If Orlando gives you visions of Walt Disney World®, roller coasters and other theme park thrills, Central Florida’s serene nature preserves serve as a welcome contrast for those moments when you’re seeking solitude.
For nature lovers, Orlando is a terrific base for exploring the region’s amazing wetlands and wildlife refuges. With room to safely explore, let pent-up kids expend energy outside and pursue physically refreshing activities like hiking, biking and horseback riding.
Here are a few places to kick back and enjoy greater Orlando’s natural bounty.
Quick Trips Within Orange County
If you’re looking for a quick, drivable day-trip close to one of Diamond’s Central Florida properties, here are a few options:
Greenwood Urban Wetlands. This beautiful urban greenspace is one of the few wetlands where you can bring the whole family for a gentle stroll — or roll if you need to use a stroller or prefer to ride bikes. Soak up the scenery of the lake and its colorful variety of ducks, cranes and herons.
The lakeside is a great place to spot not only wading birds but also plenty of turtles popping up for essential sun. A few otters also live there, among other elusive creatures. Stop at benches to rest or to survey the scene for birds of prey scouting the water for lunch or dinner. Bring a picnic to snack on while you embrace the quiet, restful shade of the old trees — there are tables scattered under them to provide the perfect place to enjoy it.
COVID-19 safety measures/restrictions: Modified use of space and restrictions regarding numbers of people.
Hours: Sunrise to sunset
Hal Scott Regional Preserve and Park. Filled with longleaf pine flatwoods and live oak forests, this property is within a few miles of the Orlando International Airport — although it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Named for a former high-ranking member of the Florida Audubon Society and managed by the St. Johns River Water Management District, Hal Scott is home to a population of red-cockaded woodpeckers that carve out homes in the pine trees.
Because the preserve’s 9,515 acres also include the Econlockhatchee River to the east, it’s occasionally possible to see river otters playing, bobcats fishing and bald eagles or other birds of prey hunting from above. Other species to watch for include dramatically loud and large sandhill cranes (which often walk around in pairs or small family groups), eastern indigo snakes and protected gopher tortoises.
Interconnected, looping trails provide an idyllic backdrop for hiking, biking and horseback riding. You can also launch a boat and fish in this preserve, and geocaching fans should note the drop here.
Hours: Open 24 hours
Tibet-Butler Preserve. While programs like EcoSaturdays and Nature Nuts remain suspended for the time being, this popular educational preserve is open for hiking on 3.6 miles of trails that range over boardwalks and beaches alike. (Note that the Palmetto Passage, the most challenging trail, is frequently closed due to flooding.)
The exhibits at the Vera Carter Environmental Center show you how to identify local fauna like osprey and owls, as well as different ecosystems like longleaf pine forests, scrub forests, marshes and bayhead swamps. A wheelchair-accessible sandbox and a butterfly garden are also located at the center.
This 438-acre park is ideal for families with children of any age who have limited attention spans or mobility, or for families that want to add an afternoon of nature to a morning of theme park fun.
COVID-19 safety measures/restrictions: Capped at 50 percent capacity.
Hours: 8:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m daily. No dogs/pets or bicycles permitted.
Longer Drives for Day Trips
If you’re looking to make a day of it, here are a few trips within a 1-hour drive from most Central Florida Diamond Resorts properties.
Split Oak Forest Mitigation Park. Named for a live oak that’s survived for at least two centuries despite being split down the middle by lightning, this park is a stop on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. It’s famous for bird watching and particular kinds of wildlife.
Here, more than nine miles of hiking trails and boardwalks — some as short as the 0.8-mile Swamp Trail, others as long as the 5.3-mile North/South Trail — offer plenty of opportunities to spot protected populations of gopher tortoises, Sherman’s fox squirrel and sandhill cranes.
The park is also known for box turtles, the eastern indigo snake, the eastern coachwhip snake, red and gray foxes, white-tailed deer and wild turkeys. The morning and late afternoon hours are peak opportunities to spot wading birds from the overlooks. Check Florida Nature Trackers and eBird for the species and number of times it’s been spotted, and add your own observations. Horseback riding is also permitted.
Hours: Open from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. No bicycles, vehicles, hunting, dogs/pets or restrooms.
Lake Lizzie Nature Preserve. Best for a back-to-nature day trip, this 1,076-acre preserve is triangulated on Lake Lizzie, Bay Lake and Trout Lake in the Upper Kissimmee Chain of Lakes. With 11 miles of hiking trails, nine miles of equestrian trails and at least seven different ecosystems to explore, the region includes everything from lakes and freshwater marsh to endangered habitats like sand pine scrub and xeric oak scrub.
Visitors most notably spot gopher tortoises, white-tailed deer, red-shouldered hawks, barred owls, sandhill cranes, osprey, limpkins, great blue herons, Sherman’s fox squirrels and wood storks, but that’s just the beginning. Plant enthusiasts also report a great range of rare vegetation, including certain kinds of moss, holly and ferns.
Hours: Open from dawn to dusk. No hunting, swimming, introduction or collection of plants or animals, feeding or disturbing wildlife, or alcoholic beverages.
Diamond Resorts International Marketing, Inc., its parents, sister companies, and subsidiaries, make no warranty, express or implied, as to the condition, capacity, performance or any other aspect of the activities, events, or service providers listed herein. No inquiry has been made into the activities or events, or the qualifications or the quality of services offered by the providers. Do not consider this an endorsement of or recommendation for any of the activities, events, or providers.