Florida, Naturally The Unspoiled Beauty Beyond Disney's Borders

From swamp salesmen to carpet-bagging politicians, Florida has been bought and sold to the highest bidder countless times, its natural beauty ravaged in the process. It’s ironic, since it’s that unique beauty—the subtropical islands, the spring-fed forests (plus the warm temperatures, of course)—that make the state so alluring and attractive.

Short of further hurricane disasters, it’s unlikely that coastlines lined with concrete high rises will ever recover their sea oat-studded shores, or that the half of the Everglades that was drained and filled for farms and residential development will ever be returned to nature. But there are still many ways to immerse yourself in unspoiled territory in Florida, and there are many people working hard to preserve what’s left of this lush paradise.

Unspoiled Florida

The Suwannee River meanders relatively undisturbed from Georgia’s Okeefenokee Swamp through northern Florida and the Suwannee State Park, spilling into the Gulf of Mexico at the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge near Cedar Key. The wild river is fed by numerous springs and is lined with parks, small towns, camping spots and river cottages. The Great Florida Birding Trail has many hotspots where native and migrating bird species enjoy peaceful habitats along the river.

Head over to the west coast to check out the manatees that congregate in the warm spring water in the Lower Suwannee during the cooler weather. Several sanctuaries have been established where the sea mammals can swim in protected waters, such as Homosassa Springs and the Crystal River (which draws its warmth from the waste water of the Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant). Swimmers are even allowed to join the playful creatures in the water.

Canoeists might want to explore the wild and scenic Loxahatchee River at Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound, enjoying gators, birds and unspoiled wilderness for a few miles along the river. The Kissimmee River was diked, straightened and concreted by the Army Corps of Engineers during the Everglades extravaganza of the 1940s and 50s. That mistake is the subject of a multimillion-dollar redemption project, and wildlife is just beginning to return.

Restoring the “Glades

The Kissimmee and Loxahatchee are the northern reaches of the Everglades, further fueled by Lake Okeechobee, also now diked and controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers and nearly dead from cattle and sugarcane farm runoff. Efforts to filter polluted water through reconstructed wetlands are underway throughout the region, with promising preliminary results. Although drastically reduced in size and badly polluted, the Everglades are subject to a federal project designed to protect the remaining wetlands and pollution- and algae-damaged Florida Bay. The Everglades are amazing to explore by boat, canoe or kayak. You might encounter alligators, crocodiles, invasive pythons, eagles and scores of other birds as you paddle through the Ten Thousand Islands. It’s even possible—though not likely—that you”ll see a Florida panther.

Reduced to about 20 cats a decade ago, the panther population was bolstered with the introduction of its cousin, the Texas cougar. Now the sleek beauties, considered a menace by some, number around 100. Kayaking the Florida Keys offers another perspective. The aqua blue edge-of-the-Caribbean waters, soaked with sunshine and a decadent atmosphere, make for an unforgettable getaway. The nation’s only coral reef lines the Atlantic coast of the islands, once the source of riches for the region when pirate ships crashed ashore. Today, however, the reef is 98 percent dead, thanks to polluted waters heated by global warming.

Will it get better or worse in Florida? History doesn’t offer much promise, but there is hope that a new wisdom is dawning.