By Alli Hill
Florida is known for having some of the best vacation spots, best restaurants, best theme parks, and a never-ending list of places worth visiting. Add Highlands Hammock State Park to that list. This amazing state park is somewhat of a hidden gem, despite being one of the oldest official state parks in Florida. There’s no better way to get back to nature than a trip here.
Situated on 9,000 acres of cypress swamps and flatwoods, this park has been delighting visitors for over 86 years. If you’re looking for Florida wildlife, you’ll most likely see it here—visitors report seeing black bear, Florida panther, alligators, deer, turtles, and myriad birds throughout the year. The park features activities for all ages, including boardwalks, tram tour, picnic pavilion, hiking, camping, and recreational rental areas. There’s no park in Florida quite like it.
Eight out of nine of the park’s hiking trails are accessible via the loop drive, enabling trekkers to extend or shorten their walk as they wish via connecting and inter-looping pathways. Trails travel through multiple swamps and flatwoods areas that offer plenty of shade and solitude. However, don’t think you’re ever truly alone—wild eyes are often nearby, and hiking this trail gives you your best chance at spotting them in their natural habitats.
Hop aboard the tram that takes you to places you’d never see on foot. Guided tours take you through the cypress swamps and into restricted areas, giving you all-around views of the park. Along the way, you’ll see some of the park’s residents, such as alligators, wading birds, and other wildlife. The tour lasts about an hour and 15 minutes, and costs just $5 for adults and $3 for children ages six to 12.
Highlands Hammocks is a popular camping destination for good reason: They offer just about every type of camping for every type of camper. Choose between primitive campsites or equestrian camping, or bring the RV and avoid sacrificing your modern conveniences. The campground here is family friendly, and features restrooms, showers, dishwashing area, and free Wi-Fi.
Whether you’re an artist yourself or simply appreciate the works of others, you’ll want to check out the Highlands Museum of the Arts. Exhibits change regularly, and have often included a variety of media, such as painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking, and projection. You might even stumble upon a class or art show while you’re there.
Cowpoke’s makes for a truly glorious spot to fill up your belly after a long day. You’ll love the food. You’ll love the décor. You’ll love the atmosphere. At Cowpoke’s, you’ll find a unique tiki bar, live music, and enough space for almost 300 people. The menu consists of lobster tails, mahi mahi, tuna, mussels, oysters, scallops, catfish, shrimp, and even frog legs! Their cuts of steak are absolutely to die for.
A 1926 railroad depot plays home to this railroad museum. One of the top attractions of the museum is their beloved dining car, which is available for scheduled events and luncheons. The museum also features a variety of exhibits depicting all things railroad and the growth and prosperity of Avon Park.
If you’re not planning to camp in Highlands Hammock State Park, consider resting your head at the Jacaranda, a true Florida original and charming piece of history. This once booming inn was built in Avon Park’s heyday, before the rise of interstate system rendered the town an off-the-beaten-path stop. However, the Jacaranda never lost its appeal, and its grandiose statement still inspires in small-town Avon Park. The hotel owners have preserved its rich history, offering a pleasant, unique experience to its guests.