De Soto National Memorial

De Soto National Memorial
Location: Bradenton, Florida
Length of visit: 2 hours
Major draws: Dog walking trail, film
Strenuosity: 1 out of 10
Cost/Fees: Free
Additional considerations: Ranger-guided activities primarily in winter
Description: This is the spot Spanish Conquistador Hernando de Soto landed in 1539 on his ill-fated search for gold. The Spaniards brought many diseases to the indigenous peoples, but the longest lasting influence was the introduction of feral pigs.

 

Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park
Location: southwest Florida
Length of visit: full day to multiple days
Major draws: Alligators, dolphins, mangrove islands, birding, paddling
Strenuosity: 6 out of 10
Cost/Fees: $25 per vehicle or free with America the Beautiful pass
Additional considerations: Bugs, navigation skills required
Description: “Hell to get into; hell to get out of” is how old-timers described the mazelike route to Hell’s Bay.  We had a blast navigating the mangrove channels to our chickee and didn’t see another human for two days.

Grecian Rocks Reef

Grecian Rocks Reef—John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Location: offshore from Key Largo, Florida
Length of visit: 3 hours
Major draws: Coral reefs, snorkeling, boat tours, underwater Jesus, fis!
Strenuosity: 2 out of 10
Cost/Fees: $9 entrance fee, $29 per adult for snorkeling trip
Additional considerations: Barracudas and other toothy fish, snorkel destinations limited on high wind days
Description: Snorkel the Grecian Rocks Reef after a reasonably-priced boat ride 40-minutes out to the offshore reef for clear water, spectacular coral, and incredible fish diversity.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Location: Key Largo, Florida
Length of visit: half day to overnight
Major draws: Underwater cannons, snorkeling, fis!
Strenuosity: 1 out of 10
Cost/Fees: $9 entrance fee (included in $43 per night campsite with showers)
Additional considerations: Barracudas and other toothy fish
Description: Snorkel from the beach to see a simulated Spanish shipwreck with multiple cannons or stay dry by watching fish in the aquariums at the visitor center.

Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park
Location: south of Miami, Florida
Length of visit: 2 hours
Major draws: Mangrove shoreline, coral reefs offshore
Strenuosity: 4 out of 10
Cost/Fees: Free
Additional considerations: Gates lock at 5 p.m.
Description: When you think of a “National Park” this is not it. Most of the park is underwater, and the few concessionaires that boat tourists out there are booked months in advance.

Canaveral National Seashore

Canaveral National Seashore
Location: Titusville, Florida
Length of visit: half day
Major draws: Manatees, armadillos, fishing, paddling
Strenuosity: 0 to 2 out of 10
Cost/Fees: $5 per vehicle or free with America the Beautiful pass
Additional considerations: No campgrounds and limited backcountry camping
Description: When NASA prevented this area of Florida coast from development in the 1950s they did not imagine it would soon remain one of the longest stretches of wild coastline left on the Atlantic seaboard. We were excited to see our first living armadillo and manatee outside of a zoo.

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
Location: St. Augustine, Florida
Length of visit: 2 hours
Major draws: Cannon demonstrations, historic fort with artifacts
Strenuosity: 1 out of 10
Cost/Fees: $10 per person or free with America the Beautiful pass
Additional considerations: Limited pay parking, weekends crowds
Description: St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States having celebrated its 450th birthday in 2015; at its heart has always been Castillo de San Marcos or Fort Marion as it was renamed by the U.S. military in 1825.

Fort Frederica National Monument

Fort Frederica National Monument
Location: Brunswick, Georgia
Length of visit: 1 hour
Major draws: Ruins of colonial fort, cannons
Strenuosity: 1 out of 10
Cost/Fees: Free
Additional considerations: Hurricane Matthew knocked down trees closing some trails
Description: The British established this fort to stop Spanish encroachment from Florida into the 13 colonies. Today it is a beautiful setting with tabby ruins and Spanish moss draped trees.

Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park
Location: east of Columbia, South Carolina
Length of visit: half day
Major draws: Baldcypress trees with knees, birding, paddling
Strenuosity: 3 out of 10
Cost/Fees: Free
Additional considerations: Hurricane Matthew knocked trees onto boardwalk and across creek
Description: The last uncut bottomland hardwood forest in the southeast was originally preserved as Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976 then became a National Park in 2003. We had wanted to kayak its waters since our first visit in December 2010 and thoroughly enjoyed our 4-mile paddle.

Cape Lookout National Seashore

Cape Lookout National Seashore
Location: Harkers Island, North Carolina
Length of visit: 2 hours to overnight
Major draws: Lighthouse, undeveloped beach, seashells, kite flying, beach camping
Strenuosity: 3 out of 10
Cost/Fees: Free to camp, $16 roundtrip per adult for ferry
Additional considerations: Mosquitoes, jellyfish, portions of beach open to vehicles
Description: The majestic Cape Lookout Lighthouse (wearing argyle) looked out over our beachfront campsite for one night. We had never found so many large whelk shells on a beach.