Top Road Trip Destinations Along Florida's East Coast
Ahh, Florida. A beautiful state that boasts white sandy beaches, great surfing, the freshest seafood restaurants around, and of course, the world-famous Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. But did you know that Florida is so much more than just beaches and theme parks? It also has 175 stunning state parks, 11 nationally designated parks, preserves, beaches, and monuments, more than 700 natural springs, areas to spot manatees, dolphins, alligators, stingrays, Right whales, and even bioluminescence, the tiny glowing microorganisms that light up when touched!
Most people visiting Florida never get to experience this "other side" of the sunshine state and are happy to head back with their Mickey souvenirs and golden tans, and that's ok! But, if you want your vacation to be more than that and bring home family memories of a lifetime, read on and learn about the real Florida and the cities and towns that call these natural wonders home.
The Sunshine state has 8,436 miles of coastline, the second-most in the US. (Alaska beats us on mileage, but we like to think we win on the warm and inviting!)
St. Augustine is the oldest inhabited city in the US. In fact, it's also home to the first-ever St. Patrick's Day celebration. Yep, you read that right. Regardless of what our northern friends like to say, the first celebration was held in St. Augustine in 1601!
There are an estimated 1.25 million alligators who call Florida home!
Florida supplies the rest of the US with over 70% of its citrus.
Florida is so flat that even at its highest peak of 345 feet, it is actually still lower than every other state's lowest land point!
So, where exactly can you head in Florida to truly get to know the state? Check out these seven spots below to get a taste of what the sunshine state can offer. Of course, seven doesn't even come close to doing the state justice (we probably could have listed hundreds!), but these are some of our family-favorite areas that we think you will enjoy as well!
Most people assume you have to drive to Key West to properly see the Keys; however, you don't have to go far at all to enjoy the stunning beauty of this string of nearly 1700 islands. Key Largo is actually only 60 miles from downtown Miami and makes for a great day trip or even a longer stay in the Florida Keys.
Key Largo is considered a diving and snorkeling mecca, so if you have older kids or family members interested, then head here to enjoy John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Christ of the Deep Statue, Molasses Reef, and the USS Speigel Grove. For the younger ones, head to Harry Harris Park, where the kids can play in the protected swimming lagoon and practice their own snorkeling skills. If you prefer to stay dry while viewing the amazing fish and coral below, book a glass-bottom boat tour and watch everything from above!
Of course, Key Largo is literally just the beginning of the Florida Keys, and there are bounties of fun and activities to be had the further south you go! You can swim with the dolphins at Hawkes Cay Resort, learn the massive history of shipwrecks in Key West at the shipwreck museum, take a tour of the turtle hospital in Marathon, get your Instagram photo at the southernmost point in the US buoy, or head out ever further and explore Dry Tortugas National Park which is only accessible by boat or plane!
Everglades National Park
If you are looking for the largest and most diverse selection of both flora and fauna, then look no further than Everglades National Park. The Everglades are located where a temperate climate meets with a tropical one, and this harmonious blend of habitats explodes with exotic animals and rare plant life. The only one in the world, actually! Book an airboat ride and be whisked through miles of wetlands, mangrove trees, and cypress tree forests. The airboats are safe for all ages and can be an exciting way to experience the national park.
Be sure to also visit the Ah-Ta-Thi-Ki Museum, where you can view over 180,000 artifacts and learn about the history and culture of the Seminole tribe. While here, you can enjoy a mile-long boardwalk hike through the Everglades that is easy and fun for all ages. There are also many other hikes throughout the park, such as the Bobcat Boardwalk trail and Mahogany Boardwalk trail, where you can safely watch alligators in their natural habitat. Please do not stray off the trails and always stay in your group!
New Symrna is a quintessential beach town with cute shops and restaurants right along the water. And yes, the beach is absolutely great here! But within about a 30 minutes drive, either north or south, you will find a multitude of other options that might be even cooler than the beach.
