Walk On The Wild Side: Orlando’s Best Nature Experiences

Take a walk on the wild side and experience Central Florida’s remarkable natural beauty.

TERRY GODBEY

Orlando is the most visited destination in the United States, and its theme parks, with their megadose of fantasy and thrills, are a big reason. But for a different kind of adventure, the area offers an untamed, authentic side. Imagine seeing alligators up close, or spending a day wandering through woods and wetlands teeming with wildlife and alive with birdsong.

Places abound—not far from the city’s urban core—where you can embrace the great outdoors under your own power. Whether on foot, by bicycle, or in myriad other ways, these adventures promise to deliver surprises around every corner.

If learning more about Florida’s native fauna is on your wish list, Orlando Wetlands Park is one of the state’s best birding sites. Its 1,650 acres of hardwood hammocks, marshes and lakes are home to more than 200 species of birds. But that’s not all. You’re also likely to see alligators, bobcats, otters, foxes, deer, turtles, snakes and butterflies during a visit to this area, just east of Orlando proper in the town of Christmas.

Orlando Wetlands Park is home to a variety of wildlife and birds, including this great blue heron. TERRY GODBEY

Bring your camera and be on the lookout for red-shouldered hawks, bald eagles and, if you’re lucky, bright pink roseate spoonbills. There are migrating birds in the winter, nesting birds in the spring and wading birds year-round, including all manner of herons, egrets and ibises.

A word of caution, however: There is little to no shade, so visit in the early morning hours or late afternoon on warm days and take plenty of water.

Camellia japonica at Leu Gardens. COURTESY LEU GARDENS

For a cooler, more cultivated experience, visit Harry P. Leu Gardens. This 50-acre oasis in the city includes an impressive camellia collection—one of the country’s largest—and Mary Jane’s Rose Garden (Florida’s largest formal rose garden) as well as vegetable, herb and bamboo gardens, among others. Wide paths make many areas fully accessible by wheelchair. In Winter Park, Mead Botanical Garden spans 48 acres and has a more rustic look. Stroll under the longleaf pine canopy, hike along Howell Creek, wander through the butterfly gardens, and keep an ear out for the who-who-who-whoooo calls of the barred owls.

Is a faster pace more your speed? At Revolution Adventures, you can rent all-terrain vehicles to explore the 230-acre recreational area in Clermont, or hop on an eight-wheel amphibious vehicle to navigate its lakes and ponds.

An alligator caught mid-bellow at Gatorland. COURTESY GATORLAND

For the aquatically minded, the Shingle Creek and Wekiva River areas are gorgeous spots to rent a canoe or kayak and make a splash. The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek (the headwaters of the Florida Everglades) rents stand-up paddleboards, too—and provides guided eco-tours if you want to relax while soaking in the scenery.

Rock Springs Run, west of Sanford, is another jewel. This spring-fed stream, which eventually joins the Wekiva River, has wonderfully crystal-clear water. You can rent canoes or kayaks at King’s Landing or go swimming or tubing at the spring in nearby Kelly Park, where the water is a refreshing 68 degrees all year. (Inner tubes can be rented at areas outside the park.)

If cycling is your thing, a good bet is the 22-mile-long West Orange Trail. Rent bikes at the southern trailhead, Killarney Station, and stop to grab a sandwich or ice cream cone in quaint downtown Winter Garden.

If you’re hankering to experience the Florida of yore but your legs are sore from traversing theme parks, give them a rest while driving through a nature preserve.

A giraffe leans in for its closeup at Wild Florida. COURTESY WILD FLORIDA

Wild Florida’s airboat tour through swamps, marshes and rivers will take your breath away. You can also drive through its Safari Park for a look at exotic animals such as zebras and giraffes as well as native deer and bison, without ever leaving the comfort of your car.

One of Central Florida’s earliest tourist attractions, Gatorland, is bursting with charm. Open since 1949, the park is famous for its shows in which gator wranglers tempt the huge reptiles to jump for food and its boardwalk through a marsh dotted with hundreds of gators and nesting birds. It has zip line rides, and a petting zoo and train for the kids. You can see rare white gators (they are not the same as albinos, though the park has one of those, too). Remember to snap a selfie at the iconic “gator mouth” entrance.

The Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive is part of the Lake Apopka North Shore environmental sanctuary. Along the 11-mile, one-way road, you’ll observe an abundance of wildlife from behind the wheel. The speed limit is 10 mph, so at peak times it can take two to three hours to drive all the way through. One caveat: The drive is open only Friday through Sunday. Roll down your windows and take photos of the residents, which include hundreds of bird species as well as gators, otters and raccoons. It’s fairly common to see bobcats as well. Stopping your car is limited to designated pullouts, and you’ll also want to watch out for hikers and bicyclists where the road intersects with the Lake Apopka Loop Trail.

Outdoor adventure abounds in Central Florida. Whether you’re riding roller coasters or learning firsthand about the state’s wildest residents, there’s never a dull moment.

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