Florida shaped my personal definition of “adventure.” I remember as a kid getting out on the water of the Everglades and just listening — the almost-audible, inexorable flow of the water, pierced now and then by the not-so-distant call of a bird of prey, the inland rustling of bushes marking the passage of a toad, otter, or who knows what. There were no spikes of adrenaline, no sore muscles, just nature right there so close I felt I was part of it. To me, that’s adventure.
You can have it just like that in Florida — but there’s an abundance of the heart-pounding variety of adventure as well. The state is one big natural playground, with experiences of every type. A Florida adventure is one you’ll never forget. Here are eight suggestions to get you started.
1. Kayaking through the Everglades…with alligators
At first glance, you might think you’re looking at a rock breaking the water’s surface. And then it becomes a rock that’s staring at you. Yes, you’ve just spotted an alligator.
Face-to-face nature moments like this happen all the time when you’re kayaking in Everglades National Park. The water trails are plentiful — most of the park is one giant, slow-moving river, after all — so you can find a route to suit any skill level. Bring your own canoe or kayak, or pick up a rental at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City. There’s a public launch behind the center, from where you can head inland to the Halfway Creek and Loop trails. Another exceptional spot for a paddle is the Turner River, accessed via the Tamiami Trail (aka US 41) in Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge. Note that the Turner is super popular, so best to check it out in the early morning or on a weekday.
If a few hours on the water doesn’t sufficiently scratch the itch, you don’t have to settle. A three-day camping tour like the one offered by Florida Outdoor Adventures includes a kayak, guide service, and all the food and gear you’ll need to paddle through the wetlands, floating past pelicans and the occasional dolphin or manatee, and into the Gulf of Mexico.
2. Velodrome cycling near Hollywood
One of the main draws of Hollywood Beach, on the Atlantic Coast between Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale, is the Broadwalk, a 2.5-mile promenade that’s perfect for a casual cycle along the oceanfront. (Pro tip: There are tons of restaurants here, too — I usually veer the half-block inland to CAFE CLUB by Les Artistes for a smoothie and crepe.)
But if you’re traveling on two wheels and prefer a beefier challenge (and the subsequent bragging rights), head over to the Velodrome at Brian Piccolo Park in neighboring Cooper City, where you’ll find a 200-meter-long track with slopes of up to 10 degrees. The velodrome is one of three in the Southeast, and the only one in Florida. There’s also a road course with two loops open to cyclists and in-line skaters: a 500-meter option great for beginners and families, and an 800-meter track where you’re more likely to be pedaling alongside speedsters.
3. Solving the mazes of the Ten Thousand Islands
As you paddle your way through the Ten Thousand Islands, keep quiet. What do you hear, apart from the water lapping against your craft? What do you see? Your only companions may seem to be brown pelicans swooping low or osprey circling overhead, both in search of prey. This area is an absolute labyrinth, though, and you can never tell what creatures may be lurking nearby.
SUPing is an awesome way to explore the network of islands and keys that make up the region, located just off the coast of Florida’s southwest tip. (The northern part of the Ten Thousand Islands lies in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge; the southern section falls within the Everglades.) You’ll paddle your way through mangrove forest, between cordgrass and sea oats waving in the breeze, the waters perpetually tranquil.
If you want to head farther from the mainland and deep into the maze of channels, ditch the SUP for a kayak or canoe. You’ll need to pack water, food, and supplies as though you won’t see another human for days — because you might not. For a moderate workout, try the five-mile Sandfly Loop, which takes at least a couple hours to complete. Or make a full day of it by paddling to Rabbit Key — just be sure to take navigational charts and get a briefing on potential hazards from a local expert (the aforementioned Gulf Coast Visitor Center is a good place to inquire).
4. Swimming with manatees around Crystal River
The West Indian manatee is a remarkable creature to see in its natural habitat. These inquisitive mammals are big — we’re talking adults that weigh upwards of a thousand pounds and measure 10 feet in length. It’s highly possible you’ll spot them at play as you kayak along the coast or inland waterways (e.g., Manatee Park in Fort Myers), but for the most intimate experience, head to the Crystal River area, just north of Tampa Bay. After learning your “manatee manners,” you’ll take to the water in the only spot in North America where you can legally swim with these local celebrities. And, yep, you can definitely pet them. They might even nuzzle you!
If you prefer to keep your head above water, a boating eco-tour in Naples can introduce you to manatees, as well as other marine creatures like dolphins and sharks.
5. Freefalling above Lake O
If you’ve ever wanted to get a sky-high view of Florida, nail that seriously wind-tousled look, or follow someone you love out the open door of a plane, this is the adventure for you. Leap into the air above Lake Okeechobee, catching a glimpse of the rural area surrounding Florida’s “inland sea,” with outfits Skydive Palm Beach and Skydive Spaceland. Tandem divers can expect to be flown up to about 14,000 feet. That’s when you’ll leave the cocoon of the airplane, freefalling at speeds up to 120mph — attached to someone who knows what they’re doing, of course. There’s no advance training needed other than a short safety briefing right before you fly.
Bonus: Videographers often fly along, so you can take home proof of your elevated bragging rights.
6. Descending cavernous trails in Marianna
You can explore Florida on land, in the water, from the air…and you’re not done yet. At Florida Caverns State Park, you’ll get views of the state from below, via caves that plunge as much as 65 feet into a darkness featuring stalactites, stalagmites, and other subterranean features.
You’ll need to be comfortable maneuvering through narrow passageways, hunching down for four-foot ceilings, and potentially running into bats. Tours (45 minutes) depart daily and move at an easy pace through 12 “rooms,” with talks about geology and area history along the way. Afterward, head back up for open-air hiking along the park’s rocky bluff trails, or grab a bike and cycle along the Chipola River. Canoe rentals are also available onsite, and on the water keep an eye out for herons, egrets, and alligators.
7. Surfing Cocoa Beach
Florida’s Space Coast is a great spot to hang ten, thanks to its awesome breaks and swells. And Cocoa Beach, the East Coast surf capital, is legit — just ask 11-time World Surf League Champ and hometown hero Kelly Slater. This is where you’ll find the world’s largest surf store, the flagship Ron Jon Surf Shop. It’s open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, because no one should ever be deprived of surfing Space Coast waves.
Bring your own gear or rent a board and hit the water, zero planning required — Cocoa Beach has comfortable temperatures year-round both in and out of the surf. And when it’s time for a break on land, stroll through the Florida Surf Museum. You’ll find exhibits celebrating women of the waves and local surf legends, as well as an impressive display of old-school photos (oh, the short-shorts) and boards throughout history.
8. Going west of Key West
If you think Key West is the end of the road, you’re missing out. Well beyond the lures of Duval Street lies an uninhabited world (well, at least by humans) at Key West National Wildlife Refuge. Get there via a local operator — which should supply kayaks, SUPs, and whatever else you’ll need for the trip — and access some of the best spots for snorkeling and diving among Florida’s coral reefs.
Join an eco-tour for access to the marine sanctuary within refuge boundaries, or explore on your own in less restricted areas. Keep an eye out for dolphins at play, manatees surfacing for a quick hello, and herons swooping overhead. Out there beyond the end of the road, you’ll learn what adventure really means in Florida.