Okeeheelee Park

There comes a time every so often when the air-conditioned confines of the office, car, and home begin to feel, well, confining. You don't need to be a nature buff to get a recharge from wandering the two-and-a-half miles of trail in the suburban wilderness of West Palm Beach. Given Florida's topography, it's an easy hike, most of which is shaded by creaky pines. On your walkabout, you might get a peek at a white-tailed deer or a great horned owl. More often than not, you'll come across a gopher tortoise, a threatened species frequently seen waddling at a surprisingly fast clip about the trails. Ever see a turtle running in the woods? It's a trip, man.

You feel like a pro when the lights at Jefferson Park in Hollywood flick on and bathe the soft dirt of the bocce courts in a yellow glow. The crack of one ball crashing off another, the last glimmer of sunset — it's all simply exhilarating. Then your dreams of bocce glory are quickly shattered by the hardened glare of a dozen Italian senior citizens who have been throwing jacks and rolling balls on these courts since the days of yore. They'll critique your technique under their breath, scold you for letting a dog on the dirt, and roll their eyes at the cooler full of empty beer bottles you stashed under the bleachers. The mere presence of this ancient-looking horde rocking tracksuits and loafers is indisputable anthropological proof that these courts are among South Florida's finest.

Everglades Holiday Park
Photo courtesy of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau

Living in South Florida means a steady influx of out-of-state visitors — some invited, most not. They want to do all the crap that has never even crossed your mind, and it all of a sudden becomes your responsibility to entertain these vacationing pests. Kill a day by driving west to Everglades Holiday Park and jumping on one of the futuristic-looking covered fan boats that can go out in rain and protect the pale from the sun's scorch. Yup, it's gimmicky. But you can send visitors home with tales of gator sightings and firsthand knowledge of just how badass the Everglades is. Don't forget the biggest upside: The whirring fans quickly drown out nagging in-laws and the endless banter from those guests who took you up on your drunken Facebook post inviting everyone to come visit.

Biscayne National Park

A well-placed snorkel source suggested hitting the waters off Soldier Key, the 1.66-acre island in Biscayne National Park. But park ranger Gary Bremen warns that "snorkeling off Soldier Key is absolutely not allowed. Soldier Key itself is closed to the public for a variety of reasons," including turtle nesting. That doesn't mean there's not great snorkeling in nearby waters. "Snorkeling in Biscayne National Park, well, it's one of those places nobody thinks of because everyone thinks they have to go to Key Largo or south, and they ignore the 50 smaller islands," Bremen says. Because the reefs are about three miles off the islands, a boat is a must. Don't have one? Take a three-hour, ranger-guided tour — you're in the water for an hour, transportation for two hours — for $45. Two boats leave daily, one at 10 a.m. the other at 1 p.m.

John D. MacArthur Beach State Park

Imagine a pristine shoreline, untouched by bulldozers or condos. The wind rustles sea-grape leaves and palm trees; the surf is thick and wild. This is a place with rough rocks underfoot and glittering seashells dotting the sand. You can snorkel with tropical fish or take a nap in the sand — you'll have plenty of room, considering tourists rarely discover this spot. As the sun sets, walk back along the wooden boardwalk that stretches over the sun-dappled waters of Lake Worth Cove. Wander down a nature trail, rent a kayak, or listen to bluegrass music in the park's amphitheater. Come late on summer nights to find prehistoric sea turtles digging nests; early mornings, hatchlings crawl their way to the shoreline. This place is a rare reminder of the way Florida used to be — quiet and full of wonder.

Pack up the bikes and head west to Shark Valley, where there are no sharks but plenty of sunbathing gators lounging around the 15-mile looping path. It's a nature-filled workout with ample views of pristine sawgrass and loads of migratory birds between January and March. What's that, you say? Pedal-pushing your way past gators and birds is sooooo touristy? Well, there's also a decent chance of spotting one of the much-hyped Burmese pythons that are grabbing national headlines. Park ranger Eric Riordan says five of the suckers were removed from the park in December, including one that was 16 feet long. If that's not motivation to keep pedaling, what is?

