Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

10 Things to Do on Florida State Forests

1. See Butterflies and Dragonflies

Butterflies belong to the class of animals Insecta as do the true flies; however, butterflies are not flies but rather belong to a separate order, Lepidoptera. True flies belong to the order Diptera and are quite different, especially when it comes to looks. There are many thoughts on where the English word butterfly originated, but one interesting hypothesis traces the origin to the insect’s attraction to buttermilk or churning stations, where it was said to steal butter. 

If you are interested in butterflies, take a trip to Ralph E. Simmons Memorial State Forest in northeast Florida. Located on the banks of the St. Marys River, this 3,638-acre forest features very unique terrain and a variety of natural communities.

To date, there have been 96 separate species of butterflies documented on the forest, including species that have never been recorded anywhere else in the state of Florida. Many can be viewed and photographed from the forest’s 10 miles of designated trails. Some species to be observed include: variegated fritillary (Euptoieta claudia), pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor), common wood nymph (Cercyonis pegala), Creole pearly eye (Lethe creola), and hackberry emperor (Asterocampa celtis). 

See that Butterflies Aren’t Flies and Dragons are Real

While traveling the trails of Ralph E. Simmons Memorial State Forest, keep an eye out for dragons -- dragonflies, that is! Another wonderful wildlife viewing opportunity comes from this small yet ferocious carnivorous insect. The dragonflies belong to the order Odonata, whose name derives from the Greek word odonto, meaning tooth. Dragonflies use their large tooth and strong mandibles to devour a wide array of other insects.

Twenty-seven species of dragonflies have been documented on Ralph E. Simmons Memorial State Forest. These include: Carolina saddle bag (Tramea carolina), comet darner (Anax longipes), Georgia river cruiser (Macromia illinoiensis georgina), and Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina). (Photo Credit Patrick and Doris Leary, FFS Volunteers and Bill Berthet, FFS Volunteer)

Butterflies Photo Gallery

Dragons Photo Gallery

2. Paddle Scenic Waterways

Paddling at the Twin Rivers State Forest, named after the junction of the Suwannee and Withlacoochee rivers, can be relaxing or exciting. It all depends on the water level of the rivers.

Other great state forests to paddle are BlackwaterFour Creeks, Jennings, Lake Talquin, Lake Wales Ridge, Little Big Econ, Myakka, Pine Log, Ralph E. Simmons, Seminole, Tate’s Hell and Withlacoochee.

One of the primary draws to Four Creeks State Forest is the variety of water-based recreation available on its four flowing waterways, for which the forest is named. There are currently four primitive landings that provide access to three of the four creeks found on the forest. These landings provide excellent launch points for canoes and kayaks.

Start Paddling Through

One of the best-kept paddling secrets is Tate’s Hell State Forest. It has a variety of creeks and rivers that flow through it, and some lead to the Gulf. During certain times of the year, the creeks are a plant lover’s paradise. The wild and scenic areas of Tate’s Hell that can be explored by paddling are treasures that most visitors will never discover.

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3. Go Wild About Wildflowers

Cary State Forest is known for its diversity of flowering plants. The variation of nine separate natural communities supports a vast array of plants, many of which are threatened or endangered. Many species can be seen from the open forest roads, firelines and hiking trails found on the forest. Be on the lookout for wild orchids: crested fringed orchid-T (Platanthera cristata), grass-pink (Calopogon tuberosus), and the rose pogonia-T (Pogonia ophioglossoides).

Go Wild about Wildflowers

Other flowering plant species include Bartram’s rosegentian (Sebatia decandra), drumhead (Polygala cruciata), purple-disk honeycomb head-E (Balduina atropurpurea), and a variety of milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), a very important plant for many butterflies. (All photos have credit to George and Faith Barbour, FFS Volunteers)

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4. Start Spotting the Birds 

At 25,301 acres, Jennings State Forest supports a wide variety of bird species. These birds play an important role in the ecosystem, serving as predators, prey and bio-indicators. If you are interested in adding to your bird check list, Jennings State Forest is a great place to start. Here you will find plentiful viewing and photographing opportunities. Jennings State Forest has miles of trails for viewing birds and other wildlife.

Start Spotting the Birds

Jennings State Forest offers wildlife viewing blinds, wildlife openings and an ADA-accessible birdwatching area. Some species to look for include: cedar waxwing, eastern bluebird, summer tanager, yellow-bellied sapsucker, red-tailed hawk, eastern wild turkey, and our Florida state bird, the northern mockingbird. 

