As a native Orlando resident, I always forget how many people save for years, or spend their entire vacation budget, just to spend a few days visiting Florida’s theme parks.
I will not discourage you from visiting our most popular theme parks, including Walt Disney World, Sea World, Epcot, Universal Studios, and several others. But I would like to encourage you to consider taking a break from your theme park adventures to explore some of our less-well-known things to do around Central Florida.
Most of my recommendations relate to moving your body and seeing what our state parks call “The Real Florida.” Florida actually has some beautiful nature spots, which are absolutely worthy of some real time somehow arranged between Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, and Shamu.
In no particular order, my favorite outdoor spots around Central Florida are as follows.
Wekiva State Park, near Orlando
My husband and I spent many hours running through the woods on the trails inside this state park, before we exchanged our wedding vows right in the middle of the park. So, needless to say, I’m a big fan!
You can spend hours at Wekiva walking or running through the woods on well-marked trails, camping in RVs or tents, kayaking or canoeing, and swimming in the springs.
The crowds can get crazy on weekends during the summer. So I would try to schedule a visit during the weekdays, when you will best enjoy peace in nature. If weekends are your only option, go early. You can also bring a packed lunch or BBQ supplies to enjoy a picnic under the trees in the park, anytime you want.
Salt Springs State Park, in Ocala
My husband and I spend several days every 4th of July on the lakes, trails, and campgrounds in Salt Springs (near the Ocala National Forest).
This area really takes you into the heart of natural Florida. Plus there are numerous large lakes where you can enjoy boating or jet-skiing to your heart’s content.
Our favorite things to do in this area is camping near the lakes and springs (where we enjoy lots of boating and jet-skiing). But I also enjoy running on many of the dirt roads through forested areas all over the region. We have good friends who love taking their 4-wheelers through trails designated for those uses (I’ve done this, and was slightly terrified, but still the views were breathtaking). You can also see the Florida manatees in several spots throughout Salt Springs (best viewing times typically in the winter months). Overall, Salt Springs is a great place to get deep into the woods and lakes in Florida and feel like you are a million miles away from any roller coaster or nightly dinner show.
Magnolia Park Trail
This is a long gravel trail, just southwest of Orlando (in a small town called Apopka) (length at least 12 miles one way) that sits just a few feet beside one of our largest lakes in the area, called Lake Apopka. Part of this trail is only open to pedestrian traffic (walkers, runners and bikers), and another section actually makes a really nice scenic drive.
During the winter, on foot or bike, you can see many terrifying large alligators sunning themselves just a few feet from the trail. I’ve lived in Florida my entire life and never seen these many alligators outside of an alligator theme park. I’ve been told by the Florida Wildlife Commission that alligators usually will not bother you on land. But you might be inspired to run, walk, or bike, just a little faster than normal on certain sections of the Magnolia trail.
This trail is packed with other Florida native wildlife, such as native birds, ducks, and even the occasional bobcat and coyotes. We enjoy this trail mostly for biking and running, but we also enjoy the scenic drive from time-to-time (when we are too lazy to move our bodies without the help of an engine but still want to enjoy nature).
On the scenic drive, you will enjoy seeing the lake, many natural offshoot waterways, and more wildlife, especially if you roll your window down while driving.
West Orange Trail, just West of Orlando
This is a paved “rails-to-trails” path, which is very popular amongst walkers, bikers, runners, and rollerbladers. This is also where I met my husband, and he proposed marriage, after lots of long runs together.
If you are just visiting Orlando, the Winter Garden and “County Line” stations (which sits on the county line between Lake and Orange County) have bike rentals.
This trail travels more than 30 miles each way, through many of our local neighborhoods and wooded areas, plus quite a few restaurants. You’ll find most of the restaurants in Winter Garden, although there are a couple in Clermont, including one on a big lake in Clermont, with picnic tables outside on the lake.
This trail is a great place to spend the day with your family getting some exercise and seeing more of the real Florida. Most of the neighborhoods are safe, except I would avoid certain sections of the trail that run through Apopka, on the far North end.
The only exception to the “safe” aspect is where the trails cross roads. Unfortunately, we have had a few vehicles hit cyclists on where the trails cross roads, particularly on the West Orange Trail, since there are more road crossings than you would find in places like state parks.
Car accidents are bad enough for victims, when they are at least partially protected by the shell of their vehicle. But bicycles getting hit by cars can lead to very serious injuries, which would obviously spell disaster for anyone, especially those trying to enjoy their vacations.
As an Orlando personal injury attorney, I get far too many calls from those who had their vacation ruined due to injuries and accidents they experienced while driving around town, or while visiting Orlando’s theme parks. So please stay alert whenever the trails cross any roads or really anytime you are on any trail. Of course, there have also been bicycle and pedestrian accidents on sections of the trails that do not cross any roads, but those are thankfully less common.
Ormond Beach is just north of Daytona Beach, with a more subdued and relaxed atmosphere. I tend to avoid Daytona Beach, which is where we have Bike Fest, and OctoberFest, each year, and thousands of motorcycle riders converge on Daytona Beach. Unfortunately, the large crowds lead to lots of motorcycle accidents, so we tend to prefer the less hurried pace of Ormond Beach much more.
Ormond Beach is just a short drive from some of the more popular Daytona restaurants and nightlife. But the beach life and experience is less crowded and more relaxed.
Our favorite spot in Ormond is actually a place where you can camp right on the ocean (because we own an RV). But there are many affordable and nice oceanside hotels in the area.
In Ormond, we enjoy running and walking on the beach, paddle boarding in the ocean, and kayaking at nearby Tomoka Springs State Park.
If you enjoy kayaking, Tomoka Springs State Park will not disappoint. You should also take the drive just north of Tomoka (on the same road where you enter the state park), where there are endless beautiful canals on both sides of the road. Some people like biking in this area, but the possibility of a biking accident scares me too much to bike on that road, which has no shoulders. That’s another case where I would stick to designated biking trails.
Overall, Florida is a great place for outdoor enthusiasts to travel, especially during the winter months, when running and biking trails throughout most of the rest of the country are closed. Besides, getting your heart pumping is a nice way to take a break from an otherwise hectic vacation full of kids and Orlando theme parks.
Tina Willis is the owner of Tina Willis Law, a boutique Orlando personal injury and auto accident law firm. She is also an avid runner, cyclist, and camper, who enjoys the trails and campsites in Florida as often as she can get away from her busy practice. Tina’s office is located in downtown Orlando, at 390 North Orange Avenue, Orlando, Florida, 32801. If you are unlucky enough to get into an accident while visiting Orlando, you can reach her by calling or texting (407) 803-2139.