To the nongrizzled newbie, bait shops can be a bit intimidating. They're beacons of seafaring manliness where tales and tips are swapped in a vernacular impossible to fake. Rather than wimping out and heading for one of the watered-down Walmarts of fishing (Outdoor World — where you can buy a boat, a snazzy flannel to look the part, and loads of other stuff you'll never need), show some love for local retailers and drop into Angler's Bait & Tackle. The staff is as knowledgeable about the local scene as anyone and willing to share its insider info on nearby hot spots with customers. During a recent visit, one of the managers, Juanito, walked an FOB Midwesterner through all the twists and turns, from how to get a license to what baits work where to the best internet boards. He even recommended that the newcomer test out some gear at Outdoor World, then come back and order it through the shop for a better deal. It's tough not to give preference to the shop after that suggestion.

Wakodahatchee Wetlands

Though it's more a stunning example of the avian diversity residing in our great state, Wakodahatchee also is proof that once in a great while, humans do get it right. What previously sat vacant as 50 acres of "unused utilities land" has been transformed into a manufactured wetlands where the Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department naturally filters a few million gallons of water daily. We know, we know: Florida governmental body engaged in a successful eco-innovation? It's a little hard to believe. But this shit is real, and it's something to behold. More than 140 species of birds have been spotted from the boardwalks throughout the facility, from hard-to-mistake regulars like the great blue heron to rarefied hermits like the least bittern. You don't have to be the progeny of John James Audubon to get a thrill out of the view. Hell, you don't even need to own a set of binoculars. Simply walk in (there's no cost) and you'll immediately be assaulted with a landscape littered with flying, wading, and swimming feathered creatures who are delighting in the fact that, for once, humans didn't mess it up.

Jonathan Dickson State Park

They really need to make a movie about Vincent Nostokovich, AKA Trapper Nelson. According to legend, he grew up trapping muskrats in New Jersey during the industrial revolution. He ran away from home to Mexico but was arrested by Federales for gunrunning. So he headed back East with ten cents to his name, grew that into a living wage by gambling, and landed in South Florida. With a loan, he bought vast swaths of land — 800 acres eventually — where he trapped animals and sold their fur and meat. Weird rumors about him abounded — he could eat 18 eggs for breakfast, he dined on raw 'possum — but his reputation soared when he turned his land into a tourist stop and zoo and began wrestling alligators. Next thing, the six-foot-four beefcake was nicknamed "Tarzan of the Loxahatchee River" and started dating beautiful heiresses. He married but was drafted for World War II. Upon his return, he found his wife cheating and his tax bills piling up. He went cuckoo, chasing visitors from his land and becoming a recluse. Nelson was found dead in 1968 with a gunshot wound to his stomach. Was it suicide, as authorities ruled, or was he murdered? Conspiracy theorists have noted that men wanted his girlfriends, thieves wanted his treasure (rangers in 1984 found coins stashed in his chimney), and the government wanted his land — which it eventually got and made part of Jonathan Dickinson State Park. You're not supposed to camp here, but tour boats and canoes make pit stops. If you visit, see if the trapper's ghost will tell you the truth — locals have reported multiple sightings.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Before drone strikes and cyberattacks, long-range missiles and nuclear annihilation, wars were fought with cannonballs and other solid orbs of destruction. That mode of attack might help explain why more than 16 million bricks were used to build Fort Jefferson and it has still never been completed. Construction of the "Guardian of the Gulf of Mexico" began in 1846; officials called it off in 1875 due to concerns that the sheer weight of all those bricks was too stressful for the tiny island and its water system, according to the National Park Service. Located about 70 miles west of Key West in Dry Tortugas National Park, the imposing structure is little more than a subtropical ghost town these days. More than 160 years of storms and salty sea winds have taken their toll, but if you can get out to the small remote islands, you'll stroll around a one-of-a-kind artifact that would never be deemed feasible in these modern times.

Best Of Broward-Palm Beach®

Best Of