Central Florida Outdoors

After a few days of theme-park rides and lines, fried food, loud music, traffic and shopping, a jaunt beyond the pavement can soothe and rejuvenate even the most harried of spirits.

  • Wekiwa Springs State Park Cool off in the icy, spring-fed swimming hole, hike miles of trails and paddle the tranquil, still waters of the Wekiva River. Nature Adventures, inside the park, offers 2½-hour guided tours, rents kayaks and canoes (two hours $17, per additional hour $3) and supplies overnight camping equipment; reserve primitive riverside campsites in advance.
  • Bok Tower Gardens Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr and showcasing the meticulously carved 205ft stone bell tower, this 250-acre National Historic Landmark features beautiful gardens, twice-daily carillon concerts, the Mediterranean-style Pinewood Estates (circa 1930s) and a garden cafe. Kids can pick up special paper at the entry and make a treasure hunt out of looking for the iron rubbing posts, each with a different animal to rub. The gardens hosts outdoor classical-music concerts ($25). Bok Tower Gardens sits an hour south of Orlando, close to Legoland. Take I-4 west, exit 55 and proceed south on Hwy 27 for 23 miles.
  • Kelly Park Pick up an inner tube ($5) at the bar a half-mile before the entrance and float the shallow, 1-mile stream formed by Rock Spring. In the winter, your only company might be the otter swimming beside you, the turtles lounging and the deer grazing along the creek's edge, but crowds of locals give the park a raucous party atmosphere on warm weekends and during the summer. A small concession is open in the summer only. Kelly Park sits just beyond the northwest corner of Wekiwa Springs State Park, 20 miles northwest of downtown Orlando.
  • Lake Louisa State Park Located 30 minutes west of Walt Disney World®, Lake Louisa is an easy getaway from the theme-park overdrive. There are several peaceful lakes, lovely beaches and 25 miles of hiking trails through fields, woods and orange groves. For boating on Dixie Lake, you can rent three-person canoes and single-rider kayaks ($15 to $30) at the ranger station. Swimming is allowed in Lake Louisa only – take note of the signs about alligators and keep your eyes open. Twenty cabins, each with two bedrooms (linen included), a fully equipped kitchen and front porches, offer lake views. Camping and cabin reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance.
  • Orlando Wetlands Park Woodlands, lakes and marshes flush with migrating birds, alligator, deer and all kinds of other critters. There are 20 miles of hiking trails and dirt roads, as well as restrooms, picnic tables and charcoal grills at the main entrance. Biking is limited to unpaved berm roads. The park, 30 miles east of downtown Orlando, sits about halfway between Orlando and Titusvile, home to Canaveral National Seashore and the Kennedy Space Center. Take Hwy 408 east, continue on Hwy 50 east, then north on Fort Christmas Rd past Fort Christmas, and right onto Wheeler Rd into the park.
  • Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve Hidden within Orlando’s sprawl, this undeveloped and little-visited 11,500-acre preserve is the result of laws that required Walt Disney World® to compensate for the company’s impact on (and devastation of) wetlands and sensitive natural habitats. The park's scrub, fields and woods are home to gopher tortoises, bald eagles, sandhill cranes and hundreds of other wildlife species. Hike the 1-mile round-trip to Lake Russell or continue onto the 2.5-mile loop. The park is located just south of Kissimmee, about 20 minutes from Walt Disney World®.
  • Harry P Leu Gardens Camelias, roses, orange groves and desert plants, as well as plenty of grassy spots for a lakeside picnic. Pick up supplies at East End Market, a half-mile east of the entrance gate on Corrine Dr. Tours of Leu House, an 18th-century mansion, run every half-hour from 10am to 3:30pm. See website for details on outdoor movies, storytelling and live music.
  • Rock Springs Run State Reserve This 14,000-acre reserve located 30 miles north of downtown Orlando offers 17 miles of hiking trails, and primitive riverside camping accessible by canoe or kayak only.
  • Rock Springs Run Trail Rides Guided horse trail rides through meadows, pine-scrub swampland and dense forests of Rock Springs Run State Reserve. Children must be age six and over to ride. Ask in advance which trail you'll be taking, as some simply follow the dirt road into the park and others venture deeper into the reserve. Take I-4 exit 101C. Head west and it’s about 8 miles on the left.

Top 10 Theme Park Thrills