Yes, you’ll hit the beach on your Florida gulf vacation. But the Clearwater Beach and St. Petersburg areas are also filled with some of Florida’s best parks. You’ll find rare and colorful wildlife and sights you won’t find anywhere else. Whether you’re splashing through tide pools with your kids or digging your hands deep into history (literally), here are five parks to help you get into the wilds of Old Florida just minutes from your resort beach vacation.
Fort De Soto Park: So Much More than a Beach [St. Petersburg, FL]
Located at the southern tip of the St. Pete Beach area of St. Petersburg, this park does include a beach but one unlike any sun-tanning spot. It’s a stunning spot where the windswept white-sand meets a watercolor swirl of a million greens and blues in the water. It’s a family-friendly beach that also includes a tidal pool full of small crabs and sea urchins, plus great shell collecting. Besides the beach, the five-island, 1,136-acre park includes paved and natural trails, such as the Mangrove Nature Walk.
Weedon Island Preserve: Spot a Manatee [St. Petersburg, FL]
On a quiet peninsula on Tampa Bay 10 miles north of St. Petersburg, this park boasts 3,190 acres bursting with bay wildlife. Our recommendation is to take to the multiple hiking trails, all suitable for families, such as the short Tower Boardwalk loop. From two observation platforms, you can get eye to eye with brown pelicans and other birds but also spot manatees lazily lounging in the water below. Spot one of these silly-looking “hippos of the sea” coming up for air, and your kids will remind you of the experience for months.
Egmont Key Refuge/State Park: Remote Wilderness and Wartime Relics [St. Petersburg, FL]
Locals looking to get away from it all head to Egmont Key, one of Florida’s best state parks. Only accessible via private boat and with no water or stores, the 280-acre island at the southwest mouth of Tampa Bay is primarily a National Wildlife Refuge. A full third of the island is closed to the public, devoted to “nesting, resting, and feeding” the gulf’s slew of shorebird species. But that still means you’ll see plenty of them, from white ibis to osprey to oystercatchers – and you’ll hear the resident colony of laughing gulls. In addition to bird watching, there’s shelling on the secluded beaches and exploring some wartime relics. The island played a role in three American wars, including the Civil War, and hosts the vestiges of the lighthouse Fort Dade, originally built in the 1830s.
Jungle Prada Site: Native History on the Bay [St. Petersburg, FL]
A part of Florida’s Indian Heritage Trail, this tiny, 5.4-acre state park of many names was the historic home of a Tocobaga tribe and the landing site for Cuban conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez. The public section of this park includes tribal mounds, a museum that features artifacts from the site and facts about the Tocobaga tribe, and a view of Boca Ciega Bay, just as Narvaez and his 600-man team would have seen it.
Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve: Flying through Nature [Oldsmar, FL]
For those not content with just observing wildlife, five zip lines, a sweeping 200-foot suspension bridge, and other aerial activities get you into the action. Think of spotting alligators, boars, and plenty of feathered friends as you whiz above them amid the canopy of Southern Slash Pines. This 396-acre “bit” of bayou on the northern tip of Tampa Bay 16 miles east of Clearwater Beach is well off the beaten path and gives you a fun experience seemingly worlds away from downtown Clearwater.