Seeing animals in their natural habitats doesn’t have to involve hours of trekking through the wilderness. At parks and preserves across Florida, there are plenty of walks that are short on distance (less than a mile to a couple of miles, one way), yet big on wildlife views.
Circle B Bar Reserve, Lakeland
Free and open 365 days a year, Circle B Bar Reserve is a protected green oasis within a fast-growing urban area. “This is nature’s home, as signs tell visitors arriving here,” says Tabitha Biehl, environmental lands stewardship coordinator for Polk’s Nature Discovery Center, located inside the reserve. “Mowing and other artificial landscape changes have been minimal, allowing you to walk through native Florida habitat that has a feel of being deep in a forest rather than just a few miles from town.” The Circle B wetland draws thousands of migratory waterfowl annually and borders Lake Hancock, home to one of the highest concentrations of alligators of any lake in the state. Take the Oak Hammock Interpretative Trail (3.4 miles round-trip) from the parking area to the lake.
Coconut Point Sanctuary, Melbourne Beach
The parking area for the Coconut Point trailhead is at Juan Ponce de Leon Landing. And while whether the explorer actually landed here in 1513 is up for debate, this 62-acre habitat of coastal strand, oak scrub, and coastal oak and mangrove forests likely looks much the same as it did 500 years ago. Follow the one-mile loop trail over ancient sand dunes from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian River Lagoon. From the observation platform there, look for wading and shorebirds, soaring ospreys, and the occasional dolphin pod.
Anhinga Trail, Everglades National Park
At 2,400 square miles, Everglades National Park is about twice the size of Rhode Island. For first-time visitors, the sheer size of the park can be overwhelming. The Anhinga Trail boardwalk shrinks the Everglades to a more manageable size without diminishing the wild factor. Less than a mile long and located in Royal Palm Hammock (just four miles west of the main Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center park entrance), the paved and boardwalk path along Taylor Slough is the best first stop in the Everglades. As the name implies, long-necked anhinga, or water turkey, can be found here, breeze-drying their wings in the sun. From the boardwalk and observation platforms, you’re also likely to see alligators, egrets, herons, turtles, and snakes.
Best Bet: Circle B Reserve protects about a mile of Lake Hancock shoreline. Visit the shoreline around dusk or dawn to increase your chances of seeing (from a distance) alligators, eagles, bobcats, or coyotes.
When to Go: Mainly clear skies, comfortable temperatures (average highs in the upper 70s), and few biting insects make the winter dry season (typically December through April) the best time to visit the Everglades.
Practical Tip: For personal safety and protection of the natural environment, stay on the trail and do not feed, disturb, approach, or harm wildlife.