Offering a montage of trail-laced woodlands, slow-rolling rivers, and biodiversity-rich wetlands, Florida’s Adventure Coast has unlimited outdoor adventures on tap. The region is overlaid with nearly 200,000 acres of protected parklands, offering an abundance of opportunities for outdoor lovers all year long. From morning birdwatching walks to family-friendly bike rides and coastal kayaking trips, there’s something for every sort of nature lover on Florida’s Adventure Coast, but here are a few of the best ways to get outside and savor the region’s natural assets.
Florida scrub-jays, white-tailed deer, swallow-tailed kites, and fox squirrels reside in the 158,000-acre Withlacoochee State Forest, the second largest state forest in Florida. On the Adventure Coast, there are a number of ways to explore the expansive protected area, including an abundance of trail options that have everything from leisurely riverside rambles to multi-day backcountry adventures.
In the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest, the Silver Lake Recreation Area offers riverside paths, along with three different campgrounds, while the Tucker Hill Day Use Area is garlanded with 25 miles of hiking trails to explore. The longest paved trail in Florida, the 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail also traverses a corner of the massive state forest and provides an option for hikers, bikers, runners, and equestrians.
For backpackers, the Florida National Scenic Trail (or Florida Trail for short) also rambles through the Withlacoochee State Forest along its 1,300-mile route from the Gulf Islands National Seashore to Big Cypress National Preserve.
Rambling through three counties, the 41.3-mile Suncoast Trail is among the longest paved cycling paths in Florida, and part of the statewide Greenways and Trails System. The award-winning scenic trail showcases a collection of nature preserves, regional parks, and rolling countryside, and offers plenty of panoramic picnic spots and trailheads easily-accessible to cyclists.
A connector trail is planned to link the Suncoast Trail to the Brooksville Good Neighbor Trail, a 10-mile greenway that follows the former route of the Florida Southern Railroad Line and provides access to historic Brooksville. The Good Neighbor Trail is relatively flat and winds through Brooksville and into the Withlacoochee State Forest where it connects with the 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail. It’s a great route for cyclists and runners.
Along with the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Adventure Coast is also braided with inland waterways, including 52 miles of rivers. For paddlers, one of the region’s highlights is the Withlacoochee River, a waterway Hernando de Soto traversed during his explorations in the region during the first half of the 16th century. Recognized as a Florida Outstanding Waterway, the north-flowing blackwater river meanders between Green Swamp and the Gulf of Mexico, and charts a course largely through parks and natural areas.
The 76-mile stretch of river between Dunnellon and Lacoochee is also a state-designated paddling trail. On Florida’s Adventure Coast, there are plenty of ways to access the stunning waterway, including Lake Townsen Regional Park and the Silver Lake Recreation Area in the Withlacoochee State Forest.
The Adventure Coast’s tidal waters also hold plenty of options for paddlers, including the Bayport-Linda Paddling Trail. The 1.7-mile route that connects Bayport Park and Linda Pedersen Park showcases a dynamic tidal estuary rich in wildlife. Keep an eye out for bald eagles and osprey overhead, along with white egrets and wood storks beside the water. If you want more time on the water, add on the 1.4-mile Redfish Bayou Loop that branches off the Bayport-Linda Pedersen Paddling Trail, or just do an out and back for a nice 3.4-mile round-trip tour.
If you don’t have your own kayak, you can make arrangements with Boyett’s Grove for rentals and shuttle at the end of your paddle. Or, rent from other local outfitters, provided you have the means to return the boats.
Along Florida’s Adventure Coast, the crystalline waters of the Gulf of Mexico are especially rich in marine life. Intensive marine conservation efforts, including the construction of extensive offshore reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, have made the waters a haven for a variety of species and draw fish like red grouper, amberjack, and cobia. The region is also home to some of the most extensive seagrass beds in Florida, second only to the Florida Keys. Nearly 250,000 acres of seagrass beds carpet the waters of the Gulf of Mexico along the Adventure Coast, and lure creatures like sea turtles and manatees.
The region’s seagrass meadows help in other ways as well, such as filtering sediment to create crystal clear water, and providing critical resources for marine life. Just a single acre of seagrass can sustain 40,000 fish and 50 million invertebrates. During the summer season, visitors can scour the region’s underwater seagrass meadows for bay scallops, and several local outfitters offer guided trips that allow snorkelers to seek out the free-swimming bivalves.
A collage of winding rivers, sprawling woodlands, and tidal wetlands, the Adventure Coast’s natural areas harbor a wide array of wild creatures, and serve as home to 10 different stops along the statewide Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. For birders and other wildlife enthusiasts, some of the Adventure Coast’s gems include the 11,206 acre Weekiwachee Preserve, a sanctuary for spring and fall migrants, with more than 250 species recorded. For woodland birds, the Chinsegut Wildlife and Environmental Area is a hotspot, and offers the chance to spy vibrantly-colored red-headed woodpeckers and pileated woodpeckers, the largest species of woodpecker in North America.The region’s coastal wetlands are also rich in avifauna, especially shorebirds and raptors. Look for common loons, osprey, and belted kingfishers at Linda Pedersen Park, and use the 40-foot observation tower to scan the Gulf of Mexico for marine creatures like dolphins and manatees.
Brimming with water to explore, the Adventure Coast has an irresistible allure for anglers. Beyond the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the region offers freshwater lakes, pristine rivers, and plenty of family-friendly fishing spots. In the region’s coastal waters, tarpon and grouper gather near shore, and the area’s shallow salt marshes harbor species like cobia and Spanish mackerel. Farther offshore, amberjack, red grouper and kingfish gather around rock piles and artificial reefs.
Meanwhile, the region’s serene lakes and freshwater rivers are also teeming with angling adventures. Fish for largemouth bass and catfish on the Withlacoochee River, spend a leisurely day at Lake Townsen Regional Park casting for sunfish and bluegill, or take the family to historic Mary’s Fish Camp and drop a line in the Mud River.
Florida’s manatees are the state’s most iconic residents and observing the gentle marine mammals in the wild is an unforgettable experience. Manatees can inhabit an array of waterways, including coastal bays and estuaries, slow-moving rivers, and even canals, meaning there are plenty of places to spot the massive marine mammals on the Adventure Coast. However, winter is the best season for manatee-spotting in the region.
Vulnerable to cold-stress during cooler months when temperatures drop in the Gulf of Mexico, manatees must seek out warmer waters and often head for the Adventure Coast’s inland rivers and temperate springs. One of the best places to spy the engaging creatures is in the spring-fed Weeki Wachee River, that has a year-round temperature of approximately 74 degrees. The gentle sea cows have even been known to join the iconic mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. For wildlife enthusiasts, the state park also offers 5.5-mile paddling trips on the Weeki Wachee River.
Written by Malee Baker Oot for Matcha in partnership with Florida’s Adventure Coast.
Featured image provided by Alan Cressler