Orlando's Great Outdoors: Bike, Paddle & Stroll (and more)



Orlando residents enjoy outdoor activities year-round; it’s just one of the reasons so many northerners come here to escape the frigid grip of winter. Hiking season never really goes away, it just gets hotter and more humid. When that happens, many of us hit one of the local springs – Rock Springs at beautiful Kelly Park is a nice one for beginners. Beautiful hiking trails and a pale, blue-green fissure that’s crisp, cool and rife for a lazy float downstream. You may even want to hit nearby Mount Dora for a bit of antiquing, as well. Already a fan of the stand-up paddleboard craze? If not, you’re in luck – the pros at Paddleboard Orlando are experts when it comes to beginner training, and their excursions might lead you across one of our lovely urban lakes, through mansion-lined canals or into clear, blue water where the manatees do their underwater grazing.  Whether you dig zip lining in our subtropical canopies or just enjoying the sunset on a vast, idyllic (albeit alligator-infested) lake, Orlando has more than enough outdoor pursuits to satisfy hardcore athletes, average-Joe joggers or folks who just prefer scarfing their doughnuts out in the fresh air on occasion.



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Showcase of Citrus
Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson


 

Owned by fourth generation citrus farmers, Showcase of Citrus is one of those classic "only in Florida" activities you have to do at least once (or, like the locals, you can come back again and again). This farm is home to 13 varieties of oranges alone â€" not counting the lemons, limes, tangerines and outstanding ruby red grapefruit. Pick 'em yourself or, if you're feeling lazy, grab a bag from the country store and mosey, but you might want to check out the Monster Truck Eco Tour while you're here. Watch for gators in the canals as you pick and enjoy a frozen OJ before you leave!


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Apopka/Winter Garden


 

Dip your toes into the headwaters of Rock Springs Run, a true Floridian oasis amid Kelly Park's lush, green landscape and immediately the oppressive subtropical clime is replaced by goose bumps and a bit of a chill. Water courses into this natural spring from a crevice at the bottom at a brisk 68 degrees and if you're lucky enough to have the space to yourself and the sun is just right, you can see just about to the bottom. In places, the water here is an unearthly beautiful crystal blue. Kelly Park has camping and hiking and a swimming hole at the end of the creek's run, but the No. 1 activity here is a lazy, winding float trip �" about three-quarters of a mile and roughly 30 minutes if you don't stop �" to its culmination. Bring your own tube or rent one from a number of vendors outside the park.


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Sure, the Orlando area has miles of off-road trails, but it's got it's fair share of paved paths, as well. The Urban Bike Trail â€" an easy pedal (roughly 2.5; five if you do an out-and-back) runs from Ivanhoe Village, meandering amid scenery that mixes old-school Florida urban with verdant, park-like settings to Mead Botanical Garden in Winter Park. The path, which is open to walkers and joggers, as well, runs along an old rail route once called the "Dinky Line" and takes riders past urban lakes with wildlife-viewing opportunities with options to stop at one of Loch Haven Park's art- or science venues for a cultural infusion. Great exercise and a whole new way to see the city.


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Wakeboarding (a super popular sport here in Florida), paddleboarding and the area's very first Aquapark – a wonderland of bouncy, floating inflatables on which to climb and play – are all on tap at the Orlando Watersports Complex. And noobs are more than welcome. Lessons in every discipline are available (none are necessary for the Aquapark!). Wakeboarding – something of an amalgam of surfing, waterskiing and snowboarding – is an enticing and potentially high-adrenaline way to pass time in the Florida sun, while SUP'ing is more staid and relaxing. It's a win-win decision, either way, and visitors of all ages will enjoy the color and bounce of the Aquapark.


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Welcome to Lake Jesup, a vast mirror of a lake (except on windy days) with the dubious distinction of having more alligators than any other lake in the ENTIRE STATE OF FLORIDA. Let that sink in a minute while we tell you about Black Hammock Adventures. A decidedly old-Florida attraction that's part wildlife exhibit, part airboat- and pontoon-ride purveyor and part restaurant/bar with one of the most impressive sunset-viewing locations in Central Florida. Airboat rides depart daily, pontoons â€" slower, more stable, very relaxing â€" go out for weekend sunset cruises. Call the office for details. Pop into the Lazy Gator bar before or after your outing. Or the Black Hammock Restaurant (helmed by a former Executive Chef at Epcot's Chefs de France). Or both. It's friendly. It's local. And if you dig fried gator tail, it's the best in town. Live music every weekend.


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This local outfitter runs tours throughout Central Florida, even out to Merritt Island, but in-town excursions through the Winter Park chain of lakes take intrepid explorers straight through the majestic landscape and history of this lovely little town. They're happy to give you an escort, but with the handy map they are happy to provide: it's wholly unnecessary, allowing you and partners in paddling to slip unencumbered through the waterways, guided by easy-to-read, hand-drawn maps. Navigate through lush foliage, beneath towering cypress and past the area's magnificent estates on a two-and-a-half-hour journey. Tours of the Little Econlockhatchee and other excursions are available, as well. Call or check website for details.


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Looking for a different view of the City Beautiful? Paddleboard Orlando will give you waterborne perspective â€" vertically! And they're pros when it comes to first-time SUP'ers. Offering beginner lessons and peaceful, fun excursions on a wide array of Orlando's lakes and canals â€" you can sign up for manatee or moonlight paddles, group or private lessons, even nighttime bioluminescence outings. No equipment or experience necessary. Orlando Paddleboard is a passionate operation; they want to get you as hooked on SUP'ing as they are. Private parties and corporate events are available, as well. Paddleboarding is a unique way to experience the aquatic terrain, flora and fauna of Central Florida â€" definitely worth a try!


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Explore Florida's natural beauty at Wekiwa Springs State Park. Hike through wild, diverse ecosystems, paddle the famous Wekiva River, or camp beneath the stars. Wekiwa Springs offers nature lovers the opportunity to experience a part of Florida that is all too quickly vanishing â€" and just minutes from the theme park area. Bring your camera, because wild turkey, black bear, deer, and many species of birds call this park home. Canoes and kayaks are available for rent and guided tours are available. Those interested in exploring the area on horseback may do so on weekends (minimum age: 6). Guided trail rides are $25/per person and run about an hour long.


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Local are always talking up how cosmopolitan Orlando is. We're not denying it, but just outside the city sits acres of wetland wilderness so loaded down with wildlife â€" alligators, bald eagles, wading birds and more â€" you may spot more animals that at the zoo. Of course, you'll need an expert guide and Wild Willy's won't disappoint. Tours are exciting (if you've never glided over the seas of grass before, you're in for a treat) and uber-educational. Photo-ops with the "on-staff" gators are available, as well. Florida nature is unlike any other, it's well worth a quick side-trip from the parks (and close by, too).


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Meet A.D. Thompson

Amy Drew has spent nearly three decades as a professional writer and roughly half her life as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum.

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