Florida contains abundant natural lands where people can enjoy outdoor recreation, including fishing, birding, camping, photography, wildlife watching, swimming, hiking, biking, hunting, horseback riding and canoeing.
The National Wildlife Refuge system began in 1903 in Florida when President Theodore Roosevelt established the first refuge at Pelican Island in Indian River County. Now, 29 refuges dot the state, the third most in the nation behind California and North Dakota.
These refuges conserve more than 800,000 acres, with Key West’s refuge covering 189,497 acres of Monroe County.
The state controls another 6 million acres in the largest wildlife management area system in the nation. These areas allow hunting for various game species. Although set aside for hunting, they also provide opportunities for people to enjoy nature in other ways.
Three national forests in Florida combine for 1.2 million acres. That acreage includes approximately 500,000 acres of wetlands and more than 1,400 miles of trails.
The largest national forest in Florida—Apalachicola National Forest—covers 571,088 acres in four panhandle counties southwest of Tallahassee. Established in 1936, this tract of land along the east bank of the Apalachicola River contains two designated wilderness areas totaling 32,726 acres. The forest also contains Leon Sinks, a geologically unusual region of caverns and sinkholes surrounded by hardwoods.
From the Timucuan word for “fair land” or “big hammock,” Ocala National Forest covers parts of three counties east of Ocala. Rodman Reservoir sits on the northern edge, while Lake George sprawls over 46,000 acres on its eastern edge. Roosevelt established the forest in 1908. It was the first national forest east of the Mississippi River.
The southernmost forest in the continental United States, it covers more than 385,349 acres. It is known for its extremely clear spring waters, including the world-famous Silver River that flows through part of the forest. Other springs just as beautiful include Juniper Springs, Salt Springs, Alexander Springs and Silver Glen Springs. These springs provide aquatic recreation.
Created in 1931, Osceola National Forest spreads across 229,185 acres of northeastern Florida at Sanderson, about 50 miles west of Jacksonville. This flatwoods forest consists of low ridges of longleaf and slash pine mixed with saw palmetto and wax myrtle separated by cypress and bay swamps, giving visitors a glimpse of Florida as it looked centuries ago.
The forest takes its name from the 19th century Seminole war chief. Part of the Florida National Scenic Trail cuts through the forest, providing outstanding opportunities for hiking. Elevations range from 90 feet to 200 feet above sea level.
At the northern portion of the forest, Pinhook Swamp and Impassable Bay create a biologically significant corridor to the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia at the headwaters of the Suwannee and St. Marys rivers. The John M. Bethea State Forest in northern Baker County and Big Gum Swamp Wilderness Area offer additional recreational opportunities.
Public lands can be found within an easy drive anywhere in the Sunshine State, where visitors can enjoy nature all year long.