Green forests, enchanting springs, tannic rivers, and prairie preserves abound along Florida’s Nature Coast, making it ideal for a quiet getaway. A trip to Florida’s Nature Coast is a must for nature lovers, wildlife enthusiasts, history buffs, or anyone seeking relaxation. It’s an exceptional and beautiful part of Florida that offers something for everyone. A road trip along the nature coast gives visitors a chance to glimpse into history seeing what “Old Florida” really is.

Crystal Clear Florida Springs
Crystal Clear Florida Springs Credit: R. Moody

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The Florida Nature Coast is a region along the northern Gulf of Mexico in the state of Florida. It stretches from Pasco County in the south to Wakulla County in the north and includes portions of the following counties: Citrus, Hernando, Levy, Dixie, Taylor, and Jefferson. Many of the trails comprise the Great Florida Birding Trail.

Some of the top destinations on the Nature Coast include Crystal River, where visitors can swim with manatees and explore the beautiful springs; Cedar Key, a quaint coastal town with great seafood and scenic views; and Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, a park with a wildlife rehabilitation center and an underwater observatory.

dusk-setting-over-the-cedar-key
Florida Nature Coast sunset-Cedar Key

Making Memories on Florida’s Nature Coast

If you’re driving from other parts of Florida or neighboring states, the Nature Coast can be easily reached via major highways such as I-75 or US-19. You can also take scenic routes such as the Tamiami Trail (US-41) or the Coastal Highway (US-98) to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the way.

The closest major airports to the Nature Coast are Tampa International Airport (TPA) and Orlando International Airport (MCO). From there, you can rent a car or take a shuttle service to your destination.

Snake Bight Trail view of Florida Bay
Hiking the Nature Coast

Nature Coast State Trail The Ultimate Hike in Florida

The Nature Coast State Trail is a 32-mile long paved trail that runs through Florida’s Gulf Coast region, between the towns of Cross City and Trenton. The trail passes through a variety of landscapes, including pine forests, wetlands, and prairies, and offers scenic views of the surrounding natural beauty. The Nature Coast State Trail is also part of the larger Florida Greenways and Trails System, which is a network of trails and green spaces throughout the state.

The trail is open to hikers, cyclists, and horseback riders, and provides a special opportunity to explore the area’s wildlife and natural habitats. Along the way, visitors can stop at several trailheads, which offer amenities such as restrooms, picnic areas, and parking.

Hiking Reminder: wear comfortable shoes, bring plenty of water, and be prepared for Florida’s hot and humid weather.

Blue heron serching for lunch
Blue heron searching for lunch

A Rare Gem on the Nature Coast: St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge

About 20 miles south of Tallahassee.St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is in St. Marks, Florida. It was established in 1931 to protect migratory birds and other wildlife in the area. Visitors can explore the refuge on foot, by bike, or by car, and may see wildlife such as bald eagles, ospreys, and great blue herons. As nature lovers, there were a variety of habitats, including salt marshes, pine forests, and freshwater impoundments to see.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge Lighthouse Photo Steve Hillebrand,

The refuge i a great place to go hiking, with several trails and boardwalks that provide visitors with access to different parts of the refuge. One of the best trails is the Lighthouse Road Trail. This trail is a 2.4-mile out-and-back hike that took us through pine forests and salt marshes to the St. Marks Lighthouse. The lighthouse was built in 1831 to guide ships into the St. Marks River. It served as an important navigational aid for ships traveling to and from Apalachee Bay. The lighthouse is open for tours on certain days of the week, and visitors can climb the tower to enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding area. The climb to the top of the lighthouse tower is not for the faint of heart, as it requires navigating a series of steep stairs and ladders.

