Picture of a bird at sunset in Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

The Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge comprises the northernmost 143,954 acres of the southern Everglades.

Photograph by Raymond Gehman, National Geographic

By Maryellen Kennedy Duckett

As a top five state for diversity of bird, reptile, and mammal populations, Florida is a natural choice for a wildlife hike. Unlike in zoos, where animal sightings are guaranteed, spotting wildlife on their turf takes patience and a bit of luck. To increase your odds, visit places where watchful waiting likely will result in some amazing wildlife views.

Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Boynton Beach

Surrounded by a 57-mile levee and canal, the Loxahatchee (the Seminole Indian word for “river of turtles”) refuge comprises the northernmost 143,954 acres of the southern Everglades. A cypress swamp boardwalk trail, a marsh trail, and environmental education programs allow visitors to explore—and appreciate—the pristine habitat. “Early mornings and late afternoons during the fall, winter, and spring are the best times to experience the plethora of birds and wildlife found in the Everglades,” says A.R.M. Loxahatchee NWR interpretive specialist Serena Rinker. “Bring your camera, binoculars, and a sense of adventure.”

Cone’s Dike Trail, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, Micanopy

The brown warning sign at the trailhead gate of Cone’s Dike Trail tells you all you need to know: “You are entering a wilderness area” and “Do not attempt to pass bison, wild horses, or large alligators that are blocking the trail.” The 8.25-mile round-trip hike follows a flat, earthen dike trail into the center of the prairie creek waterway. Even when the prairie’s largest residents remain out of view, scat and the lingering scent of horses and bison serve as reminders that wild things are close by.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, St. Marks

Within the St. Marks refuge’s 70,000 acres of fragrant pine forests, crystalline springs, sweeping salt marshes, and shady hardwood hammocks can be found all manner of wildlife, including migrating monarch butterflies, nesting bald eagles, endangered whooping cranes, black bears, bobcats, and white pelicans. The wealth of wild things makes multiple trips a must, says supervisory refuge ranger Robin Will. “You have to visit many times over the years and over the seasons to capture all the ‘magic sauce’ found here.”


Practical Tip: Always carry a charged cell phone, water, and insect repellent when visiting wilderness areas, and exit trails before sundown.

Fun Fact: The American bison seen grazing in Paynes Prairie Preserve today are descendants of ten bison brought to the park in 1975 from the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma.

See highlights of some of the Florida Gulf Coast's most interesting wildlife.


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