This Underrated State Park Is A Wildlife Lover's Paradise Full Of Native Florida Animals

While Florida is known for its beaches and theme parks, this state is an underrated paradise for wildlife lovers. With so many great wilderness locations, it can be hard to decide where to start, but don't worry because there is a park that is the portal to the state's local species. This ideal place to introduce yourself to Florida's fauna and flora is the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. It is a literal oasis situated a 90-minute drive north of Tampa and about the same driving distance to the west of Orlando.

The park is based around Homosassa Springs, which is described as "nature's fish bowl," after the wildlife that gathers in it. There are almost 30 natural springs in the group, which makes it one of the biggest in the state. It is also close to Crystal River, which is renowned for its manatees. As you'd expect, these beautiful creatures often come to the park.

Know before you go

It is possible to enter the park via the visitor center or the west entrance. You can pay admission at both, which is $13 for adults, $5 for children aged 6-12 years old, or free for those younger. There are gift shops at each entrance, but only the west one has the Wildside Café where you can grab a bite to eat. This park is open 7 days a week but come early to see the animals when they are most active before it gets too hot.

To get between the two entrances, you can take a 15-minute boat trip, a tram, or by walking the Pepper Creek Trail. The boat costs $3 and the other two options are free of charge with your ticket. Pepper Creek is a great walk for spotting Florida bird species and runs for 0.75 miles from the visitor center. It is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, so bring your binoculars and see how many feathered creatures you can spot on the way.

Wildlife at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs

One of the most famous residents is Lu, the oldest hippo in any of the world's captive collections. This enigmatic male turned 64 at the beginning of 2024. There is also Maximus, a Florida black bear who was rescued by rangers after his mother abandoned him. Elsewhere in the park, you can find alligators, a less-popular Florida native. There are also red wolves, deer, flamingos, and whooping cranes to be seen here.

Another jewel in the crown of this park is the West Indian manatees that gather to enjoy the warm water in the wintertime. Head to the Fish Bowl Underwater Observatory to see the saltwater and freshwater fish swimming with the manatees. They can also be viewed on the live feed from the underwater camera. Watching and spending time with native wildlife like this is one of the unique experiences that you can only have in Florida. Homosassa Springs is also surrounded by reserves and natural areas, so there is no limit to how many incredible creatures you can spot while on vacation here.