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Exploring Nature Near Orlando
A Subtropical Auto Tour
Starting in Orlando, you itinerary visit your choices of —
Several subtropical forests,
Almost pristine springs and
Two wild rivers,
Beaches without development (a rarity
Orange groves, and
The famed Kennedy Space
Center, site of voyages to the Moon, set adjacent to a wildlife preserve.
Above: Juniper Springs near Orlando - simply wonderful for all ages.
On this scenic trip, you
see a large variety of animals, reptiles, and birds in their natural
settings. Driving directions are given throughout, but I would really prefer that you either print out the current directions from Google Maps or use in-vehicle app that gives directions as you drive.
Too many Florida travellers just focus on
the man-made Florida--the planned theme parks, the big hotels,
the manicured beaches--and do not experience just how beautiful
this state is. With Dr. Voyageur, you will transcend the artificial and have a natural experience that will be remembered for a lifetime.
Allow one to three days. Spending just one
day is worthwhile.
On the first day, bring along some items
for a picnic lunch at one or more of the springs described below,
as on site food is limited, but remember to pack food that will
not spoil quickly in the heat.
Dress lightly. T-shirts and
light trousers or shorts made of natural fibres are fine for everywhere
we will visit. Have
mosquito repellent, heavy-duty SUNBLOCK, comfortable shoes, a hat, a swimming suit
and a beach towel, and during the wet season a light rain parka.
If travelling during November, December, January, or February,
take along a light sweater or jacket, but hopefully you will not
Starting out from Orlando
To avoid much of the traffic congestion
of Orlando, we will zoom northwest on the the Florida Turnpike,
which charges a small toll. Access Google Maps to determine how best to reach the
Turnpike from where you are.
Orlando area voters were given a choice
between spending tax monies on better schools or on better highways,
and they favoured their children. God bless them for that, but
it's a decision that you may not appreciate if caught in local
So, if travelling on weekdays, try to head
out before the morning "rush hour" between 07:00 and
09:00 or immediately after it. In any case get an early start,
or plan on spending the first night in the Mount Dora area described
As mentioned, from Orlando, head northwest
on "Florida's Turnpike", as its signs are marked. When
driving in Florida, always carry coins, especially quarters, which
you may throw into bins at toll booths, instead of waiting in
longer queues for change.
From Florida Turnpike exit 285, go north
on State Route 19 to just before U.S. Highway 441.
Turn right onto "Old Highway 441"
and follow it along the scenic lake into Mount Dora.
Otherwise, if you miss this turn, continue
north a short distance to U.S. Highway 441.
Turn right on Highway 441, as Route 19 joins
it travelling eastbound.
Ignore the junction where Route 19 heads
north from 441, and instead continue on Highway 441 eastbound.
Take any turn marked "Mt. Dora"
and drive down toward the waterfront and the Mount Dora business
Use some time to drive and walk around this
most pleasant small resort town with its charming shops and bed
and breakfast places that hark back to another era. Historic buildings,
small cafes and restaurants, ceramics and other art shops, quilt,
and antique places abound, and the parks along the lake add to
When leaving Mount Dora, drive away from
the lake on any street up to U.S. Highway 441.
Ignore the signs that say Route 19 bypass,
and instead continue to the junction with State Highway 19.
Turn north on Route 19, and pass through
Eustis, another pleasant small town and retirement centre.
Viewing nature at Alexander
Continue north on Route 19, and enter the
Ocala National Forest.
Above: When they enter the forest that surrounds the spring you will see just how lush the Alexander Springs natural environment is.
Soon on the left you see the entrance to
the U.S. Forest Service visitor information centre. Its very pleasant
staff gives excellent advice and free maps and guides. You may
wish to make a small donation in the box provided.
Continue north on Route 19 until you reach
the marked turn off to Alexander Springs. Turn right. (If you
reach State Highway 40, you have gone too far).
Alexander Springs, a wonderful natural preserve,
comes up on your left.
Enter and pay the small entrance fee. There also may be camping, but better to have booked that well in advance.
At Alexander Springs, a large spring gives
birth to a real river in a fabulous natural setting.
