Best nature escapes in Orlando

After a few crazy days dealing with the crowds, heat, and headache inducing rides at Universal & Disney, you will probably be seeking a relaxing place to escape the tourist congestion. While there are many great beaches in Florida, all are at least an hour’s drive away. Plus, due to the tourist popularity, most are packed all the time, and thus, do not exactly offer an experience much more relaxing than a hectic day at Disney. Hanging out at your resort pool is one option for fun-in-the-sun day away from the parks. However, for those of you with no hotel pool access, there are plenty of relaxing nature escapes throughout Orlando.

So take a day (or 2) off from the theme parks and enjoy some of the area’s beautiful natural wonders. As in most areas, nature’s attractions are often the best value. Below are 5 scenic gardens, parks, & natural attractions, all conveniently located in the Orlando region. 4 out of the 5 will cost you nothing, so you can take a break from the craziness all while saving some money!

1. Scenic Boat Tour in Winter Park

Scenic Boat ride in Winter Park, Florida

Winter Park is a gorgeous Orlando suburb known for its’ many parks, tree-lined downtown, and beautiful lakes. The Scenic Boat tour along Winter Park’s Chain of Lakes has long been a favorite tourist activity (since opening in 1938). If you are looking for an entertaining, relaxing, and scenic day off from the parks, there really is nothing better in the immediate area. The tour consists of an hour long narrated ride on an 18 passenger pontoon boat.

Along the tour you will be treated to wonderful views of the stately mansions lining the waterfront. Lush greenery, ample birdwatching, and the occasional sighting of an alligator will give you plenty to look at all while learning more about the area via your knowledgeable tour guide. The best part of the boat ride is going through the 2 man made canals which connect the lakes. There are 6 lakes in Winter Park – the tour starts in Lake Osceola and continues on to Lake Maitland and Virginia.

Adult tickets are just $13 and children $7, so really this is a great bang-for-your-buck activity for the whole family. After your ride, check out the shops, restaurants, and galleries of beautiful downtown Winter Park!

More info on the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour

2. Tibet Butler Nature Preserve

Beautiful trail at the Tibet Butler Nature Preserve in Orlando, Florida

If you are seeking a more active adventure away from the parks, then Tibet Butler is a fantastic choice. This nature preserve is located super close to the theme parks, but feels world’s away. The setting is so quiet and rustic, basically the polar opposite of the man made, crowded theme parks. There are 6 different trails here, with a total distance of about 4 miles. For anyone who has never explored Florida outside of the theme parks, Tibet is a great place to start due to its’ close proximity, ample wildlife, & easy trail system.

The trails transverse through numerous Florida habitats including pine flatwoods and freshland marsh and swamps. Tibet is a wonderful place to bird watch (more than 100 birds have been spotted here) and see all sorts of small wildlife including armadillos or gopher tortoises. At Tibet, you will definitely get to explore the more natural side of Florida. Be on the lookout for special interpretive programs and guided walks.

More info on Tibet Butler Nature Preserve

3. Lake Baldwin

Beautiful Lake Baldwin Park in Winter Park, Florida

Orlando is nicknamed “The City Beautiful,” and with dozens of lakes to choose amongst, this is really no surprise. Unfortunately, many tourists come and go and see the Orlando area as nothing more than theme parks. On the contrary, there are so many beautiful parks, lakes, and preserves to explore.

Beautiful Lake Baldwin can be explored via a 2.5 mile paved path at Lake Baldwin park. Rent a bike or simply take a refreshing stroll. While at times it can get busy with joggers and bikers, for the most part it’s a peaceful place to enjoy nature, get in a healthy workout, and possibly spot some wildlife.

More info on Lake Baldwin

4. Kraft Azalea Garden

Kraft Azalea Garden in Winter Park, Florida

One of the best places to escape the theme park congestion is at any of Winter Park’s quaint gardens. Kraft Azalea is a small 5 acre park on Lake Maitland. Take a relaxing stroll through the beautiful shady Cypress trees and enjoy a much needed escape from the unrelenting Florida sunshine! Due to the scenic setting, the park is popular for weddings.

On the grounds of the park stands a large monument inscribed with the quote “Pause friend. Let beauty refresh the spirit.” As a pretty nature oasis, this garden sure is a great place to get back to nature and reinvigorate after tiresome days walking for hours on end at noisy theme parks.

More info on Kraft Azalea

5. Lake Eola Park

Nice views of the Orlando skyline at Lake Eola

One of Orlando’s most easily accessible lakes is Lake Eola, conveniently located in downtown Orlando. One of the best places to escape the theme parks for a few hours is beautiful Lake Eola Park. Walkers, joggers, and bikes alike take advantage of the scenic 1 mile walking path around the lake. Asides from getting in a nice workout and enjoy the natural scenery, you will also find the best views of the skyline here. Although more popular with local fitness enthusiasts, Lake Eola also doubles as a nice natural escape from the tourist scene.

Bird watchers will be pleased with the many species which call the park home. Consider renting a paddle boat and enjoy a leisurely ride around the lake. Also located on-site is the Walt Disney amphitheater. A number of concerts and events take place here throughout the year.

More info on Lake Eola Park & Events Calendar

The parks listed below are just as worthy of a visit, however, require an hour plus drive. If you are up for a daytrip, these preserves/parks are definite bucket list contenders. Of course, there are tons of great beaches in the Gulf Coast region too, although if you are going more for peace/quiet you can’t beat a day at a relaxed park.

5 more for the road!

Circle B Bar Reserve – Located in Lakeland, about an hour outside of Orlando. This is the best place to see tons of gators. Either walk Alligator Alley ( a bit scary as alligators line both sides) or take a free guided tram tour.

Alligator on the trail at Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland, Florida

Silver Springs State Park – An easy 1.5 mile drive leads you to this historical gem of a park where you can take a unique glass bottom boat ride on a natural spring. This park dates back to the 1870’s and is Florida’s oldest tourist attraction.

Cool views from the glass bottom boat rides at Silver Springs State Park in Florida

Myakka River State Park – A 2 hour daytrip will take you to one of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks. The drive is really worth it as you can do just about anything here – gator airboat rides, hiking & biking, birdwatching, wildlife watching, picnicking, and scenic drives.

Beautiful lake scenery at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota, Florida

Hillsborough River State Park – Amazing place to hike in the Tampa region. A 1.5 hour drive is all it takes to get to this natural oasis. The park features 7 miles of nature trails, Class II rapids for kayaking and canoeing, & a swimming pool.

Banyan trail at Hillsborough River State Park near Tampa, Florida

Honeymoon Island State Park – It’s worth the 2 hour drive from Orlando to spend an entire day enjoying one of the most gorgeous places on the Gulf coast. There’s so much to do here including enjoying sunbathing & swimming on multiple clear water beaches, beachcombing, hiking trails, snorkeling, and even taking a ferry ride to Caladesi Island.

Honeymoon Island State Park on Florida's Gulf Coast