One Of The Most Underrated State Parks Is A Short Drive From Disney World

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is a massive, undeveloped prairie that gives visitors an idea of how Florida once looked. Less than two hours away from Disney World, this 54,000-acre park is one of the only places in the world to experience being in dry prairie. For animal lovers, the park provides an opportunity to see many species of endangered animals in their natural habitat. For astronomy fans, it is one of the best places in Florida that allows for excellent stargazing. History buffs will enjoy learning about how this land was once a cattle ranch and later was a World War II military training area. 

Today, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is a protected preserve. It is open to hikers, campers, cyclists, and even horseback riders, who can experience a unique side of Florida rarely seen anywhere else. Visitors can enjoy tours of the prairie from the back of a buggy while park rangers describe the park's fascinating history and ecology or explore the park by hiking more than 100 miles of trail on their own.

One of the last examples of dry prairie

When most people think of prairie, they probably imagine the Great Plains in the American Midwest. However, there is another kind of prairie that is found only in the state of Florida: dry prairie. Like the midwestern prairie, dry prairie is usually extremely flat, but rather than swaying wheat fields, it is populated by grasses and shrubs. As beautiful and peaceful as this landscape appears, it is the product of regular exposure to fire and extended floods, which prevent trees from growing there.

At one time, there was more than 1 million acres of dry prairie in Florida; but today, it can only be found in a few protected areas of South-Central Florida. The largest of these is Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. This ecosystem includes giant orchids and many-flowered grass-pinks, plants that are rarely seen anywhere else in the world. It is also one of the best places to spot the Florida burrowing owl, a tiny, 9-inch owl that can often be spotted running along the ground chasing bugs. Unlike most owls that nest in trees, true to their name, burrowing owls dig holes and lay their eggs underground.

See endangered animals in the wild

The Florida Everglades are famously home to many endangered species, but they aren't the only place in the state to see incredible, rare creatures in their natural habitat. Many animals thrive at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, including some which specifically evolved to live on the dry prairie and survive in few other places. One of these animals is the endangered snail kite. These red-eyed raptors get their name from their favorite meal: apple snails. They can be seen flying over the freshwater marshes at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, snatching snails from the surface of the water with their claws. 

Birdwatchers may also enjoy keeping an eye out for the Florida grasshopper sparrow.  These endangered birds only live in a few areas of protected and private land in Florida, including Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. While they have evolved specifically to blend in with the grasslands, which can make them difficult to spot, for a few hours a day in the springtime, it's possible to hear the males singing. Their call sounds like the soft buzzing of a grasshopper in flight.

An International Dark Sky Park

Less than two hours from the bright lights, fireworks, and laser shows of Disney World, another kind of light show is happening over the skies of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. In 2016, it was declared Florida's first International Dark Sky Park, meaning that it is one of the few places in the United States that is free from light pollution. For stargazers, this is a rare opportunity to look at the natural beauty of the night sky. 

While the park generally closes to visitors at sunset, there are options for those wishing to see the night sky from Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. Stargazers can become Florida State Parks Family Annual Pass holders to gain access to the park overnight, book a designated astronomy pad site, or simply reserve a campsite and spend a night camping under the stars. Without the interference of artificial light, it is possible to see an incredible amount of stars –– more than anywhere else in Florida.