Swimming in the large pool formed by the
spring surrounded by semi-tropical vegetation is super. The water
temperature is perfect for warm days. If certified, you can scuba
here. The large sand beach accommodates many without crowding.
Change rooms come with hot showers. Camping,
too, is available, as well as pleasant picnic areas.
Usually, few non locals visit. The poor creatures
are back in Orlando waiting in queues at the amusement parks and
paying dearly for the privilege of doing so (Dr. V loves the theme
parks, but not so much when he can be in Ocala National Forest).
Here, wildlife and bird observation is superb.
You may take marked paths to observation decks to view wildlife,
including at times eagles and other birds. If you see brown bears
(called grizzly bears in the western U.S., Alaska, and Canada),
do not approach them. They don't like you. Don't make them prove it.
Check if canoes are currently be rented to travel down river. You get a canoe and a pick up from some 7
miles away with transportation back to the spring. Contact the
U.S. Forest Service Visitor Centre, 1 352 669-7495, near Alexander
Springs to verify the current availability of boats and pickup.
However, you must be brave! After signing
a form at the boat rental stand that releases the owners from
all liability in case of accident, you are given a boat and a
heartfelt goodbye and good luck, and off you go.
Almost immediately, you see alligators sunning
themselves on the banks, looking at you, and thinking of dinner.
Do not approach these reptiles! Even the
small ones can do serious damage to capsized boaters.
Any fear is forgotten, however, as the beauty
of the river is stunning.
A profusion of birds fly overhead, including
eagles at times. Because the water is so pure and clear, river
life too will be easily visible. This is a wonderful place.
Take the time to enjoy this spectacle, but
do not take foolish chances. If your children are not mature enough
to behave themselves and follow simple instructions, do not attempt
this canoe trip with them.
Otherwise, go for this wonderful opportunity
to canoe here, as travelling a short distance on this wild river
may be one of your most memorable American experiences. Nevertheless,
if you do not want to, Dr. Voyageur offers a beautiful but less
demanding alternative later on.
Enjoying Juniper Springs
When done, exit Alexander Springs and turn
Continue to the "T" junction,
and turn right.
Drive on a short distance to State Highway
40, and carefully turn left, watching out for the fast traffic
on Route 40.
Go west on Highway 40 to the entrance to
Juniper Springs. Be careful, as its sign is on the left side of
Route 40, but the actual entrance is on the right.
Juniper Springs, another excellent swimming
spot, was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a wonderful
programme during the Great Depression that gave youth employment,
often in natural settings. Even after some 65 years, you still
see their public works in parks throughout the United States.
You may love Juniper even more than Alexander. Juniper also offers camping.
The more tamed Juniper Springs is usually
more crowded than Alexander, but it is very pretty and very worthwhile
visiting. Picnic tables are available in a pretty setting.
During your drive through the Ocala National
Forest, you have crossed the marked Florida National Scenic Trail
several times. For this very sandy trek, you should bring boots
and should not walk alone.
If you are interested in group nature hikes
in Ocala National Forest and other scenic areas of Canada and
the U.S., check out the chapters page on the Sierra Club website.
Choices, choices, choices
From Juniper Springs, depending on your time and interests, you can either 1) return to Orlando, 2) head up to historic St. Augustine—oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement on the U.S. mainland—or 3) head directly to Atlantic Ocean at Ormond Beach and Daytona Beach.
Silver Springs State Park
If you overnight, I suggest Ocala up the I-75. This pleasant town hosts Silver Springs State Park, a fantastic natural experience for all ages.
Long before Walt Disney arrived Silver Springs State Park was THE amusement park in Florida. And, all its activities were natural ones. Glass bottom boats, bird exhibits, canoing, etc.
This large information centre has a really
helpful staff that sells discounted tickets to local attractions
and suggests places to visit. Let them provide you a inexpensive
ticket on one of the horse drawn carriages of the St. Augustine
Transfer Company and a free map of the centre city. From the visitor's
centre, you are within easy walking distance of the historic area
and the Transfer Company tours starting point.
Your one-hour guided tour shows the highlights
of this, the oldest continuously occupied European settlement
in the United States (Santa Fe, the charming town in New Mexico,
is the oldest European settlement west of the Mississippi and
the oldest state capital in the U.S).
