ORLANDO, Fla. - While Walt Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld are often the main destinations for Central Florida visitors, ecotourism is a unique alternative to crowded theme parks.
Diverse ecosystems within swamps and marshlands are home to flora and fauna not seen anywhere else in the world.
Alligators are a common sight in nearly every natural body of fresh water in Florida, but to see them safely you’ll have to trek along a natural trail, hop on an airboat, rent a canoe or even find a seat at a swamp bar.
Black Hammock Restaurant
Black Hammock Restaurant sits on the southeastern shore of Lake Jesup, which has the highest population of alligators in the state. From land, you have the option of sitting at the bar with a drink and watching the prehistoric reptiles in their natural habitat.
If you are feeling more adventurous, Black Hammock offers 30-minute airboat rides from 9:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. that take you around the lake for an up-close view. There are a few alligators kept in an enclosed area on property, as well as smaller ones available for personal photos. If you happen to be at Black Hammock later in the afternoon, stick around for dramatic sunset views.
2316 Black Hammock Fish Camp Road
Oviedo, FL 32765
Black Bear Wilderness Area
Seminole County earned the nickname “Florida’s Natural Choice” because of its hiking and bike trails, scenic lakes and accessible rivers. The Black Bear Wilderness Area in Sanford is a 7-mile tree-lined trail that slopes into the St. Johns River. There are alligators of every size along this trail, from massive 6-10 footers to tiny hatchlings in spring.
The trail is relatively quiet save the occasional pontoon boat passing down the popular river. You may want to wear hiking shoes, sunscreen and bug spray before you hit the trail which is a mix of boardwalks and sandy dirt paths.
5301 Michigan Ave.
Sanford, FL 32771
Airboat Rides at Midway
Also nestled along the St. Johns River but further southeast in the rural community of Christmas, Airboat Rides at Midway offers hourlong ecotours through marshlands that are home to a large number of alligators. Airboat passengers can also see native birds like roseate spoonbills, herons, hawks and eagles in this remote area of Orange County.
Before you board the boat, Porkchop the pig (who has his own Instagram account @itsporkchopthepig) will greet you at the main building. You can also see captive snakes and other reptiles on display, and if you’re brave enough, hold a gator for a photo.
28501 East Colonial Drive
Christmas, FL 32709
Lake Apopka Loop Trail
News 6 brought you images showing dozens of alligators nearly bumping into each other in Lake Apopka at the pump house pond. That’s not an unusual sight along Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive now that the lake is undergoing a major restoration.
The state’s fourth-largest lake and former bass-fishing capital is in much better health than it was a few decades ago. In the early 1900s, farmers cleared 20,000 acres of wetlands and built levees to keep the lake water from flooding their land. In turn, they pumped phosphorus-filled, pesticide-packed wastewater back into Lake Apopka.
That caused algae blooms, which killed everything below the surface. Today, the flow-ways are filled with native cleansing plants and lined with massive pumps that put clean water back into the lake, creating a welcome environment for birds, fish and large reptiles.
2929 S Binion Road
Apopka, FL 32703
Wekiwa Springs State Park
Rent a canoe or kayak at Wekiwa Springs State Park for a slow-paced, water level view of some of the local reptiles. Turtles and alligators are often resting on fallen palm trees along the spring-fed river. This is a busy area on weekends, especially in summer, so you may want to plan on arriving early to see the wildlife in action.
1800 Wekiwa Circle
Apopka, FL 32712
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