Tree Tops Park
The highest elevation in Broward County is a whopping 29 feet above sea level, and it happens to be an important archeological site. These days, it's called the Pine Island Ridge, a massive live oak hammock that'll have you feeling oh-so-Hobbity. Since Tree Tops Park is located in Davie, you'll see plenty of horses here, but there's a lot to do on foot, especially if you stroll around the boardwalks, which cut through a marsh that's home to fish and odd-looking waterfowl. Mountain-bike riders can get lost in the trails that wind back in the shadowy woods, and canoes can ply the waters. But the big draw is the network of equestrian trails that lead horses to the top of the ridge — where, on a clear day, you can see all the way to... Plantation!
Grassy Waters Nature Preserve
One day while walking the nature trail at Grassy Waters Preserve, Janjay Gehndyu noticed that more bromeliads tended to flourish near wax myrtles. The green-minded, khaki-vest-wearing Palm Beach Atlantic University biology student happened to be doing his senior thesis on air plants, so he decided to study the effects of the wax myrtle using the natural environment of the park. He found it's likely that the wax myrtle is a natural pesticide, and he hopes it'll have a commercial use that might replace some harmful chemicals. "This is why we need wetlands," he explains. "This could save lives." Gehndyu, 22, has been planning the canoeing and bicycle safari trips at the Grassy Waters Preserve for more than a year now. The 12,800-acre wildlife preserve — which also serves as a water catchment area for West Palm Beach — isn't the biggest or the most exciting park in the area, but there's an admirable emphasis on environmentalism and preservation. The park is in the process of extending its nature trail — from which gators, otters, bobcats, and eagles are often spotted — and it also boasts a yearly photography contest that any aspiring shutterbug can enter.
Riverbend Park
Although it may seem like an odd hobby reserved for eccentrics who like to flail their arms but not move their legs, kayaking is actually a popular South Florida watersport. There are sunrise kayak excursions in Hollywood and midnight kayaking along Fort Lauderdale's New River. But you can't call either of those activities "communing with nature." For that, you need to drive north to the Palm Beach County/Martin County line and launch at Riverbend Park, just west of the Florida Turnpike and south of Indiantown Road. This eight-mile trail down the Loxahatchee River is like most things in life: It starts out pleasantly, lulling you into complacency, then it kicks your ass. At first, you'll paddle beneath a canopy thick with bald cypress, orchids, pond apple trees, and ferns. And lurking both in the dense jungle and the cloudy waters are alligators, turtles, osprey, and bobcats. But then you cross under the Florida Turnpike and return to urbanity, where you share the river with powerboat owners/dickheads who love to create wakes to capsize you. Upon arriving back at the park, feel free to key those boat owners' cars. It's not legal, but it sure is deserved.
Fern Forest Nature Center
In South Florida, getting "close to nature" often means fishing off a crowded pier or getting spritzed with juniper-berry body spray in the mall. But it doesn't have to be this way. At the Fern Forest Nature Center, easily found just south of Atlantic Boulevard on Lyons Road, you can stroll one of five very different trails. They range from the long (the one-mile Prairie Overlook trail loops through an open prairie) to the arduous (boots are recommended for the primitive and often soggy Maple Trail) to the wimpy (the Wetlands Wonder trail is a mere eighth of a mile, less than the average Super Wal-Mart). But our favorite trail splits the differences: The Cypress Creek trail is a half-mile jaunt through a tropical hardwood hammock. Willowy branches of red maples and bald cypresses shade a handicapped-accessible wooden pathway, giving a simultaneous sense of protection and immersion. But don't get too comfortable: Gray foxes and bobcats occasionally terrorize the trail, which takes about 20 minutes to complete and lands you at the nature center. Bonus: It's all free.
Markham Park
Ever since Hurricane Wilma did more damage to trees than buildings, mountain-biking trails have been the slowest places to recover. As an example of how a trail can be fixed up like new, look to Sunrise's sandy gem: the Markham Park Mountain Biking Trail, tucked into the 666-acre park just west of the Sawgrass Expressway and north of State Road 84. Broward County has been steadily rebuilding the harrowing climbs and steep drops of the ten-mile trail system with earth mounds dredged from the park's lakes. They've cleared away most of the downed melaleucas, Australian pines, and giant ferns to make the meandering journey over packed sand a little less treacherous. Oh, you were hoping for treacherous? Well, for the fey and the fearless, there are the narrow bridge crossings, perilous drops, abrupt switchbacks, and other miscellaneous obstacles on the highly technical trail called Rattlesnake Ridge. The park usually closes at 6 p.m., but it's 7:30 on those endless weekend summer nights.
