Central Florida

Washington Oaks Gardens | Huge Oaks and Magical Coquina Beach

When thinking of Florida beaches, one usually pictures sandy, flat shores. If you find yourself at Washington Oaks Gardens, prepare for a surprise. The park contains a beach unlike any I have ever seen in Florida and includes one of the largest outcroppings of natural coquina on the Atlantic Ocean! Washington Oaks Gardens is a state park located just north of the tiny town of Palm Coast. On a trip to St. Augustine, my boyfriend and I decided to go off the direct route dictated by GPS and stop at this amazing park. We were both so happy that we did!

coquina rocks and waves

An easy 30 min drive south from St. Augustine and about an hour north east of Orlando, this park is off the beaten path and is not generally well know. My boyfriend has lived about an hour from the park his whole life and had never even heard of it. The park spans either side of the A1A from the Mantanzas River to the Atlantic Ocean, with a historical garden on the river side and the coquina beach on the ocean side. I think part of the reason may be the name of the park doesn’t refer to the amazing beach side and what you will find there. I’ll start with the beach because it was so spectacular!

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Wekiwa Springs State Park | Swimming in Wekiwa Springs

If you’ve never visited a Florida spring before, Wekiwa Springs is a great starter spring. The park in which it is situated has lots of amenities, the swimming area is easy to navigate, and, settled just off of I-4 between Orlando and the east coast, it is a short drive from numerous Florida cities. This was the first spring I visited as a Floridian. Any hesitations I had about swimming in an inland body of water (gators! snakes!) were swept aside when I saw the crystal clear blue water of the Wekiwa Spring swimming area. To get to the spring area, you must pay $6 to enter Wekiwa Springs State Park, follow the road in about 100ft and then veer to the right to find the parking area for the spring head.

swimmers in wekiwa springs

Looking back towards the hill from the end of the swimming area.

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Wekiwa Springs State Park | Kayaking the Wekiva River

Looking to explore a Florida river by kayak or canoe? Wekiwa Springs State Park is a hassle free starting place to launch a rented boat and explore the Wekiva River. This was my first river kayaking experience in Florida and I was not looking to do a long or strenuous trip. Being familiar with the Wekiwa Springs State Park and the surrounding area, the launch at the state park was the easiest choice for a quick out and back kayaking trip that filled up a Friday morning. It is $6 to enter the state park, and canoes, kayaks, and paddle boards can be rented from the concession stand located near the spring head for reasonable prices. While swimming in the spring is the main draw of the park (I wrote about swimming here), today I want to focus on what you can expect when kayaking the river!

kayaking on the wekiva river

On the river.

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Playalinda Beach | All Natural, Undeveloped Florida Beach

When I moved to Orlando, being more familiar with west coast beaches, I often asked people which was their favorite east coast beach within 1.5 hours of Orlando. Most said New Smyrna Beach. A very few said Playalinda. After visiting the latter, I can say that I am now a member of Team Playalinda.  I think Playalinda may be one of the better kept secrets on the east coast.  This was somewhat verified for me when a coworker told me he didn’t like mentioning it to people because he didn’t want word to get out.

panorama of playalinda access 7 from the boardwalk

Undeveloped beaches are few and far between and the absence of development is what makes Playalinda so spectacular. Located on a barrier island east of Titusville, FL, Playalinda beach is a part of the Canaveral National Seashore,. The Canaveral National Seashore as a whole contains 24 miles of undeveloped beach and is located just north Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space center. If you are a looking for a quiet, natural beach with no buildings or development, Playalinda is the beach for you. (more…)

Smyrna Dunes Park | Lighthouse Views and Gopher Tortoises

Why had I never heard of this park? I stumbled upon Smyrna Dunes Park somewhat randomly after deciding to take an impromptu drive to New Smyrna Beach. To find the park you must drive north, away from the hustle and bustle of Flagler Avenue and the New Smyrna Beach accesses. Taking the 10 minute drive off the beaten path is well worth it. Maybe it’s just me, but the interesting landscape and the possibility of seeing a cute turtle made for a good time, and I would certainly go back again.

Located north of the main beach at the very tip of the Key, the park is a peninsula with epic views on all sides.  The nice man who collected my $5 entrance fee at the gate advised me to keep and eye out for gopher tortoises and to start on the boardwalk at the left of the pavilion for nicer views. I had never heard of a gopher tortoise but it sounded exciting and gave me a mission. Views! Tortoises!  I parked my car (on this sunny weekday afternoon there were only two other cars in the parking lot) and, following his instructions, walked to the left of the pavilion.

walking out onto the boardwalk

Walking out onto the boardwalk.

As I headed out on the board walk I was not expecting the scene I encountered. I may have said “Wow!” out loud to no one in particular. The boardwalk almost immediately leads to a wide open area with beautiful water views on all sides: inlet and ocean. Across the inlet I could see the red Volusia County Lighthouse in the distance. The 1.5 mile board walk leads you in a circular path through the entire park and keeps visitors off the scrub and dunes, which is where the cute gopher tortoises reside. The observation deck about a quarter of a mile down the walk allowed me to get up a bit higher and take everything in. Look at this view….

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