Kayaking in Floirda Sorings
Photo: R Moody

Hiking Tails St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge

Although we hiked n the spring we brought plenty of water, insect repellent, and sunscreen.. Here are some of the hiking options we took advantage of in the refuge:

  1. Tower Pond Trail – This 0.6-mile loop trail takes visitors through pine forests and past Tower Pond, where you may see a variety of birds and other wildlife.
  2. Wakulla Beach Trail – This 0.5-mile trail takes visitors to Wakulla Beach, where you can enjoy views of the Gulf of Mexico and search for seashells along the shore.
  3. Stoney Bayou Trail – This 5.5-mile out-and-back trail takes visitors through salt marshes and along the Gulf Coast, providing opportunities for wildlife viewing and birdwatching.
  4. Woody Pond Trail – This 1.5-mile loop trail takes visitors through pine forests and past Woody Pond, where you may see alligators, turtles, and a variety of birds.
Nature Coast Lek Rainbow lilly pads
Florida’s Nature Coast Rainbow

Experience The Extraordinary Springs of the Nature Coast

Many of these springs not only provide important habitats for wildlife but also offer opportunities for recreation, such as swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and tubing. Manatees inhabit several of the natural springs in Florida, particularly during the winter months when the water temperature drops in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. Blue Springs State Park is most renown, however the nature coast springs have their own populations. The warm and constant temperature of the springs provides a refuge for the manatees, which are vulnerable to cold stress and can become ill or even die if they are exposed to prolonged periods of cold water.

Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park great egret overlooks the spring
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park

 Preview into the Florida’s Beautiful Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park

Wakulla Springs State Park, which is about 14 miles south of Tallahassee, Florida.The park covers approximately 6,000 acres. It is home to one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world. With a depth of over 300 feet and an average discharge of over 250 million gallons of water per day. A Spanish lodge circa 1930s by Edward Ball during Florida’s Land boom years. Taking a tour of the lodge gives visitors a timeless glimpse into the glory days of the past. The beautiful period furnishings and elegant construction are worth seeing. They listed the lodge on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

Edward Ball Lodge through the trees from the river boat
Edward Ball Lodge Credit: Buddha Dog CC BY-SA 2.0

Ancient cypress trees that enhance the park’s natural beauty surround Wakulla State Park. It is easy to see why this was the ideal location for early films such as Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). To get a better perspective of the park, take a 45 minute guided riverboat tour. The spring and its surrounding waterways are teeming with wildlife, including alligators, river otters and wading birds. During the winter months, when the water temperature drops in the Gulf of Mexico, the spring attracts manatees.

Besides water activities, Wakulla Springs State Park also offers hiking trails, picnic areas, and horseback riding.

Wakulla Springs State Park
Wakulla Springs State Park FWC Tim Donovan

Phenomenal Fanning Springs State Park: Where Nature and Tranquility Unite

The main attraction of Fanning Springs State Park is its natural spring, which flows at a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The spring pool is a designated swimming area and is popular with visitors who come to enjoy the cool water and scenic surroundings. The park also offers a diving platform and underwater caves for experienced divers.

Fanning Springs State Park is open year-round and offers a variety of amenities, including restrooms, showers, and a concession stand. The park is a popular destination for families, outdoor enthusiasts, and anyone looking to escape the heat and enjoy the natural beauty of Florida. Click here for a park map.

Entrance to the park at the site of a Seminole War era fort.
Fort Fanning Credit: Steven Martin CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fort Fanning Historic Park- A Seminole War Fort on the Suwannee

Lt. Colonel Alexander Campbell Fanning (1788-1846) served in the Florida militia during the Second Seminole War and is the inspiration for Fort Fanning Historic Park Built in 1838 during the Second Seminole War, they strategically placed it on the banks of the Suwannee River. The fort served as a supply depot for troops in the area. Today, visitors can explore the replica fort and learn about the history of the area.

Florida sunset reed grasses
Florida sunset reed grasses

Fort Fanning Historic Park is a great destination for history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Whether you’re interested in learning about the area’s military history or just want to enjoy the natural beauty of the Suwannee River, the park is definitely worth a visit.

Both parks have picnic areas, hiking trails, and wildlife viewing opportunities. The parks are home to a variety of native Florida wildlife, including turtles, fish, and various species of birds and mammals.