Hugh Taylor Birch State Park
Ebyabe via Wikimedia Commons
Runners need oxygen, and a trip to Hugh Taylor Birch State Park puts them close to the source: trees. The running path, so dense with green that runners need to duck under low-hanging branches, is a triumph of photosynthesis. Leave the iPod at home and listen to the symphony of subtropical birds overhead. And while there's only about one-in-a-million chance that an alligator will leap from the foliage and dive for your ankles, that's just enough of a threat to put an extra spring in your step. Best of all, despite Hugh Taylor Birch's lying close to downtown Fort Lauderdale, there's none of the disruptive sights, sounds, and smells of traffic.
Holiday Park
"McGrady's playin'," a scrappy Puerto Rican with a ponytail announces. "Aw, shit" is the collective answer from the group of young basketball enthusiasts that includes neighborhood teenagers from varied ethnic backgrounds and maybe a has-been or two. "McGrady" — as in Tracy McGrady — is an appropriate nickname for the resident badass of Holiday Park. If you cover too closely, he's by you. Give him a little room? Swish. But he can't do it on his own. In fact, McGrady has stomped off into the thick Florida night from quite a few close games at Holiday. He's known to shout "I can take any of you one-on-one," and that's part of what makes it the best place in South Florida to play. There is no greater thrill than to get under McGrady' s skin, and he's not the only one who loses it. Games at Holiday, while friendly at their core, tend to piss people off. People get their fingers and their egos jammed, and that's a big part of the thrill. The place isn't hard to find. The lights shining above Holiday Park will guide the way to the two full courts ensconced at the southwest corner where Sunrise Boulevard meets Federal Highway. Come any night around 7, and don't forget your attitude.
Tradewinds Park & Stables
Some folks' idea of fun may be a jaunt over to the Galleria Mall to drop five or six large on a fresh spring fashion. On the other hand, you could buy yourself some used plastic — that's slang for Frisbee-like discs — for five or six bucks at the Tradewinds Park disc golf course and have a funner time with fewer consequences. For those unfamiliar, the gist of disc golf is this: Take said disc and toss it from a tee-off spot into a chainlinked metal basket in the fewest number of throws. Most of the other rules of regular golf apply, including the axiom "easy to learn but tough to master." We found this to be true, especially as we lost our last disc in the dense woods somewhere around hole 13. Luckily, a disc enthusiast by the name of Bob, who's been coming to the course each Saturday for the past 12 years, hawks new and used plastic from his van at the back nine. The rest of the course? It's huge and well-maintained and frequented by a ton of ultra-friendly disc golf fanatics, who are more than willing to help newcomers find their way around a putter or a driver. On weekends, it's home to league play, and pro tourneys come through semi-annually, because, as one traveling golfer told us, "Tradewinds is truly a world-class course."
Urban sprawl just isn't good for beasts, be they people or Pekingese. Yes, you and Fido need to escape that postage-stamp yard behind your place and get out for a little exercise every now and then. To do this properly, get your mangy four-legger in the car and drive him to the local dog park, where he can meet like-minded mutts and engage in a spirited round of the sniffing of... well, no need to spell it out. If you're fortunate enough to live in Central Broward, a fine social stomping ground for your cur can be found at Happy Tails in Plantation. Have a shy animal? Put him in the smaller gated area, where he can hang out in relative obscurity. Want to do some running? No shortage of acreage there. Go and have some fun. Your dog deserves it. Do you?
Tequila Ranch
In the real rodeo, the bull tries to throw its cowboy. The mechanical bull at Tequila Ranch invites another kind of adversary: young women, provocatively dressed. And the mechanical bull is more about finesse than brute force. It doesn't buck so much as gyrate. And shimmy. Doing it, sometimes, in sync with a 50 Cent ditty. This brings prurient thrills to the mostly male gallery, which roars lustily at the bull's dogged efforts to dislodge a titty from a stubborn blouse. Or how the bull can turn itself nearly upside down, leaving its rider to choose between her grip and the possibility that her shirt will slip over her head. The competitive ones (who also tend to have an exhibitionist streak) keep their grip, much to the crowd's delight. The riders may be all female, but this is most definitely a dude ranch.

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