Photograph by Chris Bickford, National Geographic Travel
Wildlife drives make some of Florida’s wildest spaces accessible to anyone with a full tank of gas and a sense of adventure. Some routes are wilder and more remote than others, so be sure to plan ahead and pack accordingly. Whatever drive you choose, take it slow to scan the swamps, woods, water, and grasses for wildlife—and to savor the time away from civilization.
Jane's Scenic Drive, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Copeland
The mild name belies the ruggedness of this potholed, 11-mile (one-way) slow crawl through part of world’s largest linear swamp, the 85,000-acre Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. The drive is lined with monster cypress trees draped with webs of Spanish moss. Within the surrounding woods and black-water swamps is the largest concentration of orchids in the country, as well as the elusive Florida panther and more common wildlife such as egrets, great blue herons, alligators, and turtles. “Welcome to the real Florida,” says park ranger Karen Relish. “If you're able, get out and get your feet wet. Slog through the swamp to hear the rustling pines and breathe the air. There’s nothing like it.”
Apalachicola Bay Ramble, Apalachicola
Begin this meandering northwest Florida scenic drive in the fishing village of Apalachicola, where you can tour historic district buildings dating to the 1840s. Then hit the road to explore 23 miles (one-way) of open delta, shore, and sea. Along the way, stop at St. George Island State Park, which features nine miles of some of the state’s most unspoiled beaches. Visit late fall through early spring to observe migratory birds and avoid summer tourist traffic.
Wildlife Drive, J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island
With multiple side trails and scenic pullouts, this bike, hike, and car route through a national refuge packs a wealth of wildlife viewing into only four miles. Roseate spoonbills and the mangrove cuckoo are among the 245 species of birds that have been spotted here. Pick up a free map and rental binoculars at the visitor and education center, and scan the posted QR codes (one for adults, one for kids) at each overlook to watch brief, ranger-narrated videos explaining the importance of what you’re seeing. Closed Fridays.
Black Point Wildlife Drive, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville
The seven-mile (one-way) drive is open year-round, but December to February is the peak period for viewing the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that winter here. As you drive through the shallow, mangrove-lined marsh impoundments; cabbage palm and hardwood hammocks; and palmetto and pine woods, use the self-guiding brochure (available near the drive entrance) to increase your odds of spotting alligators, river otters, bobcats, and more of the refuge’s 65 resident amphibians and reptiles and 31 resident mammals.
Practical Tip: Only attempt Jane's Scenic Drive in a high-clearance vehicle, and, since there are few facilities near Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, fill up your gas tank in Naples or Everglades City before making the drive.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
Browse photos of nature, cities, and people and share your favorite photos.