Sign at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Homosassa Springs, Florida.
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park Credit: Steven Miller CC BY 2.0

Peek into the Florida’s Scenic Springs at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Ancient Native American settlements can be found in the Homosassa area dating back thousands of years. Several sawmills and fish camps operated along the river in the late 19th century, making the area a center for commercial fishing and timber harvesting. During the early 20th century, the springs attracted tourists drawn to the clear, blue-green water, the natural beauty, and the abundant wildlife. It wasn’t until 1940 that the first glass-bottom boat tours began operating in the springs, offering visitors an opportunity to view the underwater world up close.

Florida River kayaing adventure
Florida Nature Coast River kayaking adventure Photo: R. Moody

In 1964, Homosassa Springs was acquired by the state of Florida and designated as a state park. The park’s 210 acres were developed to showcase the first-magnitude spring and protect its diverse wildlife. In the 1980s, the park underwent a major restoration effort to improve water quality and restore the natural balance of the ecosystem. This included efforts to remove invasive species and reintroduce native plants and animals. They renamed the park in 1989 in honor of Ellie Schiller, who was instrumental in the park’s development and success.

Manatee Fountain at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park on the nature coast
Manatee Fountain Credit: Steven Miller CC BY 2.0

Discover the wonders of Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Today. the Fish Bowl at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is one of the park’s most popular attractions. There, visitors can see various species of fish and other aquatic creatures in their natural habitat. Moreover, they provide boat tours, wildlife encounters, and educational programs. Also in the park is a rehabilitation center for injured manatees, which provides an important service to these wonderful creatures.

Educational programs and exhibits at the park provide visitors with a chance to learn about Florida’s natural history and the importance of wildlife conservation. The Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is open all year round, attracting visitors from around the globe to enjoy its rare natural heritage.

Manatee swimming in the Blue Springs
 Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) Image: Anne Giger

Glance into the Florida’s Magnificent Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

The name “Weeki Wachee” comes from the Seminole language and means “little spring” or “winding river.” The spring is a popular tourist attraction, known for its crystal clear water and underwater mermaid shows. It is home to one of the deepest naturally formed underwater caves in the United States, with a depth of over 400 feet.

Weeki-Wachee-Springs-State Crystal clear waters
Paddling the Weeki Wachee River Credit: mbarrison CC BY-SA 2.0

The Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is the source of the Weeki Wachee River. It features an array of recreational activities, including swimming, kayaking, and canoeing. Visitors can also watch the famous mermaid shows, which have been performed at the park since the 1940s. The mermaid performers wear fish tails and perform underwater ballets and other routines.

Mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs
Mermaids Credit: Robin Wendell CC BY 2.0

In addition to the mermaid shows and water activities, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park also offers nature trails, wildlife exhibits, and educational programs on the area’s history and ecology. The park is home to a variety of native Florida wildlife.

Weeki Wachee is a unique natural wonder that has captivated visitors for generations. Its crystal clear water, natural beauty, and mermaid shows make it a must-visit destination for anyone traveling to Florida.

Weeki-Wachee-Springs Nature Coast of Florida
Weeki-Wachee-Springs Nature Coast of Florida Credit: Matt-Kelland

Step into the enchanting world of Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge

Founded in 1941, Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge is a protected area. It covers approximately 31,000 acres of coastal marshes, swamps, and uplands along the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the refuge. It is an important habitat for a wide variety of wildlife species, including manatees, bald eagles, and various species of fish, reptiles, and birds.

Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge manatees
Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge USFWS-Jim Reid

One of the unique features of The Chaz is its system of spring-fed rivers and creeks that flow through the area. These waterways provide important habitat for various aquatic species. They are also popular destinations for recreational activities such as kayaking, fishing, and wildlife viewing.

In addition to its natural beauty and recreational opportunities, Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge also serves an important conservation role. The refuge works to protect and restore the natural ecosystems in the area, which helps to preserve biodiversity and maintain healthy populations of wildlife.

