Here's the deal: Not all folks that come to the Sunshine State plan to stay near the beach. Sure, Florida's coastline often gets lots of attention, with advertisements of colorful umbrellas and visitors crisping away in the midday sun.
But there's another side of Florida-a very, very wild side-that has been attracting people for much longer than you might think. Famed early naturalists like William Bartram, John Audubon and John Muir have all spent considerable time here studying our great state's flora and fauna, and for good reason. Florida truly is one of the most diverse natural places on the planet, and our opportunities for wildlife experiences are fantastic at any time of the year.
Bird watching on the lakes
I grew up wandering around in the woods of Central Florida and have spent most of my life right here in the same place. For me, it's hard to beat catching the morning light on upper Lake Toho while en route to Makinson Island Conservation Area. Rare Snail Kites, loons, and migratory ducks like Hooded Mergansers and Northern Shovelers frequent the area, while White-eyed Vireos and Loggerhead Shrikes can be seen on the island's network of trails. It's a place that should be on any birder's bucket list.
I've often said that birders and wildlife watching enthusiasts are some of the most well-traveled people that I've ever met. As a Florida native, it's strange to hear people talking about seeing Savanna Elephants in Africa on their previous travels, while engaged in spotting Scrub-Jays at the Nature Conservancy's Disney Wilderness Preserve, but that's happened before. The same folks that travel to the furthest corners of the Earth to watch wildlife are coming right here to the Kissimmee area. Pretty cool, right?
You don't have to be a world-class birder to enjoy a few hours of nature study. I've seen people fall in love with the wild side of Florida while on a kayak tour of Shingle Creek. Alligators, Limpkins and all manner of wading birds can easily been seen here, and these sightings often lead to a lifetime of appreciation of Kissimmee's natural spaces.
Shingle Creek Regional Park is one of those places where you can spend a lot of time behind a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope. This multi-property park protects the historic headwaters of the Florida Everglades and can be explored by canoe or kayak, on foot or by bike. Seriously, this park could be your entire vacation, and the opportunities for wildlife watching here are only limited by how much time you have. Interpretive signage makes it easy for beginners to identify common species, such as White Ibis, Downy Woodpeckers, Eastern Phoebes and Red-Shouldered Hawks.
At Shingle Creek's Steffee Landing location, visitors pretty much can do it all. Get on the water by renting canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards at the park's Paddling Center, or explore the hiking and biking trails. Bring your camera-I've fallen in love with this location's historic buildings as well as the natural landscape. Combined, you feel like you've been teleported to the early pioneer days of Florida, and I've spent lots of solitary moments feeling far away from the rest of the world here. Look for Yellow-bellied Slider turtles basking in the sun along the creek, and I've spotted a Bald Eagle or two soaring overhead here as well.
Don't miss a trip to Twin Oaks Conservation Area to see good-sized alligators, herons, Limpkins (a personal favorite) and Sandhill cranes. Roseate Spoonbills-a favorite species for both occasional birders and diehards alike-can be seen here feeding along the shores of Lake Toho, too. For this one, I'd start out early on the nature trails, then work around towards the observation platform and fishing pier. This is a great point for scanning the skies over Lake Toho and the tops of huge live oaks for Bald Eagles and Osprey.
Wildlife with a thrill
For those who like a thrill, Forever Florida is where you want to be. This is one of the top eco-themed attractions in the country, with ziplines, a zipline roller coaster (you won't find this anywhere else) and wild adventures via horseback and swamp buggy. The Forever Florida Wildlife Conservation Area is situated on 4,700 acres of the "Real Florida", where endangered Black Bears and Florida Panthers roam free. It's an amazing place that should be on every visitor's agenda, and you'll come away with incredible life-lasting memories.
It's not any one thing that makes Kissimmee so unique when it comes to watching wildlife. It's the broad range of experiences; from serene paddle trips complete with otter sightings to spotting alligators while on an exciting swamp buggy ride. It's a place with uncommon beauty and so many opportunities for wildlife lovers of all ages and skill levels. That's Kissimmee.
Plan your next wildlife watching adventure in Kissimmee!