7 bucket list adventures for your trip to Florida’s Sports Coast

By: Elizabeth Heath

Photo: Raymond Adams/Skydive City

Florida, best known for its busy beaches and theme parks, probably doesn’t spring to your mind as adrenaline central — but maybe that’s because you’ve never visited the Sports Coast.

The what coast, you say? North of Tampa, west of Orlando, and in a world all its own, Florida’s Sports Coast — anchored by the communities of Zephyrhills, Dade City, Wesley Chapel, and New Port Richey — is that hard-to-find combination of pristine natural areas, wide-open spaces, and cities that get confused for small towns. And for travelers looking for something a little out-of-the-ordinary on their next trip, the Sports Coast offers more adventure than you could ever pack into a single vacation.

The region’s abundance of green space — picture freshwater springs, preserved woods and wetlands, open prairie, and gentle hills — means there’s plenty of room to play, no matter what your level of adventure or sport of choice (though you may want to leave your snowshoes at home). And because this is Florida, the Sports Coast also has beautiful beaches, lively nights, and a vibrant dining scene. You’ll find a lifetime of things to keep you busy and active here, and the list below is just a taste of what’s in store.

This guide is proudly produced in partnership with Florida's Sports Coast.
Imagine the thrill of jumping out of a plane at an altitude of 13,500 feet, free-falling for a minute at speeds up to 120 miles per hour, pulling the ripcord, and then gently floating to terra firma. Zephyrhills has a long history as both a proving ground for skydiving champs and a place for beginners to “earn their wings,” soaring over the farmlands and protected forests of eastern Pasco County.

At Skydive City, get a taste of the exhilaration on a tandem jump with an instructor — you’ll be trained, up in the air, and back on the ground usually within two or three hours. If you really want to master the sport of skydiving, sign up for the Accelerated Freefall (AFF) course and complete your first solo jump after a just a few days of training.

Photo credits: Shutterstock/Mauricio Graiki and Raymond Adams/Skydive City
The Sports Coast’s many natural lakes and springs make a long list of ways to get up to your eyeballs in fresh water. And wakeboarding — a watersport that combines aspects of waterskiing, windsurfing, and snowboarding — is a challenge almost anyone can master. For terrific beginner and advanced wakeboarding facilities, The Lift Adventure Park, set on SunWest Park’s spring-fed lake in northern Pasco County, is the place to start.

If you’re a first-time wakeboarder at The Lift’s Wake Park, you’ll latch onto a beginners’ cable that tows you across the water, allowing you to learn the basics of staying upright and catching a wave. If you’re more advanced, challenge yourself on The Lift’s full-size cable, complete with ramps for jumps and aerial spins. Kids as young as seven can participate or join their families for a bouncing good time on The Lift’s Aqua Park, an inflatable, floating obstacle course of slides, swings, ramps, and climbing walls.

Photo credits: Shutterstock/Goldenporshe and Florida’s Sports Coast
Sometimes it’s worth it to wake up before the sun — and a daybreak balloon ride is one of those times. Based in Wesley Chapel, just 20 minutes or so north of Tampa, American Balloons runs daily sunrise rides. Watching the balloons inflate in the pre-dawn hours, climbing into the basket, and floating over the towns and green spaces of the Sports Coast will make for a morning you’ll never forget.

Couples can opt for a private Sweetheart Flight, while groups of up to 10 can all jump in the same basket and enjoy the one-hour ride together. Floating nearly 3,000 feet above the earth, the blissful calm is broken only by the occasional burst from the balloon’s burner — and maybe the oohs and aahs of your gobsmacked flying companions.

Photo credits: Florida’s Sports Coast and Shutterstock/Macknimal
One of the best ways to really understand the beauty of coastal Florida is to get out on the water and appreciate — up close — the region’s precious ecosystem and abundant wildlife. Try kayaking or canoeing along sheltered canals and see if you can spot gentle manatees. Paddle around mangrove islands, the rich breeding grounds for wading birds and fish. In protected Gulf waters, watch for dolphins and even sea turtles, while osprey, herons, and other birdlife soar overhead. For something more challenging, test your equilibrium on a stand-up paddleboard.

In New Port Richey, Windsong Charters can set you up with the self-propelled watercraft of your choice and offer suggested paddling trails and a “secret” snorkeling spot. If you prefer something less physical, they also rent easy-to-navigate pontoon boats and can arrange piloted boat trips with stops for snorkeling, shelling, and barbecuing.

Live oaks are some of the Sports Coast’s most iconic trees. Their sprawling, arm-like branches seem to reach out and hug the space around them, providing shade and natural habitats for countless creatures. At TreeHoppers Aerial Adventure Park, set in a leafy forest west of Dade City, live oaks also provide habitat for adventurers ready to climb, balance, and zip their way across nine exciting treetop ropes courses.

The park has courses for the littlest kids up to the most experienced climbers, each color-coded for degree of difficulty. Three-hour open climbing sessions allow you to start out easy and then step up the challenge as you dare — the climbs get higher, the bridges narrower, and the ziplines longer as you go. This is an eco-friendly, family-friendly adventure for all ages and fitness levels.

Photo credits: Florida’s Sports Coast
With minimal elevation change and abundant woodlands and native scrub, Florida’s Sports Coast is prime terrain for logging some leisure time outdoors on two wheels. Parks throughout Pasco County often take bikers into native woodlands full of wildlife — be sure to slow down long enough to catch sight of bald eagles, hawks, herons, gopher tortoises, and maybe even an elusive Florida panther (okay, probably not one of those, but it could happen?).

East of New Port Richey, Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park has seven miles of paved trails, plus another 23 miles of dirt trails suitable for hikers, bikers, and equestrians. Near Shady Hills, Crews Lake Wilderness Park has a paved biked trail around a natural lake teeming with birdlife. East of Dade City, at the perimeter of the vast Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve, Withlacoochee River Park has around 13 miles of trails weaving through an impressive natural area. All parks are BYOB (Bring Your Own Bike), but there are rental outfitters located across the region.

If you’re looking for a cabana boy to refill your daiquiri, you’ve come to the wrong beach. The coastline and beaches of Florida’s Sports Coast are native and wild, with no condos and tacky souvenir shops in sight.

Just offshore from New Port Richey, Robert K. Rees Memorial Park sits on undeveloped Green Key and features a boardwalk, a small sandy beach, and canoe/kayak put-ins. Further north near Hudson, Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park has four miles of untouched mangrove coastline — best explored by kayak or canoe (rentable onsite) and full of native and migratory birds. You might also spot dolphins and other marine life. For an even bigger adventure, plan to spend the day on Anclote Key Preserve State Park, set on an island some three miles off the coast. Reachable only by ferry or private boat, this remote park has four unspoiled beaches, plus picnic facilities and primitive bathrooms. Intrepid tent campers can even spend the night.

For a deeper dive, try scuba diving into one of the Sports Coast’s many springs and sinks — deep, natural lakes that can really test a diver’s skill. Mermaid Slayers in Tarpon Springs can hook you up for the time of your life.

Photo credits: Florida’s Sports Coast
This guide is proudly produced in partnership with Florida's Sports Coast.