Crystal River Archaeological State Park
Crystal River Archaeological State Park Credit: Ebyabe CC BY-SA 3.0

Crystal River Archaeological State Park: Unveiling the Mysteries of Florida’s Ancient Past

An unusual destination for anyone interested in Native American culture and history and outdoor recreation, Crystal River Archaeological State Park is a Florida State Park. A pre-Columbian Native American site dating back over 2,500 years is in the park. There are six earthen mounds at Crystal River Indian Mounds, the tallest of which stands at 28 feet.

In the region, indigenous peoples created primordial mounds for ceremonies and burials. Various Native American cultures occupied the site, including the Deptford, Swift Creek, and Weeden Island cultures.

Burial Mound Crystal River Archaeological State Park
Burial Mound Crystal River Archaeological State Park
Credit: Steven Martin CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Apart from the mounds, the park has a museum featuring exhibits on Native American culture and history. Our walk through the visitor center included learning about ancient tools and techniques, as well as the local flora and fauna. Additionally, recreational activities include fishing, kayaking, and birdwatching. A picnic area and hiking trails are also available for visitors.

Foggy Trail Florida Nature Coast
Foggy Trail Florida Nature Coast

Escape the Crowds: Embark on a Journey of Exploration at Fort Cooper State Park

Fort Cooper State Park can be found near Inverness, Florida. The park covers over 700 acres and contains remnants of a historic military fort. We picked up our free guidebook on the Florida Seminole Wars Heritage Trail at the ranger station. Every day, there are exciting ranger programs offered by the park.

A colonel named James Cooper founded the fort. In 1836, during the Second Seminole War, the first fort was constructed. While the Second Seminole War was raging, the base was used to protect injured and sick soldiers. To illustrate the fort’s significance in the conflict, a replica stands in its place today.

We trekked the Seminole Heritage Trail. It is a 1.5-mile trail that loops around scenic Lake Holathlikaha. Four interpretive displays tell the story of the Seminole people. A startled flock of quail in the underbrush was the only sound we heard this day.. In the park, easy to moderate self-guided trails meander through hammocks and sandhill natural communities. These include the Dogwood Trail, the Fort Site Trail, and the Sandhill Loop Trail.

Leave no Trace: It’s also important to stay on designated trails. Allways follow park rules to help protect the preserve’s fragile ecosystems.

View at the end of the Trail-Deep Lake Trail Big Cypress
Withlacoochee River- Lake Rosseau

Exploring Nature’s Playground: Inglis Dam & Island Recreation Area–Cross Florida Greenway

There is a dam and a series of islands in this recreation area on the Withlacoochee River, which provide great opportunities for outdoor activities. A concrete gravity dam constructed in 1942, Inglis Dam crosses the Withlacoochee River. In order to build a navigable waterway across Florida, the Cross Florida Barge Canal project included the construction of the dam. Fish and other aquatic life benefit from the dam, which keeps water levels in the river under control.

Gopher Tortoise
Gopher Tortoise

Fishing, birdwatching, and hiking are all available on the islands surrounding the dam. Consider kayaking or walking around the islands if you have the chance. Freshwater fish such as bass, catfish, and panfish were our favorite species to catch.

The recreation area also features a picnic area with tables and grills, as well as restrooms and a playground. The area is open year-round and is a popular spot for family outings and outdoor recreation.

Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins Historic State Park steam driven machinery
Yulee Sugar Mill steam-driven machinery Credit: switz1873 CC BY 2.0

Unveiling Florida’s Industrial Past @ Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins Historic State Park

There are ruins of a 19th-century sugar plantation on 26 acres of land at this Florida State Park in Homosassa. A visit to Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins Historic State Park offers an insight into Florida’s past. It’s a great place to learn about the state’s history and natural environment, as well as to enjoy outdoor recreation.

