Entrance Range has a more traditional lighthouse look, while Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum is smaller and located inside Gasparilla Island State Park.
Boca Grande also has a small but cute downtown area for shopping and restaurants. There’s also The Gasparilla Inn, a treasure trove of history and a local destination for golf, spa time, and tennis.
What to Know Before You Visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
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 will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, 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. We’ll write about Micanopy for our next blog article and include a link here. You can easily combine a day or two visit to both Paynes Prairie and Micanopy.
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:
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.
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 (but see our tips below regarding how to plan your visit, as you may or may not spot them). On the trail, you also encounter a platform that overlooks Alachua Lake.
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. 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. Additionally, there is a trail that will take you closer to the prairie.
The park’s main entrance includes the campground, several other trails, and Lake Wauberg, where you can can fish and boat.
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, 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.
6 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. Still there 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. After two visits, we have yet to see these animals at Paynes Prairie. Well, we saw the buffalo during our first visit, from the Visitor Center and Nature Center. They were so far, not even our telephoto lens on a nice camera captured a good shot. That said, we spotted a deer right away during one visit, and we’ve seen many types of birds. Sometimes, it’s just dumb luck to see the animals you want to see.
- Also 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, where we barely got past the elevated boardwalk before signs said the trail was closed. due to high water levels. 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.
Here Are Things to Do at Bahia Honda State Park in Big Pine Key, Including Snorkeling
No question about it, if you’re into snorkeling and visiting the Florida Keys, a guided boat ride that takes you to specific reefs or other areas is the way to go. However, maybe you’d rather explore something close to shore on your own or you’d like to do some DIY snorkeling and exploring in addition to a boat tour. For that reason and many others, Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys could be just the place you need to visit.
Located at Mile Marker 37 (in the Keys, locations are often given by their Mile Marker, or MM), Bahia Honda offers pristine views for snorkeling, beach time, fishing, kayaking, and lots more.
Some background to get you started: The 500-acre Bahia Honda State Park is located in the Lower Keys, meaning that it’s closer to Key West than it is to Key Largo in the Upper Keys. The islands in the Keys are 125 miles long that go from south of Miami to Key West. The famous Mile Marker 0 is in Key West.
Bahia Honda, which means “deep bay” in Spanish, was part of Spanish nautical maps hundreds of years ago, according to the park website. The Florida Park Service gained control of the park in 1961. If you want to discover more about the park’s history, including the role played by a massive hurricane in 1935 and some related railroad history, check out the details here on the park website.
5 Things to Do at Florida Keys’ Bahia Honda State Park
If you’re coming to Bahia Honda State Park from Islamorada or Marathon, you’ll cross the famous Seven Mile Bridge and drive a short distance before reaching the park. If you’re coming from the Key West area, you’ll drive through Big Pine Key and the area famous for Key deer. When you get to the park, be prepared to pay $8 per vehicle to enter the park.
Once you’re at Bahia Honda, here are just a few things you can do for fun:
Snorkeling: When snorkeling at Bahia Honda State Park, you’ll see small fish (and maybe the occasional big one), seagrass, shells, and clear water. If you’re a longtime snorkeler who’s been to the Caribbean, it may not compare. That said, you’ll have some decent underwater views and a relaxing beach day at Bahia Honda. During our visit, most of the people we saw in the water had their face masks and snorkels, with their heads underwater. The most interesting find for us while snorkeling was a six-inch living conch shell. It was a lot bigger than shells you may usually find while beachcombing.
The best time to snorkel is when it’s high tide. Here’s one site you can check for high and low tides. Did you forget to bring or buy snorkel gear? No worries. The park has a nifty gift shop (more on that later) where you can buy or rent snorkeling equipment.
If that doesn’t satisfy your desire to snorkel enough, Bahia Honda State Park also does boating tours that will take you snorkeling at Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, where you’ll find reefs and coral. The boat leaves three times a day, and the price is $29.95 for adults and $24.95 for kids under age 18. You can bring your own equipment or rent it. We didn’t do the boat tour, but here’s where you can find more information about it, including a $3 off coupon for the 9:30 am tour. The tour allows you to snorkel for about an hour and a half.
Sunbathing: Many times, a visit to the Keys is focused on fishing, for all of the obvious reasons. However, maybe you just need some time to veg out on the sand and take the occasional dip in the water. There are two areas where you can do just that at Bahia Honda State Park. Loggerhead Beach is the longer of the two beach areas, although not very wide. Calusa Beach is smaller, more focused on swimming and snorkeling, and provides a view of the Old Bahia Honda Bridge. Between the two beaches, Calusa is the one where you can view those famous Florida Keys sunsets. There is a third beach area called Sandspur that is undergoing reconstruction due to damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Taking in the view along Old Bahia Honda Bridge: The Old Bahia Honda Bridge is an unused rail bridge that connects Bahia Honda Key with Spanish Harbor Key. Although a gap in the bridge prevents you from walking fully across, you can use a trail access point near the park’s gift shop and restrooms to access the bridge and get a super-scenic view of the park, the water, and the sky or sunset, along with the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Even the gap in the bridge makes for some interesting photos.
Browsing the gift shop: Bahia Honda State Park has a pretty cool gift shop that’s clean and comfortably air conditioned, which will feel refreshing after you’ve spent time out in the sun. In addition to the usual mix of T-shirts, beach bags, mugs, and snorkel gear, you also will see some display-only items, like a finding from the Atocha shipwreck now famous throughout the keys. The gift shop is also where you go to check in for the snorkeling boat tours. Plus, the gift shop includes a deli with drinks, sandwiches, hot dogs, and yes, Key lime pie.
Fishing: You are in the Florida Keys, after all, so fishing is a natural part of the fun at Bahia Honda State Park. One fruitful spot we found was following the walking trail past Calusa Beach and walking until there’s a concrete barrier beside the water. You’ll have a close view of the Bahia Honda Bridge. Drop your line down in the water and see what you can catch. We think we spotted a small shark at one point that made the fish temporarily scurry. No spearfishing or collecting of tropical fish is allowed, according to the park website. Don’t forget to get your Florida fishing license.
And Even More Things to Do at Bahia Honda State Park
Above are some of things we were able to see or do while at Bahia Honda State Park in Big Pine Key, but there are plenty of other things you can do during a visit, including:
–Biking along the 3 1/2-mile hard road that is in the park
—Camping for RVs and tents, but there are also six camping cabins
–Kayaking (rent a kayak from the gift shop area)
–Stargazing if you are camping there or staying at the marina (here’s info on boat slip rentals); it’s the darkest spot for stargazing in the Florida Keys, according to the park website
–Visiting the Sand & Sea Nature Center near the gift shop and main parking area. It includes displays of local sea life, but it was not open when we were there.
Three Quick Tips for Your Time at Bahia Honda State Park