Manatees, Birds and Nature Trails
A 90-minute drive west of Orlando, Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is a wildlife rescue center and one of the best places in Florida to see manatees. Thanks to an underwater observatory, visitors can peer beneath the spring's surface to see the aquatic mammals in their natural habitat. (If you long to establish a closer relationship with manatees, you may swim with them in the Crystal River, just 5 miles away.) Alligators, a panther, black bears, red wolves, Key deer, flamingos, whooping cranes and a 62-year-old hippo named Lu — none of them able to survive in the wild — also call the park home.
Nearby, Weeki Wachee State Park boasts the deepest known freshwater cave system in the United States. A fun mermaid show and kayak trips also are available. Curious about the name? In the language of the Seminole tribe, “weeki wachee” means “little spring” or “winding river.”
Weekiwachee Preserve, about 10 minutes south of the state park, features another spot to relax among nature. The 11,206-acre preserve in Spring Hill offers hiking and bike trails plus fishing and boating.
For outdoor adventure, drive 45 minutes north of Orlando to reach Blue Spring State Park, known for canoeing, swimming, SCUBA diving and kayaking. In winter, water activities are not permitted because Blue Spring is a designated manatee refuge.
If plants appeal more than animals, Bok Tower Gardens lies just 90 minutes south of Orlando. The beautiful gardens are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors to the 250-acre contemplative garden and bird sanctuary praise the stunning landscapes, the impressive architecture and the lovely carillon music from the 205-foot-tall Singing Tower.