Visiting Florida’s National Parks and Forests by RV

Sep 1, 2021 | Travel & Destinations

Visiting Florida’s National Parks and Forests by RV

The Sunshine State's abundance of wildlife, ocean views, and outdoor recreation opportunities makes it the perfect destination for an RV national park and forest trip.

By Robert Annis

Photo: Robert Annis

When most people imagine Florida, they probably don’t think of it as a national park hotbed. But the Sunshine State boasts three national parks on the southern tip of the state, as well as other National Park Service (NPS) properties, national forests, and more. The Kennedy Space Center is even located in the middle of an NPS-managed wildlife refuge.

Here’s how to plan an RV trip to Florida’s natural wonders. 

Everglades National Park

Before I visited, I was skeptical about Everglades National Park—it’s an alligator-filled swamp, after all—but it surpassed all my expectations. Most of the hikes are short and flat, making them accessible. Visit the Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook to get an inkling of how massive the expanse of wetlands and grassy prairie is.

Entrance sign to Everglades National Park
Photo: Robert Annis

Highlights

Anhinga Trail packs a lot of wildlife viewing in less than a mile. Expect to see alligators, turtles, lizards, and birds off the raised boardwalk. 

The Shark Valley Trail is another bonanza for wildlife viewing, but be sure to stay at least 15 to 20 feet away from the animals. Bikes are definitely a bonus on this 15-mile loop—you can rent single-speed cruiser bikes at the Shark Valley visitor center if needed. Be sure to check out the 65-foot observation tower located near the trail’s midpoint. The back half of the trail is mostly grassy prairie, but you can still spot some smaller alligators here.

An alligator swimming in murky waters
Photo: Robert Annis
Sign warning to not approach wildlife
Photo: Robert Annis

I found the Mahogany Hammock—the largest mahogany grove in the park—a bit underwhelming, but the walk is less than a mile.

Manatees tend to congregate in the Flamingo marina and you can rent kayaks in the nearby canal for a closer look. 

Getting There By RV

There are four entrances into the park: Shark Valley and Gulf Coast to the north and Royal Palm and Flamingo to the south. Depending on the direction you’re traveling from, the time of day, and your campsite, I recommend starting at the northernmost Shark Valley entrance. Because most of the park is wetlands, many of the roads don’t interconnect, so you want to plan accordingly. 

Where To Stay

The park has two open campgrounds during its high season (November through May)—Lone Pine Key and Flamingo—but only Flamingo was open during my late May visit. May marks the beginning of the wet season, but the weather was beautiful, with high temps in the mid-80s. The only negatives to the campground were the lack of Verizon cell phone coverage and the bugs. All of the sites in the T-loop were pull-through and most offered electric hookups. 

Trail Lakes Campground in the bordering Big Cypress National Preserve offers electric hookups and pull-through sites in a no-frills setting.

Other Campground Options


Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas isn’t a park you visit on the spur of the moment; in fact, it’s not accessible via road. Located about 70 miles west of Key West, Dry Tortugas is an island boasting a mix of natural beauty and history. It’s a small park that you can easily experience in a half-day. 

Entrance sign to Dry Tortugas National Park with a fort in the background
Photo: Robert Annis

Highlights 

Built in the 1800s, Fort Jefferson protected U.S. waterways and ports from pirates and foreign adversaries. During and after the Civil War, the U.S. government used it as a prison, housing several notable inmates, including Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd, who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg hours after Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, was convicted of co-conspiracy in the plot. Mudd served more than 3 years in the prison, where he eventually took over as the prison doctor—a historical marker sits outside his former cell. 

You get a sense of the history walking through the fort and despite the gorgeous surroundings, you can sense the prisoners’ desolation and loneliness. Carefully make your way to the top of the fort for photos.

Pack your swimsuit and snorkel in the water surrounding the island. The reefs are home to grouper, snapper, rays, and dolphins. 

Getting There By RV

Take U.S. 1 to Key West. From there, take a ferry or seaplane to Dry Tortugas. You’ll get several hours on the small island, which is really all you need.

Where To Stay

There’s no RV camping at the park, but you can bring a tent if you want to overnight on the island.

I stayed at Boyd’s Campground in Key West. Given the premium on real estate in the Keys, campsites are close together but overall the vibe is fairly quiet and the grounds clean. For food, there’s a semi-permanent food truck serving Cuban cuisine inside the campground, and a low-key seafood restaurant about a half-mile away. The location can’t be beat, and neither can the views of the ocean.

Geiger Key Marina and RV Park is a laid-back option that offers water access, fishing, and a full-service restaurant nearby.

Other Campground Options


Biscayne National Park

Nearly all of Biscayne National Park is on or below the Atlantic Ocean, so you’ll need a boat to see more of the park. Several outfitters offer guided sightseeing and fishing trips. Elliott and Boca Chita Keys are the two most visited islands in the park; don’t miss the famous lighthouse on Boca Chita. Keep an eye to the sky, as the area is one of the best migratory bird routes in the world.

