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Experiencing Natural Florida
Exploring Nature Near Orlando

A Subtropical Auto Tour

Starting in Orlando, you itinerary visit your choices of —

  • Beautiful gardens,
  • Several subtropical forests,
  • Almost pristine springs and swimming holes,
  • Two wild rivers,
  • Beaches without development (a rarity in Florida),
  • Salt marshes,
  • 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 need it.

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 traffic.

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 below.

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 district.

Mount Dora

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 the charm.

When leaving Mount Dora, drive away from the lake on any street up to U.S. Highway 441.

Turn left.

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 Springs

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.

Alexander Springs camping & other visitor information

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 left.

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.

Juniper Springs camping & other visitor information

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.

Its setting is beautiful.

Exploring St. Augustine and the Palm Coast

Point your GPS to 10 West Castillo Drive in St. Augustine, the St. Augustine and St. John's County Visitor's Centre.

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 bay exhilarating.

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 spot.

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.

You can download its map here >

Ormond Scenic Loop Trail

Once done head south on I-95 toward Daytona Beach.

Experiencing Daytona Beach

If you wish to see the famed "Spring Break" resort of Daytona Beach, exit east on U.S. Highway 92, and head to the beach and boardwalk area.

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 exchange rates.

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 Seashore

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.

From New Smyma Beach, go south on the shore drive, and enter the northern section of Canaveral National Seashore.

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 Space Center

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 95.

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 exploring space.

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 centre visit.

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 Walmart's, with entertainment to boot.

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.

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