Time your visit with a rocket launch and a visit to Kennedy Space Center, and you will have your space lovers talking for years about your visit. The Space Center can be visited almost any day of the year. It has phenomenal exhibits to learn about the history of space exploration and the future of what is to come. There is also a great kid's area (with a bar in the back for the parents!) where you can get some relief from the sun and let the kids pretend they are astronauts bouncing from planet to planet and sliding down surfaces of the moon.
A rocket launch is going to be harder to come by, but if you happen to be around for one, make sure your cameras are ready and head to the beach early to get a good spot. You can see these launches for miles and miles up and down the coast, so there is no reason to fight the traffic of Cape Canaveral. We like to grab a pizza, wine, and juice boxes and head down to the beach for a picnic while waiting for the launches!
Don't leave this area without booking a bioluminescence kayak tour. Located in the mosquito lagoon of Merritt Island, these tours will quite literally take your breath away. Grab your long sleeves, pants, and mosquito spray (they can be bad depending on the time of year) and head out in one or two-person kayaks. Every move your kayak, paddle, or hands make will set fire to the water below and mesmerize your eyes. Watch as fish dart away from your paddle and create glowing trails behind them. Your kids (and you!) will not be able to keep your hands out of the water. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
You can also get a birdseye view of the area and walk up to the top of the Ponce de Leon lighthouse at Ponce Inlet. The lighthouse is the third tallest in the US and stretches 175 feet in height. It can be a difficult hike to the top, and the steps do get quite narrow at the top, so make sure you're ready with proper shoes and holding the hands of any little ones. Our four-year-old made it up just fine with a little help from us. There is also a great museum attached to the lighthouse grounds that explains the history of the area and the lighthouse.
Some great restaurants are right on the water close by, such as Down the Hatch and The North Turn. Both are casual and great for some grub after a long day of sightseeing!
If you find yourself back in New Smyrna around dinner time, The Breakers is right on the beach and is casual beach dining at its best! If you want something a little fancier, head to The Garlic, but get there as early as possible. They don't take reservations, and the wait can reach over two hours. They serve Italian fare, and it's well worth it…if you can snag a seat!
Florida's Natural Springs
Would you believe me if I told you to head inland for the clearest waters? The Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico are not the only bodies of water worth checking out while you are visiting Florida. The state actually has hundreds of natural springs that are so clear you can see right to the bottom. Head to Central Florida and check out Blue Springs State Park for some of the clearest water around. It's a stunning sight along the St. Johns River here, and depending on what time of year you go, you can either go for a cool 72-degree dip or stay dry from the shore and watch the manatees laze about. During the cooler months, they come for the warmer, shallow water, and the spring is closed for water activities, but how cool to see manatees instead!
Another great spring for swimming is at Ponce de Leon State Park. Pack a picnic and some bathing suits and have a great day swimming in the clear, blue waters. If you want a special treat while at the park, the Old Spanish Sugar Millis is situated right next to the springs and serves up delicious pancakes for breakfast and lunch. They bring you the batter, and you make the pancakes right at your table! The kids love going for breakfast here and then taking a swim after. Be careful with the younger ones, though; the grills at the table do get hot!
If you prefer to get your water fix in a kayak rather than by swimming, Rock Springs is going to be a fun half-day adventure for the entire family. Head over to Kings Landing, which is right along the springs, and rent your kayak. Be sure to specify that you want to do the Emerald Cut section. It takes a couple of hours to get up and back (our four and seven-year-olds did just fine in the kayak with another adult), and the stunning scenery along the way is well worth it. It feels as if you are floating on glass! This is a favorite activity of our family and makes for some amazing photos. Just be sure to book your kayak ahead of time as they do book up, and make sure to put your phone/camera in a waterproof case!
Despite this being my husband and mine rival college town (Go Noles!), Gainesville is a great spot to take the family. Our most recent visit to Gainesville found us shark tooth hunting! Shark tooth hunting in the middle of the state? Yep! Millions of years ago, Florida was submerged underwater, and you can still find artifacts from long ago in some of the rivers. Gainesville actually has one of these spots, and you can book a guide to take you down to the river and help you sift through the sandy bottom to try your hand at finding a prehistoric shark's tooth! We found quite a few when we went, although we weren't lucky enough to snag a megalodon tooth. They are in there, though!
