One of the best parts about living in Central Florida is that there are so many things to do. From learning about animals and their habitats to taking in the beauty and history of local gardens, and everything in between, the outdoor opportunities are endless.
We’ve compiled a list of our favorite spots to get outside and enjoy the sunshine. We invite you to join us in the Great Outdoor Challenge to get to know these places and all they have to offer.
Lake Apopka North Shore
The 20,000 acres that make up the Lake Apopka North Shore provide plenty of opportunity to get in touch with nature for free. Once a part of Lake Apopka, it’s now a restoration area that is a haven for wildlife as well as one of the top three birding destinations in the state of Florida, with 369 bird species recorded on property. Visitors could also spot alligators, bobcats, otters, bears, raccoons, armadillos and coyotes.
The Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, a scenic one-way, 11-mile drive, provides opportunities to view wildlife and learn more about the area. It’s available from Friday through Sunday and on federal holidays. Entrance gates open at 7 a.m. and close at 3 p.m., though vehicles can tour the area until 5 p.m. On the St. Johns River Water Management website, drivers can access an audio tour that provides information across a variety of stops, including information on the bird and alligator populations, agricultural history and more. For those who want to explore the area on foot, the Lake Apopka Loop Trail and two blazed hiking trails are available for hiking, bicycling, horseback riding and wildlife viewing.
Audubon Center for Birds of Prey
Maitland is home to the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, a facility that works to protect land, water and wildlife by using science to guide their work and birdlife to measure the health of the ecosystem. As one of the state’s most influential conservation organizations, the center connects people to nature through in-person visits, special events and programs such as wildlife rehabilitation and research, conservation education and Eaglewatch, a program that monitors close to 30% of bald eagles in the state.
During a visit, you can learn about the center’s conservation efforts while learning about eagles and other raptors. While buildings and interactive exhibits are closed, you can experience outdoor areas and exhibits. Pre-ticketed sales for a designated time slot are required at this time and can be scheduled between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Mead Botanical Gardens
At Winter Park’s Mead Botanical Gardens, the work of Theodore L. Mead lives on. Before his death in 1936, the famous horticulturist grew orchids and developed new varieties of caladiums, rare ferns, bromeliads and other plants, inspiring two of his friends to continue his legacy by developing a botanical garden in his memory. On Jan. 14, 1940, the garden in his name was dedicated.
After several restorations, the 47-acre property now includes hiking trails, a creek, a boardwalk, a greenhouse, a butterfly garden and a pond that various wildlife call home. While you can explore the property on your own, tours are also available, including volunteer-led birding walks and hikes through the garden with an expert forager or herbalist.
Additionally, Mead Botanical Garden is host to one of the first community gardens in Winter Park. Through the community garden program, residents can rent a 4 foot by 16 foot bed for one year to grow a variety of vegetables and fruits. Some of the garden beds are dedicated to growing produce for Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, and many participants in the community garden donate excess produce from their own beds, too.
Southern Hill Farms
What started as a small, leased farm has turned into a hotspot for Central Floridians looking to soak up the sunshine in a family friendly environment. Southern Hill Farms is a third and fourth generation, family owned and operated farm that now sits on 120 acres in Clermont, offering an annual Fall Festival and various U-Pick opportunities throughout the year.
Now in blueberry, peach, sunflower and zinnia seasons, Southern Hill Farms provides the freshest produce (you’re picking it off the plant yourself, after all) while teaching you where your food comes from along the way. Not only can you support your local farmer while there, but you can also relax with a homemade blueberry lemonade or blueberry mimosa in a rocking chair or on the rooftop deck, dig into a fresh blueberry donut (or a fresh strawberry donut during strawberry season in the winter months) and shop at the Southern Hill Market. There is also a covered playground barn and complimentary yard games as well as farm wagon rides, live music on an outdoor stage and food trucks on the weekends.
In Gotha, a two-story wooden house from the 1800s has quite the story to tell. The former home of famed horticulturist, Henry Nehrling, the property was the site of Palm Cottage Gardens, which Nehrling established as a place where he could experiment with tropical and subtropical plants year-round. One of Florida’s earliest botanical gardens, he tested over 3,000 new and rare plants for the Bureau of Plant Industry, now known as the USDA. Over 300 of those plants became essential to Florida’s ornamental horticulture, including caladiums, palms, bamboos, magnolias, amaryllis, Indian Hawthorne and crinum lilies.
Now known as Nehrling Gardens, the property is owned and operated by the Henry Nehrling Society, a nonprofit that was established in 1999 to save it and that continues working to preserve the home and gardens for future generations. Only six acres of the more than 40 acres that Nehrling originally purchased remain today. It includes specimens of the original 100-year-old tree canopy, many of Nehrling’s plantings as well as the original home.
Nehrling Gardens provides tours, service learning projects and educational workshops. The property is a beloved community resource focused on historic preservation, horticultural education and environmental conservation.
West Orange Trail
It’s no secret that the West Orange Trail is the perfect place to go for a walk, jog or bike ride any time of the year. This 22.26-mile, paved trail runs from the Orange/Lake County line in Oakland, where you can explore the railroad bridge or the Oakland Nature Preserve, to Welch Road in Apopka. The trails are open daily from sunrise to sunset.
Along the way, you might spot zebra and other exotic animals at World Watusi Foundation along the Briley Farm portion of the trail or a beautiful butterfly garden at Tildenville Outpost. There are places to stop for a bite to eat, including the many restaurants of downtown Winter Garden as well as The Catfish Place, which has served southern-style seafood in Apopka for decades. You can also pack a picnic and find a shaded place to take a break and enjoy your spread.
Curry Ford West Butterfly Garden
This month, a pop-up butterfly garden will set up shop at Curry Ford West, a volunteer-driven organization that is one of the City of Orlando’s Main Street Districts. Tickets are $4 with proceeds benefitting Curry Ford West’s ongoing community beautification efforts.
“Guests of our butterfly garden, whether out for a romantic stroll and photo op, to get kids out of the house for a learning opportunity or for any other reason, will be pleasantly surprised by the beauty and immersive nature of this project,” says Curry Ford West Executive Director Danielle Clark. “We’re proud that this is being led by resident and business volunteers from across our district.”
The butterfly garden will be open from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. from May 8 to June 19, excluding Sundays. Several events will take place on select dates, so there will be opportunities to participate in other activities while supporting local businesses.