After your tour, spend time walking around
the historic section and fortifications, including the plaza and
St. George Street areas. You will find the setting on a beautiful
On your guided tour, you passed the Lions
Bridge, where Route A1A branches off Business Route One to cross
the bay. When done in St. Augustine, drive across this bridge
to St. Augustine Beach.
Well-signed Anastasia State Park here offers
good ocean swimming in a child friendly environment.
Continue south on Route A1A.
At first we drive along a typical Florida
coast highway, where often buildings and sometimes just dunes
block most views of the sea.
At the Fort Matanzas National Historic site,
turn left into the parking area just prior to the long bridge
across the inlet. Here a marked nature walk leads you through
the dunes to an almost pristine beach.
True, you can see some buildings to the
north in the distance, and true some vehicles drive along the
hard sand of this beach, but overall this is a pleasant and natural
Beware, however, that currents are said
to be very strong here, which makes swimming dangerous. Remember,
also, to not bring glass bottles or alcohol onto the beach, which
can lead to fines.
From a turn off the main highway at the
north end of the historic park, the remains of the fort itself
can be reached via a free ferry across the Matanzas River. Since
the founding of the fort during the Eighteenth Century, the outlet
to the sea that the fort guarded has shifted far to the south.
Continue southbound on Route A1A.
Washington Oaks State Gardens, next on our
route, has a rocky coastline, very unusual in Florida, but its
gardens are what attracts most of the visitors.
Flagler Beach, Ormond Beach & on to Daytona Beach
Next comes Flagler Beach. The town of Flagler
Beach itself lacks charm. It certainly lacks the influence of
wealthy residents to create the great mansions and public buildings
found in some Florida coastal communities.
Something even more precious, however, has
been structured here. Nearly unique in Florida, very metre of
the Flagler Beach sea front has been preserved for public use.
No privately owned buildings block the view.
Viewing the deep blue Atlantic while driving
along Flagler Beach and the northern portion of adjacent Ormond
Beach is exhilarating. You mostly miss this experience later on, with
minor exceptions such as a portion of Fort Lauderdale's beach front.
Almost continuous development mars the coast
between Cocoa Beach and the Miami area. Unlike the Pacific Coast
of the United States in California and Oregon, very little beach front
land has been set aside for public use, a terrible shame.
Florida has been becoming more ecologically conscious. There have been important expansions of its state park system.
Sadly, however, so many opportunities have already been lost to
uncontrolled and often unwise development.
Anyway, back to our tour. Periodically,
Doc V rants.
Seriously consider driving the highly-rated lovely Ormond Scenic Loop Trail. This includes a subtropical forest
of Tomoka State Park.
Once done head south on I-95 toward Daytona Beach.
Experiencing Daytona Beach
If you wish to see the famed "Spring Break" resort
Beach, exit east on U.S. Highway 92, and head to the beach and
On the way, you pass the Daytona
International Speedway. The hard sands of the Daytona and Ormond
beaches attracted auto racing early on, and this area remains one
of the main centres of the sport in the United States.
If you want budget accommodation, old Highway
One in Daytona Beach, which runs inland from the shore, offers
bargains, although some neighbourhoods require caution. During
the cooler months, all of Daytona has low prices. Retired Canadians
fill the town during this season and often can pay the U.S. prices
for lodging with Canadian dollars, a super savings at current
University Spring Break time, February,
March, and part of April, on the other hand, has astronomical
rates and no vacancy signs everywhere, as groups of fun-loving
students fill every available room.
Perhaps Daytona's most unusual feature is being able to drive on the naturally packed sands of its beach.
Enjoying Canaveral National
Once you have had your fill of the high-rise
beach life of Dayton. After all, this is a nature tour--continue
south on I-95.
Travellers who need to return to the Orlando
area today may turn off Interstate 95 onto westbound Interstate
4 in the Daytona Beach area. However, to avoid central Orlando
congestion, instead go south on I-95.
Then at Exit 78, head west on the State
Highway 407, which runs into the "Beeline".
