Florida is known for its abundance of unique wildlife. From the coastlines where sea turtles nest and dolphins play offshore to the wetlands where alligators and other reptiles roam. Florida’s forests are home to everything from the rarest of wild cats to the tiniest of deer species.
10. Fakahatchee Strand Preserve
Known as the “Amazon of North America”, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve sprawls over 80,000 acres in Southwest Florida. It is the largest strand swamp in the world and home to a variety of rare plant and animal species. Some of the most notable species in the preserve include black bears, alligators, bald eagles, and the elusive Florida panther.
A subspecies of mountain lion that once roamed the entire state, the Florida panther is now only found in limited regions with a population of only around 200 left. The wilderness of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve is believed to have one of the highest concentrations of panthers in the state. While the Florida panther is still one of the most elusive creatures, if you’re hoping to spot one, your best chances are here. In 2021, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve made national headlines when one lucky visitor spotted a whopping 5 panthers in one day. A truly once-in-a-lifetime encounter!
9. National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge
Spanning over 8,500 acres on Big Pine Key, the National Key Deer Refuge was established to protect the dwindling Key deer population. Tiny and aloof, Key deer are the smallest subspecies of deer in North America and are only found on a few islands in The Florida Keys. Listed as an endangered species, there are less than 800 Key deer left in the wild. Most of which live on the refuge.
While the Key deer are often easy to spot from the side of the road, the refuge has several wildlife trails. The deer, as well as a variety of birds and marsh rabbits, can often be spotted along the trails. The refuge also has a freshwater lagoon with wading birds, turtles, and alligators. Offshore, the waters surrounding the island are home to several protected marine species, including the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, loggerhead sea turtle, and West Indian manatee.
8. Indian River Lagoon
The pristine waters of the Indian River Lagoon are known for their incredible biodiversity, with over 2,200 species supported by the lagoon. From dolphins and manatees to sea turtles and stingrays. The lagoon is also considered one of the most important bull shark nurseries on the Atlantic Coast.
The Indian River Lagoon spans 156 miles across the East Coast of Florida, with plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching through boating, kayaking, and paddleboarding. While there’s never a bad time to visit the lagoon and see wildlife, the summer months offer something truly special.
June through October is the bioluminescence season. At night, the waters come alive with shimmering dinoflagellates (a type of bioluminescent plankton) and glowing jellyfish. Visitors wanting to experience this rare phenomenon can take a guided kayak tour for a front-row seat to this underwater light show!
7. St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge
Accessible only by boat, St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge is located on St. Vincent Island off the coast of the Florida Panhandle. It is a critical habitat for a variety of wildlife, including the endangered red wolf.
Established as a breeding site by the Red Wolf Recovery Program, St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge is one of only two places in the US where red wolves roam. The refuge is a permanent home to one breeding pair, but since the wolves can’t leave the island, some pups are relocated once they reach maturity. The young wolves are transferred to a much larger refuge in North Carolina where they have more range to avoid inbreeding.
While wolf sightings on the island are rare, visitors can still enjoy the abundance of other wildlife-spotting opportunities. The island is also home to alligators, deer, and many species of birds, including bald eagles. June through August, sea turtles may be found nesting on shores.
6. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Established to protect Florida’s sensitive coral reef habitat, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was the first of its kind–a park that is underwater! Located on Key Largo, the island aptly known as the “Dive Capital of the World,” the park boasts over 70 nautical miles of sparkling turquoise waters teeming with ocean life.
The waters off the park are home to a vast system of living coral that is part of the Florida Reef; the only living coral barrier reef in the continental US. It’s a critical habitat for a variety of marine life. Visitors to the park can get an up-close look at the reef by taking one of the many diving or snorkeling tours offered. Glass bottom boat tours also go out to the reef for those that don’t wish to get in the water.
This underwater world offers views like no other. Visitors may get a chance to spot hundreds of different species of tropical fish and crustaceans, as well as sea turtles, sharks, stingrays, and more!
5. Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge
A 20-mile stretch of protected coastline in Eastern Central Florida, Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is a safe haven for sea turtles. The refuge protects some of the most significant nesting sites for loggerhead and green sea turtles. In addition to sea turtles, the refuge is also an important nesting site for a variety of migratory birds.
Visitors to the refuge can learn all about the plight of the sea turtle through their educational center and ecotours. There are plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife while hiking the nature trails, strolling the shoreline, or paddling on the water.
In early summer, guided nighttime turtle walks are held for a chance to see a nesting sea turtle come ashore to lay her eggs. Later in the summer, daytime turtle walks are held to help hatchlings that didn’t make it to the water. Volunteers have a unique opportunity to not only spot baby sea turtles but help save them!
4. Crystal River
Known as “The Manatee Capital of the World,” the clear sparkling waters of Crystal River on Florida’s West Coast are an important refuge for the endangered West Indian Manatee. The river is part of a large waterway of connected springs and bays that flow into the Gulf of Mexico.
While manatees can be found in waterways throughout Florida, Crystal River is the only place to see them up close. In fact, it is the only place in North America where humans are permitted to swim with these protected aquatic mammals.
Visitors can “meet a manatee” through a variety of boat tours, snorkeling excursions, or by simply renting a kayak or paddleboard. Crystal River has special rules and regulations in place to protect the manatees. It’s important to follow these rules and remember what a privilege it is to get in the water with these amazing creatures!
3. Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway
A road that lives up to its name, the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway stretches for 60 miles with some of the best bear-spotting opportunities in Florida! This road runs through Ocala National Forest and passes through several Florida black bear habitats.
Along the road, there are plenty of opportunities for wildlife spotting, not only for bears but a variety of Florida species, including birds, bobcats, and alligators. There are also several recreational areas, including hiking trails and springs.
While spotting bears is usually at the top of the list for travelers on this road, it’s important to remember that Florida black bears, like all wildlife, should only be admired from afar!
2. St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
Spanning over 83,000 acres in the Florida Panhandle, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is one of the largest wildlife refuges in the state. Hundreds of species call the refuge home across its forests, wetlands, and beaches. The refuge is also an important nesting site for migratory birds.
On the refuge, there are plenty of scenic drives, hiking trails, and waterways to be explored. Visitors may spot alligators, bald eagles, deer, black bears, and bobcats. During the winter, the refuge is a migration point for Monarch butterflies culminating in the refuge’s annual Monarch Butterfly Festival.
1. The Florida Everglades
A vast wilderness unlike anywhere else on earth, The Florida Everglades cover over 1.5 million acres of forests and wetlands across the southern tip of Florida. As the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, the Everglades are incredibly biodiverse and one of the top places to see wildlife in the US!
Hundreds of species can be found in the Everglades, but none are as famous as the American alligator. The Everglades are a prime alligator habitat, with these large reptiles commonly spotted swimming in the waterways or sunbathing on shorelines and roadsides.
While alligators tend to steal the show in the Everglades, many are unaware that these waters are also home to the elusive American crocodile. In fact, Florida is the only place on earth where both alligators and crocodiles coexist! In addition to all the toothy reptiles, plenty of other wildlife can be found here, including birds, deer, bears, bobcats, panthers, and more.
There are plenty of access points to the Everglades, but two of the most popular include Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. Both offer a glimpse into true Florida wilderness with plenty of opportunities for hiking, boating, and of course–wildlife watching!