If you time your visit with the sunset, you can also check out the University of Florida Bat Houses. These are the world's largest occupied bat houses, and each night around dusk, about 500,000 bats emerge to feast on the insects for dinner. It can be quite a sight and a great educational experience to boot!
Gainesville is also home to some excellent hikes to see wildlife and mother nature at its best. The La Chua Trail is on an elevated boardwalk, and you will most likely see gators lazing in the sun (safely from the boardwalk, of course!). There are additional trails off the boardwalk, but we tend to stay on the raised areas where we know our kids will be safer and away from the wildlife. Morningside Nature Center is also another great spot to take the kids for a safe boardwalk hike. They have additional activities from September-May, such as a living farm and a barnyard buddies program where the kids can help feed the animals.
History buffs rejoice! St. Augustine will give you the dose of history you need with plenty of fun cannons, forts, and tours that will excite the kids as well! Just walking through the old town section on its cobblestone streets will transport you back to another time and era. The city was founded in 1565, and many buildings can still be seen and toured today. Be sure to make a stop at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument; the kids will love the old cannons and checking out the different rooms in the fort. If you go in the summer, try and time it for earlier in the day when the sun isn't as hot, it can get pretty stifling, and there isn't any shade.
The Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse is also a fun, quick tour that is educational and in a great location for a quick treat or coffee afterward. And don't forget about the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum! This is always a fun stop for both little and grown kids alike!
If you all haven't had the chance to have an alligator sighting yet, head to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and view hundreds of alligators safely from a boardwalk above the alligator area below. They also have daily wildlife shows of other exotic animals such as lemurs, sloths, and exotic birds. It's a fun day out, and last time we went, they even had an albino alligator. It was very cool!
Another great stop is Marineland, where you can swim with the dolphins, feed a tortoise, or even have a dolphin paint you a picture to take home as a souvenir! This is also an educational stop as the kids will learn a ton about the dolphins from the trainers and hopefully be able to appreciate them even more!
Allll the way, at the NE corner of Florida, sits a hidden gem where you can find handfuls of sharks' teeth and take a horseback ride on the beach at sunset. It's literally what movies are made of! Head up to Amelia Island and relax on Fernandina Beach while your kids play in the sand. Enjoy walking up and down the town and checking out cute shops, art galleries, and great restaurants after having enough sun for the day.
Head to Fort Clinch State Park and tour the fort perched along the sand dunes. During the Civil War, this was a strategic fort, and rows of cannons can still be found ready for action. Walk along the beach after and find shark teeth or maybe even spot some wildlife as you enjoy the shade-covered nature trail.
Big Talbot Island State Park is also a great place to walk along the beach and find fun and exciting things that have washed up onshore. If you have any birdwatchers in the family, it's also a spectacular place to see some Florida birds, so be sure to bring binoculars! There are a bunch of small tide pools along Black Rock Beach that the kids always love looking for small crabs and fish in as well! But remember, what is found on the beach, stays on the beach here!
You can also hop on a ferry and head to Cumberland Island. Ok, so I know this is technically in Georgia, but it's beautiful and a great spot for anyone who is looking for natural beauty. Check out our full article on it to plan your trip there!
Florida is a huge state (it covers two time zones!), so this list focused on the eastern half of the sunshine state. The west coast has its own beauty and amazing destinations and will have a list of its own soon! Some people actually prefer the West coast's beaches for the calm waters and shell hunting opportunities!
What are your favorite spots in Florida? Have any great local knowledge that you would love to share with us? Let us know in the comments below, or tag us in your photos @gethappyly!
Want to learn about more great local activities in other states? We have a whole state-by-state series that we are ramping up again, and would love to have you along for the journey! Check out our past state-by-state articles on Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia!
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