Continue west on the "Beeline",
State toll road 528, toward Orlando. For detailed directions as
you near Orlando, please see below.
Otherwise, for the lucky rest of us who
have more time, head south from Daytona Beach on Interstate 95.
At the State Highway 44 exit, drive east
to New Smyma Beach.
This old beach town has been overrun by
Orlando area visitors, but still has some charm.
At Canaveral, we find the first (and last)
truly pristine beaches on this trip, nature walks, and limited
beach camping. Check out the Internet site for details of this
super national park.
The southern section, accessible via Titusville,
offers similar pleasures, but is more subject to closures due
to missile launches and preparation for same at the Kennedy Space
Center, as is the adjacent national wildlife refuge. Since the
World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, this area has been closed
much of the time.
Visiting the John F. Kennedy
Travelling to and from the visitor's section
of the Kennedy Space Center, we take the roads most likely to
be open. At times, however, shortcuts may be available, but these
make little difference in the time used.
From the northern section of Canaveral National
Seashore, go back to New Smyma Beach, and then head to Interstate
Drive south on I-95.
At exit 79, take the well-signed road into the John
F. Kennedy Space Center. President Kennedy and his vice president,
Lyndon B. Johnson, more than anyone else, gained the needed economic,
political, and public support for the later great achievements of
the United States space programme. Hence the appropriate names for
this centre and the newer Johnson Mission Control Centre in Texas.
After crossing the Inter-coastal Waterway,
the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex comes up on your right.
Nothing at the space centre costs you very much. American
taxpayers have already paid dearly for all that is around you. The
National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA),
the civilian government agency charged with running much of the
U.S. space programme, depends on public support to promote its funding,
and consequently a "red carpet" is rolled out for visitors.
Always, NASA must defend its programme against
those who say the money should go instead to fix America's problems:
the national debt, cancer, failing schools, substandard urban
housing, etc. Opponents ignore the huge potential benefits of
Therefore, NASA works hard to impress us
here. A huge IMAX theatre screen displays the exhilaration of
outer space, indoor and outdoor displays of space programme artifacts
dazzle, and a gift shop of far more than usual interest beckons.
However, the big deals here are the organized
tours. Perhaps the most interesting one, if you have time for
just one, highlights the former command centre. "Failure
is not an option."
The second lets us see the launch sites
themselves along the Atlantic shore. If you are lucky, you see
close up rockets being prepared for take off. Some launches continue,
especially for military purposes, in spite of funding cutbacks.
The space centre becomes more and more crowded
as the day goes on, so try to arrive early to avoid the worst
queues and booked up tours. During busy times like school holidays,
you may wish to enjoy Canaveral National Seashore after your space
Tom Wolfe's fine book "The Right Stuff" about the early space programme was made
into a great movie that you should enjoy prior to visiting. In
addition, see the film "Apollo 13" before your trip.
Let's hit the beach
Although there may be a shortcut open, exit
the Space Center the way you came and continue to Interstate 95.
Go south on 95 to the intersection of State
Highway 528, the "Beeline Expressway"
Turn east toward the town of Port Canaveral, which has become
an important cruise ship terminal.
At State Highway A1A, turn south to Cocoa Beach, a bit of Southern California surf culture transplanted
to Florida. Be sure to visit Ron Jon's Surf Shop on the main strip
in Cocoa Beach. Do not let the word "shop" mislead you.
This place is larger than most Walmarts, with entertainment to
Park yourself along any beach that you fancy
along this strip.
If driving, continue south on A1A to Patrick Air Force Base, where
many of the first astronauts lived.
Returning to Orlando
Just south of Patrick Air Force, turn right,
and go west on State Highway 404.
Cross a bridge over an arm of the Inter-coastal
Waterway, and then turn right onto County Route 3.
Travel northbound on County Route 3, which
runs on a narrow strip of land between two waterways.
Turn left onto State Highway 520.
Go westbound on 520.
When you reach the toll route State Highway
528, the "Beeline", drive westbound toward Orlando.
This highway goes across a flat subtropical
shrub savanna, typical of southern Florida.
Soon you are back in Orlando.
Please enjoy every moment of your stay in Florida. Sun, Sea, Surf, and Sand.