View of thin beach with ocean water on each side
Photo: Robert Annis

Highlights

A snorkeling tour with the Biscayne National Park Institute takes you to two different reefs. The crystal clear water allows visitors to see tropical fish and even sharks, so don’t forget your GoPro. One word of caution: The chance of getting seasick can be high, especially if you haven’t snorkeled in choppy ocean water before. 

The Biscayne National Park Institute also offers a Heritage of Biscayne Cruise that visits three of the largest keys—Adams, Elliott, and Boca Chita—disembarking on the latter to see the lighthouse and other sights. 

Fishing is a popular activity among many park visitors. Toss in your line from shore or hop on a charter boat to try your hand at catching mahi-mahi or sailfish—a valid Florida fishing license is required. 

Getting There By RV

The drive to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center only takes about 15 minutes from the Ronald Reagan Turnpike exit. Surface roads are well marked with plenty of signs. The parking lot isn’t huge, but it does have a few dedicated spots for larger RVs.

Where To Stay

The park itself doesn’t offer RV camping, but there is a wealth of options nearby.

Located about 30 minutes north of the park, Miami Everglades RV Resort offers a vacation from your vacation, with mini-golf, pickleball, midnight shuffleboard, and more. A small store and laundry area means you don’t need to leave the campground once you park your rig.

For a casual vibe, Southern Comfort RV Park has an onsite tiki bar, as well as a pool and other amenities.

Other Campground Options


Ocala National Forest

Located in the center of the state, Ocala National Forest makes a terrific stop for those on a longer road trip or visitors to nearby Orlando. The forest boasts more than 600 lakes and rivers where visitors can enjoy water activities and wildlife viewing.

Entrance sign to Clearwater Lake Recreation Site in the Ocala National Forest in Florida
Photo: Robert Annis

Highlights

Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail is a lightly trafficked, beginner-level bike trail. There are three potential routes, depending on where you park: the 10-mile Clearwater Lake Loop, the 13-mile Alexander Springs Loop, or a 23-mile combination of the two. 

Not too far from the national forest, Santos Trailhead is a nationally renowned mountain bike park, with a layout that caters to different levels of experience. The easiest (yellow) trails loop around the entire park. Both intermediate (blue) and expert (red) trails wind their way through the middle of the park. 

Getting There By RV

Florida State Roads 40 (east to west) and 19 (north to south) traverse the national forest.

Where To Stay

The Clearwater Lake Campground has both reserved and first-come, first-served sites. Sites have some distance between them and offer basic amenities. Several offer lake access or views. Call ahead before you visit to find out when the front gates close; I arrived at 7 p.m. for my overnight, only to find out the gate was locked at 6 p.m.

If you ride the Santos Bike Park, book a stay at the adjacent campground, run by Florida State Parks. Pedal your bike from your campsite a short distance to the trail. Break a spoke or need a beer? The on-site bike shop can help. But make your reservations early, as there are only 25 spots available. Electric hookups are offered. 

Other Campground Options


Osceola National Forest

Named after a great Seminole warrior, Osceola National Forest offers peace and tranquility less than an hour west of Jacksonville. Paddling and fishing on the lakes and rivers are two of the most popular activities in the forest. Hiking can be found throughout the area, although some spots, like the Big Gum Swamp Wilderness, might be challenging, given the marshy terrain.

Trailhead with sign directing hikers to Big Shoals Trail
Photo: Robert Annis

Highlights

If you enjoy fishing, bluegill, crappie, bass, and dozens of other fish species are waiting to be caught at the Ocean Pond Recreation Area (it’s actually a lake, go figure). 

Just outside the national forest boundaries, Big Shoals State Park offers several hiking and paddling options. I did an easy 2.5-mile hike to check out Florida’s largest series of rapids on the Suwannee River, but avid paddlers will prefer to see the Class 3 whitewater closer up in their kayaks.   

Getting There By RV

I-90 skirts the bottom of the national forest, while County Road 250 bisects the park from the southwest corner to the northeast.

Where To Stay

If you enjoy live music and camping, the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park & Campground might be your best bet. The campground has several huge loops, offering primitive, electric, and full hookups. Local acts often play on summer weekends, while national acts play festivals in the fall.

Ocean Pond Campground offers both tranquility and beauty on a waterfront site. Electric sites tend to book up fast, but you typically have your pick of the primitive sites, especially if you’re traveling midweek.

Other Campground Options


Plan Your Own RV Trip

CampgroundsNational ForestNational ParksRV Travel

Robert Annis

After spending nearly a decade as a reporter for The Indianapolis Star, Robert Annis became an award-winning outdoor-travel journalist. Over the years, Robert's byline has appeared in numerous publications and websites, including Outside, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, Men's Journal, Lonely Planet, and more. If you’re looking for Robert, chances are you'll find him either pedaling the backroads and trails of the Midwest on his bicycle or hunched over his laptop in an airport bar, frantically trying to make his next deadline.

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