When you live in a tightly packed space, whether it’s in the city or the suburbs, you need somewhere green as your go-to place nearby. We know – we lived in the Orlando metro for many years. These are our top picks for parks in Florida’s urban areas, chosen for their diversity of outdoor activities and/or their unique green spaces.
In the greater Miami metro in Sunny Isles Beach, this is the destination for quick immersion into the outdoors. You can kayak the mangrove tunnels out to Biscayne Bay (rentals on site), mountain bike the gnarliest set of tightly-wound trails in Southeast Florida, camp out in the cabins, swim at the beach, have a family picnic, or just walk the extensive paved and unpaved paths around the park. The only downside? A crush of visitors on weekends. That’s what population + popularity will do for you. Best to enjoy this park on weekdays.
The high rises of Panama City Beach are bookended by two state parks, and it’s the busier one that has more to see and do. Most visitors come here for the uncluttered beach and camping. Two nature trails provide scenic views amid dunes, coastal scrub, and ponds, plus a walk out to Sandy Point on St. Andrews Bay will reward you with a quieter beach. Again, it’s busy on weekends, and they will close the gates if full. Your backup plan is Camp Helen State Park at the west end of Panama City Beach, much quieter with more extensive trails and a longer walk to the beach.
Surrounded by suburbia, with its saving grace the swampy cypress-lined shore of Lake Jesup, this wild space in Winter Springs is sliced through by several highways but traversable along the Cross Seminole Trail, a paved path which provides the statewide Florida Trail a route through the area. Dozens of gently winding footpaths lead past trees of incredible size, including enormous cypresses and the southernmost grove of tulip poplars. And yes, there are springs. In these woods, you forget you’re surrounded by subdivisions and strip malls.
Well-hidden in Largo, as it’s entirely surrounded by neighborhoods, this former orange grove has been reclaimed in the name of nature. Birding is superb along its trails, which wind under stately slash pines and along man-made waterways as well as natural features such as its namesake lake. Walk or bike the paved pathways and watch for nesting eagles.
On the border between West Palm Beach and Greenacres, this expansive park was built as a reclamation project of a rock mine, which is why there all the lakes – including one dedicated to water skiing. It straddles Northlake Blvd, with trails winding through both Okeeheelee South and Okeeheelee North. This 1,700-acre urban park includes recreation facilities, a dedicated BMX area, and a dog park. You can walk for hours on its paved paths, but our favorite corner is behind the nature center where the FTA Loxahatchee Chapter meets monthly. Here you’ll find the nature trails through a tropical hammock.
Lake Jackson defines the northern edge of Tallahassee, which also boasts many city parks and greenways. Phipps Park is the natural choice among the many to choose from. Three sets of trails – hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian – wind through forests and reclaimed farmland over hilly terrain, offering extensive outings in the woods.
One of many city parks in Orlando, Turkey Lake Park (renamed for an Orlando mayor years after the park was established) stands out for the variety of activities available there. First, you can camp: both an RV park and cottages are available. An extensive paved trail system – and one nature trail through a scrub forest – let you stretch your legs. Kids will love the little demonstration farm and its farm animals.
Jacksonville and Duval County are one and the same, so that encompasses a lot of parks and preserves for the city on the St. Johns. Of these, Hanna Park in Mayport provides the most diverse offerings for this urban area. First, there’s the beach, with numerous access points. Since it is near the mouth of the St. Johns River, it’s a popular surfing spot. There is a campground. And for us trail enthusiasts, separate trail systems for hiking and mountain biking.
West of Florida’s Turnpike in Broward, Tradewinds is a enormous county park broken into two pieces – north and south – in Coconut Creek. The northern side has guided trail rides, pony rides, an educational farm, and a model train ride through the park. The south side is home to Butterfly World and athletic fields, but also provides extensive paved walking/biking trails. At the far south end of the park is the Pond Apple Boardwalk, a hidden piece of pre-development Broward, winding through a cypress swamp with a dense pond apple understory.
In Pensacola, you’ll get a good workout following the trails at Bay Bluffs Park, along a scenic stretch of US 90. As the name suggests, the park is set on the bluffs above Escambia Bay. Staircases and boardwalks provide the traverse, stretching more than a mile above the bay.
Gainesville residents are fortunate to live in an urban forest with many parks, especially along Hogtown Creek. The showpiece of the Hogtown Creek Greenway is Alfred Ring Park, where the descent into the ravine is a step back in time under the canopy of old growth trees. It’s a linear park, with a playground and small garden at its north end.
Sitting on the southern rim of Tampa Bay, this former nursery in Palma Sola – now a residential community adjoining densely packed neighborhoods in Bradenton, north of Sarasota – provides miles of walking and biking paths and a mangrove-lined shoreline perfect for birding. Kayakers can bring their own or rent on site.
We’re big fans of wetlands parks in urban areas, too. Check this list of wetlands parks for more urban ideas.
Do you have an urban park you’re especially fond of? Let us know what’s worth the visit in the comments below. Thanks!