[Above: Blue Springs Park in Orange City, FL. Lots of photos of nearby wildlife below, plus a few extras. Click to control the speed of the slide show.]
Whenever I post photos of nature, this is one of the first questions that pops up. I also get, “I want to go where you go,” “Where is this?” “Can you take me with you?”
Who knows how genuine these queries and comments are – haven’t we all supported our friends’ posts in similar ways? – but I know some of them really want to know. And so this is for them. And for you too, if you’re feeling the need for some Vitamin N.
First, how do I find these magical places:
- Drive by – seriously. My mind has been trained to spot those brown state signs that signal either a wilderness area or an historic downtown area. I usually check them both out. Keep in mind that not all spaces are marked. You may be caught in traffic and look over and find a tiny trailhead or catch the sparkles of a lake beyond the trees. Pull over and explore. It’s way better than traffic, even at 95 degrees!
- The Google. I mean, of course, right? But how to search? I usually will pick an area, maybe a town or a county and search whatever I’m looking for. For instance, sometimes I’m open to tight little trails, other times I’d really like to see some osprey so I know I need to be near a nice body of water. One of my searches may look like this: Seminole+parks+water+trails. It will yield way more than I need but I can dig.
Note: Many of these “parks” found in counties or states could be nothing more than a boat ramp or a kayak drop in. But if you’re feeling adventurous there’s almost always some nearby woods to explore.
- Ask friends, like me! If you see someone post something that is calling to you, ask them where it is. I will always tell you, most people will.
- Trip Advisor or any travel app, can be extremely helpful in finding the big places. If you’re in Taos, New Mexico for instance you can hone your search down to natural settings and read reviews before heading out. Hint: I always read a few of the very best reviews and a few of the very worst and a couple in between. There are usually some great tips on where to park or what to skip.
- National and State Parks websites. I love to support national parks. (nps.gov) There are so many more national parks other than the big ones like Yellowstone or Yosemite. In Florida, we have twelve, and this includes national monuments, memorials and seashores as well as parks. State parks are also a list topper. (floridastateparks.org) There are too many in Florida to list. You can filter them by region and hone your search down even further to: trail or park, amenities and pet-friendly. They each have their unique offering so dig a little further. Blue Springs in Orange City, for instance, is home to about 300 manatees in the coldest winter months.
PSA: Most national and state parks have an entrance fee, usually per car, and often it does not exceed $10. Please pay it with gratitude and maybe even become a member to preserve these slices of heaven for everyone’s benefit.
- Hiking guides. I also stumbled upon this lovely little site while looking for some new, unexplored (by me) spaces. floridahikes.com. I mean, honestly, there is no shortage of resources out there.
- Stumble Upon. Don’t disregard the local parks with boardwalks that run through them. You do not have to be Magellan to encounter amazing natural wildlife. I have had long conversations with damselflies and banana spiders on these elevated walkways. Plus, they often will lead to a dock on a beautiful calm lake full of turtles, alligators and fish.
Now you know where to find these places that contain other worldly birds and low-belly dinosaurs, spiders as big as your head and slithery snakes that like to hide in plain sight. But I would be remiss if I didn’t offer two more pieces of advice:
Be prepared. Yes, I was a Girl Scout and you already know all this, but it bears repeating. While it’s awesome to stop off someplace like Lake Lily in Maitland for a quick picnic lunch and to gaze at the water and the wildlife, most of these locations are a little more remote. And in some cases you may wander off the beaten path so “always be prepared”.
- Remember to take water. Take it with you always.
- Find your compass app on your phone and note the direction in which your vehicle is parked. Trust me on this one, it has helped me more than I care to admit.
- Take a photo of the sign entry or map as reference if needed. Some trails have a QR code that you can scan to download a real-time map of the area.
- Make sure your phone battery is charged in case you need to call for help, directions or you suddenly just remembered you were supposed to be on a conference call.
- Take nothing but photos. I’ve been known to collect a stray feather or a tiny magical rock but otherwise, I leave the habitat as I found it.
- Wear good walking or hiking shoes, long pants, a light long-sleeved shirt and a hat, especially during the summer. It helps guard against mosquitoes and other biting critters and protects you from the sun. On occasion I will find myself in flip flops a t-shirt and shorts, but those are usually the seashores and impromptu finds usually and I often have many bites to contend with once home.
Finally, and most importantly, become a noticer.
This is the key to EVERYTHING.
You can be in the most amazing place and not see a single interesting thing. Or you can be in the middle of a city and spot the most beautiful butterfly. I have captured some of my best dragonfly and spider photos in my own tiny back yard. Walk slowly, this isn’t something to get through and check off your list. Sit for a while, it all comes to you. Look up, down, side to side, begin to catch the slightest movement, the tiniest sound and stop and look in that direction. Allow yourself to become so immersed in your surroundings that you can almost hear the water or lizard or bird whisper, “this way.” Slow your pace, slow your breath, breathe deep, allow gratitude to well up within you. You ARE nature, this is where you belong, they get it – all those critters – now it’s time for you to understand.