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Hiking in Florida: Why Nature Lovers Should Vacation in Orlando

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Orlando, Florida may be best known as the hometown of Disney World, but you may be surprised to learn that the city happens to also be a hotspot for hikers and nature lovers. This provides both a cheap activity to do to extend your Disney vacation, or a meaningful alternative to the parks altogether. In fact, it is often possible to find cheap, last-minute flights to Orlando, making an impromptu weekend getaway a very real possibility. So ditch your expectations for an overpriced vacation, put on your best hiking shoes, and join us as we trek though some of our favorite spots for hiking in Orlando. 

Tibet-Butler Nature Preserve

A boardwalk leads through a Floridian forest

(Image provided by Adobe Stock)

The Tibet-Butler Nature Preserve is an untamed haven sat between an assortment of lakes and urban areas. Just about a half hour’s drive from the airport, the preserve is within earshot of Walt Disney World, offering a serene alternative to the crowds of tourists and noisy attractions. Here they boast a beautiful nature center and 3.6 miles of well maintained trails for you to enjoy. The hiking trails are mild, and perfect for kids and hikers of all capabilities. The trail takes you along cypress-lined lakeshores, through longleaf pine forest, and to bayhead swamp land. Bird watchers can look for majestic birds like barred owls and osprey flying around. The trail is open daily from 8am to 6pm and is free to enter.

Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area

A wooden pier overloos a vast swamp

(Image provided by Adobe Stock)

A half hour’s drive southeast of Orlando International Airport, you’ll find the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area, a diverse system of trails and unpaved roads for you to explore. The primary purpose of this area is to preserve the home of a sizable population of gopher tortoises, an ancient species of tortoise that originated in North America 60 million years ago. The trails here wind through dense forests and open marsh lands, offering an endless wildlife labyrinth for you to explore and search for wildlife in. In addition to the tortoises, keep an eye out for foxes, owls, and woodpeckers. Many of the trails here are easy to travers, although much of it is on sandy paths, so quality walking shoes are a must!

Leu Gardens

Pink azaleas in full bloom

(Image provided by Adobe Stock)

Next up, Leu Gardens is a botanical oasis closer to downtown Orlando than it is to the airport, making it a great option for anyone staying in the city and relying on public transit. The gardens do have an entrance fee of $15 for adults, but it is well worth the price of admission. Here you will find nearly 50 acres of gardens, each highlighting different species of plants and aimed at educating the public on these beautiful plants. Regardless of whether you are an avid flower enthusiast, or a fledgling botany nooby, the offerings here are sure to delight. Be sure to check out the Historic Leu House Museum if you are there during the times of Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 1pm when it is open. This was the family home of Harry P. and Mary Jane Leu, whom the gardens are named for. 

Lake Mary Jane

Lake Mary Jane as seen from the air

(Image provided by Adobe Stock)

Finally we end our list with Lake Mary Jane, which is both a lake and a small town with a population of just over 2,000 people. While this location is also a half hour from the airport, it is a much more rural area with no dense urban areas nearby. Here you can hike at places like Crosby Island Marsh Preserve, which holds 277 acres of marshland, or Moss Park, which offers tent or RV camping. Just south of Lake Mary Jane, you can find the trailhead for the Isle of Pine preserve where you can spot the aforementioned gopher tortoises, as well as other Floridian creatures, like gators, osprey, and bald eagles. Equestrians rejoice, as this is also a favorite spot for horseback riding!

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