A Florida politician and business owner named David Levy Yulee built the sugar mill in the 1850s. An important part of the local economy was the mill’s ability to process sugarcane from the surrounding plantation.

Ruins of the Yulee Sugar Mill, now a state historic site in Homosassa, FL.
Yulee Sugar Mill State Park Ruins Credit: switz1873 CC BY 2.0

At the park, visitors can explore the sugar mill ruins and learn about the sugar industry in Florida’s history. It provides an insight into the daily lives of the workers who lived and worked on the plantation through interpretive displays and guided tours.

A playground, hiking trails, picnic areas, and picnic areas are also at the park. Forest trails lead through a scenic forest where visitors can spot birds, reptiles, and mammals.

Bald Cypress in the water of Big Cypress
Ancient Bald Cypress knees

Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge: Preserving Nature’s Haven on the Suwannee River

A total of 53,000 acres are protected by the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It was established in 1979 to protect the Lower Suwannee River, its wildlife, and ecologically sensitive habitat. If you’re into the REAL old Florida, then you will definitely catch glimpses of it here. The refuge’s visitor center offers exhibits, educational programs, and a bookstore, providing visitors with an opportunity to learn more about the area’s natural and cultural history.

Lower Suwanee River Campground
Lower Suwannee River Campground Photo: E. Harris

The Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge is renowned for its scenic beauty, with pristine wilderness areas, crystal-clear waters, and dramatic rock formations. The area’s winding rivers and diverse ecosystems make it a truly exceptional and captivating landscape. A kayaker’s paradise. Whether you’re a seasoned paddler or a beginner, there are sections of the river that can accommodate your skill level and provide a memorable adventure.

The Lower Suwannee River is a beautiful and ecologically diverse
Suwannee River Cypress Photo Diana Kenney

Note: Depending on where you plan to launch your kayak and how long you plan to stay on the river, you may need to obtain a permit. Permits are available from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Among the wildlife found at the refuge are river otters, alligators, deer, and a variety of birds. In addition to providing critical habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the West Indian manatee and the wood stork,it is an important stopover site for migrating birds.

Floirda Hammock Forest Trail
Potts Preserve Wildlife Management Area Trail

Potts Preserve Wildlife Management Area: A Hidden Gem for Nature Enthusiasts

Citrus County’s Potts Preserve is an 8,300-acre nature preserve on CR-581 about 9-miles northeast of US-41. Sandhills, wetlands, and longleaf pine forests are among the habitats on the preserve, which provides habitat for a wide range of wildlife. In the early 1990s, Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) to protect groundwater recharge gained the land.

 Withlacoochee River. Cypress bog
Withlacoochee River

There are hiking trails, equestrian paths, birdwatching areas, and wildlife viewing areas. The preserve has over 30-miles of trails that wind through the different habitats. Visitors can see a variety of plant and animal species along the way. Trails on the western edge (Dee River Road) of the park are ventures through sandhills, pine forests, upland terrain. Whereas the eastern portion (Turner Camp Road) along the Withlacoochee River is wetlands and shady cypress hammock. The river access trail parking is off North Hooty Point Road. This is a 2-mile birding trail that follows the Withlacoochee River. The trail features several boardwalks that cross over streams and wetland areas.he preserve ponds and streams. The preserve has a fishing pier and several canoe and kayak launch sites.

Florida Sunset silhoutte of heron
Florida Sunset Photo: Pixabay

Final Thoughts on Florida Nature Coast Destinations

Florida’s Nature Coast is home to some of the sunshine states most remarkable natural landscapes, including pristine beaches, crystal-clear springs, and dense forests. Visitors can explore these natural wonders through hiking, kayaking, fishing, and wildlife watching.

Throughout the Nature Coast, you’ll find a laid-back atmosphere and friendly locals who are proud of their community’s heritage and natural resources. It’s a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and experience the beauty of Old Florida.

What is your favorite place to go on Florida’s Nature Coast? Have you been anywhere on this list? Where do you want to go on your next Florida Nature Coast road trip?