De Soto National Memorial commemorates Spanish Conquistador Hernando de Soto’s 1539 to 1543 Florida expedition and explores its negative effect on the local native population. De Soto’s expedition, for example, introduced the European black hog to Florida (before De Soto arrived, there were no indigenous swine in North America). The pigs escaped and bred in the wild, spreading livestock-borne diseases. Since the Native Americans living in Florida at the time had no natural immunities to these diseases (or others brought by the Europeans), few indigenous groups survived. Visitors can follow trails through the memorial’s 28 acres. Look for resident wildlife that includes herons, egrets, and ospreys nesting in the mangrove canopy; raccoons and armadillos moving through the hammocks; and dolphins and manatees swimming in coastal waters. Best Bet: The park is proudest of its award-winning Junior Ranger program. If traveling with kids, sign them up. All kids who successfully complete an activity book (by navigating the park’s trails) are sworn in as official Junior Rangers of De Soto and receive the park’s badge.
When to Go: The De Soto visitors center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Park grounds are open from dawn until dusk, but the parking lot gates close at 5 p.m. There is no overnight camping.
Must Dos: In summer, take a free, ranger-led kayak tour to paddle the same waterways Native Americans did half a millennium ago (weekends only; reservations required). In winter, attend a program at Camp Uzita, a re-creation of a 16th-century Native American village. At the top of every hour between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., living history interpreters present programs about the De Soto expedition and the indigenous peoples of the southeast. Every program ends with a literal bang as the reenactors demonstrate weapons used by Spanish explorers, including the firing of a replica matchlock musket.
Fun Fact: De Soto National Memorial is home to gumbo limbo trees, nicknamed “tourist trees” because they stand around in the sun, turn scarlet, and peel.
Photograph by Don Johnston_SU, Alamy
Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park
Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park protects more than a hundred miles of shoreline and over 43,000 acres of land. The best way to get to the park is to paddle in by kayak or canoe, but there are also entry points for hikers along its upland area. Best Bet: The Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center (CHEC), located within the park in Punta Gorda, is a nonprofit group that staffs a visitors center, offers environmental education programs, and leads interpretive hikes along six miles of marked trails.
Oscar Scherer State Park
Oscar Scherer State Park in Osprey uses the slogan “close to it all but a thousand miles away” due to its proximity to civilization outside the gates and its wild, untouched lands within. Rentals are available for kayaking along beautiful South Creek’s shaded, calm waters. Camp at one of 106 private and secluded campsites. Swim in freshwater Lake Osprey. Wander some of the 15 miles of hiking trails, and watch for the threatened Florida scrub jay. Best Bet: The Lester Finley Barrier-Free Nature Trail is accessible to anyone with sight, hearing, or mobility impairments and includes a wheelchair-accessible fishing dock.
Myakka River State Park
Florida’s only state-designated Wild and Scenic River, the Myakka, runs through the 58-square-mile Myakka River State Park near Sarasota. Must-dos include riding one of North America’s two largest airboats, the 70-passenger Gator Gal or the Myakka Maiden; climbing in the canopy to take in the view from a suspension bridge hung between two towers (the tallest is 70 feet off the ground); and alligator spotting on the park's two lakes, the Upper and Lower Myakka.