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5. Value the History That Remains

“A new deal for the American people” was promised by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his address accepting the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in 1932. His administration later established several economic relief programs, which included labor camps in Florida. Pictured below, in both photos, is the World War I veterans’ labor camp at Welaka in 1935. In 1935 the U.S. government started the Welaka Forestry and Wildlife Conservation Project and later transferred the property to the University of Florida. Welaka was acquired for management by the Florida Forest Service in 1992 and still serves as an educational forest, now known as  Welaka State Forest

Value the History that Remains

A few of the other state forests have structures built through New Deal programs. At Cary State Forest and Pine Log State Forest, New Deal-era pavilions are used for educational programs and rented out regularly for large groups and family reunions. Visit and explore the history that still enriches the forests today.

Historical Presentation [ Adobe PDF Document 15.88 MB ]

6. Let the Boardwalks Take You There

Just 14 miles north of Panama City Beach on Highway 79, Pine Log State Forest offers a peek into an enchanted cypress forest by way of the Cypress Pond Boardwalk. The Cypress Pond Boardwalk is part of the Sand Pond Campground Loop. Tunnel into the heart of the Pine Log State Forest on this boardwalk trail and experience the majestic ancient cypresses that tower above. 

Let the Boardwalks Take You There

The boardwalk meanders across the bald cypress pond like a snake, allowing visitors to enter a part of the forest otherwise impassable. The bark of the cypresses is wrinkled and whorled, and if you look closely you’ll see delicate lichens peeping out of the folds. Look up and into the treetops and you may see evidence of a pileated woodpecker, whose chatter echoes through the swamp. Sit on the deck and watch and listen for alligators, water bugs and frogs.

Several state forests have boardwalks. When you see a boardwalk, follow it and see where it takes you

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7. Enjoy the Sunrise

Awaken your senses at Withlacoochee State Forest as you watch the sun slowly rise over one of the forest’s many lakes, ponds or rivers. In some areas, camp overnight and wake up to the beautiful sight of the sun peeking over the horizon. As it rises, catch the rays reflecting off the water and warming the air around you. Listen as it awakens the wildlife and birdsongs begin.

Reflect in the Sunrise Over the Water

If you’re not able to camp, escape early to the day-use areas and allow yourself to experience the fresh air as the sun paints the morning sky. Some days the sky at sunrise is misty and mysterious; other days it is bright and glowing. One thing is for sure, watching the sunrise over this beautiful forest helps you start the morning with an awareness that the day is young and many adventures await.

Johnson Pond Photo Gallery

Mckethan Lake Photo Gallery

Silver Lake Photo Gallery

8. View the Wildlife 

Florida’s more than 1 million acres of state forest land are home to many species of wildlife. Roads, trails, boardwalks and wildlife viewing blinds offer visitors ample opportunity to experience the wilder side of the forests. Take a hike, paddle or camp at a forest to witness some of the activity. 

View the Wildlife

Nature enthusiasts know there are no guarantees of wildlife sightings, but by getting out and recreating in the state forests, where the animals are, you increase the odds of spotting some of these amazing creatures. It is in their ecosystems that you will locate them. Some love the mucky swamps, while others prefer the dry sandhills, the river bottoms or the hardwood hammocks. For advice on the best viewing areas for different species and recommended times for optimal sightings, contact the local forest office and speak to the staff there. Remember, always keep your distance from wildlife and never feed them.

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9. Revive at the Krul Swimming Area

Krul Recreation Area is a camping and day-use area that features a 6.5-acre man-made lake that is spring fed. It is a popular summertime location that offers a fun day full of swimming, picnicking, hiking and camping. A 1.3-mile hiking trail, Sweetwater Trail, leads past an old gristmill, over Sweetwater Creek via a suspension bridge, and connects visitors to the Bear Lake Recreation Area. 

Revive at the Krul Swimming Area

Krul Recreation Area has 50 campsites. The campsites have electricity, water, picnic tables and fire rings, and there are facilities with restrooms and showers. There are several boardwalks around the campground leading to picnic areas and the swimming docks. Krul is part of the Blackwater River State Forest, which, with the Conecuh National Forest to the north and Eglin Air Force Base to the south, forms the largest remaining longleaf pine ecosystem in the world. It offers ample space to enjoy nature. Krul Recreation Area is conveniently located ½ mile east of Munson north of Highway 4.

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10. Camp Along the River Banks

Get away from it all and explore the state forests along the banks of Florida’s beautiful rivers. Enjoy being surrounded by the refreshing sounds of nature. The soothing water sounds, birdsongs, cricket chirps, and the crackle of a campfire in the evening can be so relaxing. Whether you enjoy the quiet moments in solitude or spend the time creating memories with family and friends is up to you. Getting out there is the important part.

Camp along the River Banks

Whether you paddle or drive in, the opportunity to fish, sightsee, hike, boat, hunt, horseback ride, picnic and camp under the stars awaits you. Some forests offer primitive campsites while others offer sites with water, electricity, bathrooms and showers. Some sites are for tents only while others will accommodate recreational vehicles. Amazing opportunities are just a phone call away. Contact a state forest office for more information. Let’s go river camping!

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