Free Road Trip Plan: Heading South for the Winter

Trying to decide on a free road trip plan for the wintertime isn’t easy. At first glance, a snowy locale seems like the perfect choice – driving (instead of walking) through a winter wonderland, the trees sugar-coated with snow, the snow-capped mountains rising up all around you…, ah! What a beautiful fantasy!

The problem with this fantasy is that the reality would probably be far different. Who wants to be stuck in a blizzard or slide off an icy road into a ditch? Does that sound like a fun vacation to you? Nope, the ideal free road trip plan for the winter would have to head south – how about some palm trees and sunshine in Florida?

This free road trip plan takes you through some of the more untouched areas of Florida – the way the state used to be before it became theme-park-central. Think mangroves, alligators, manatees and small citrus farms. Included in this three-day free road trip plan are some of the most naturally beautiful areas in Florida as well as some great attractions, a touch of history, and finishing with a visit to an old-school 50’s destination that still has people lining up to watch mythical creatures perform in a well-loved underwater show.

Free road trip plan

Free Road Trip Plan – Day One
Tallahassee, Florida
Kick off your visit to the state capital with something fitting to your trip through Florida: a visit to the Museum of Florida History. This well-run museum not only details everything you want to know about the state’s history, it stays fresh with lots of new exhibits and great interactive stuff for the kids. Cool must-sees include recovered treasure from a Spanish galleon, a giant mastodon skeleton, and an exhibit detailing the history of tourism in the Sunshine State.

Next stop on this free road trip plan: lunch enjoyed in the great outdoors (Florida is the one of the few places in the U.S. where sitting outside in the winter is fun instead of frigid). Grab a picnic lunch - or maybe you already have one packed using my road trip recipes - and head just north of Tallahassee to Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park, a beautiful park filled with charming wooded areas, tons of flowering shrubs, and formal gardens so pretty you’ll think you’re in England. Enjoy your picnic in one of the picnic areas set among the trees by Lake Hall or sitting on one of the benches in the formal gardens. The park is open daily and there is a small entrance fee.

The legend of the Fountain of Youth in mythic "Bimini" (a.k.a. Florida) has some truth in it. Florida has the world’s largest and deepest system of natural springs on earth. The very largest and the very deepest is Wakulla Springs, your next hit on this free road trip plan (just south of Tallahassee). Spend the afternoon here swimming in the famed Fountain of Youth or viewing the spring on a glass-bottom boat tour, from which you’ll see all kinds of wildlife below the surface of the spring including gators, graceful turtles, and the bones of extinct Ice Age mammals scattered on the bottom.

Stay overnight in Tallahassee or the outskirts before continuing your road trip. There are tons of hotels to choose from and plenty of options for your evening meal and entertainment (if you have the energy after your busy day).

Free Road Trip Plan – Day Two
Florida of Yesteryear
On day two of your free road trip plan you’ll be getting a taste of what Florida used to be like before theme parks took over and retirement communities sprung up everywhere. A time when there were miles of virgin forests of cypress and cedar, many small family farms grew oranges in groves they managed themselves, and Key West was a sleepy little town where you could watch the famous spectacular sunset with only the sounds of birds and insects breaking the silence.

Head east out of Tallahassee on Highway 27 (which becomes Highway 19) and ride straight into Perry, Florida, the home of Forest Capital State Museum and Cracker Homestead. Once upon a time, Florida was all about forestry (not retirement or vacations featuring beaches, palm trees, and oversized falsetto-voiced rodents) and this great museum and authentic1864 homestead tells the tale of Florida’s forestry industry well. Spend an hour here checking out the wonderful and informative exhibits here.

Head south on US 19 on roads so quiet, you’ll hardly believe you’re in Florida, and stop in Steinhatchee (detour to the coast on Rt. 51) for lunch if you’re in the mood for seafood. This quiet little coastal town boasts two great seafood restaurants – Fiddler’s and Roy’s. Both are well-known for their wonderful fresh seafood and Roy’s has great views of the Gulf to top it off.

When you’re ready to roll again, head over to Manatee Springs State Park, continuing on 19 and then taking a right on S.R. 320. Explore their great boardwalk trail that meanders through the cypress swamp, watch manatees swimming in the crystal-clear water (they’re only here from November through April seeking the warmth of the spring), rent a canoe, or – if you love to scuba – dive into the beautiful waters. Whenever I hear the song “Crystal Blue Persuasion”, I think of this park’s remarkable water.

Cap off day two of your winter free road trip plan by riding out to Cedar Key on County Road 347/Rt 24. You’ll cross a series of bridges that connect the marshy islands that lead to this island that is a replica of Key West of yesteryear, when it was a quiet ends-of-the-earth place boasting spectacular sunsets and a no-frills laid-back attitude. There are plenty of great casual little motels to choose from and you can enjoy the sunset over dinner at one of this pretty little town’s many waterfront restaurants without the crazy crowds and high prices. Ahhhh, heaven!


Mermaids

Free Road Trip Plan – Day Three
Manatees and Mermaids
After a relaxing night in Cedar Key, your batteries will be recharged for the last day of your free road trip plan – and it’s action packed, so you’ll need the energy! Today, you’ll be coming face to face with both the fantasy and the reality of mermaids. The fantasy will be addressed in the afternoon, but you’ll be coming face to face with the reality of this mythic creature this morning.

Their unique high-pitched voices once thought to be those of mermaids or sirens by sailors long ago, manatees are the reality behind the myth. Large and gray with puppy-like faces, these gentle giants are sweet, playful, and remarkably graceful. If you didn’t have a chance to glimpse one of these endangered creatures yesterday, you’re guaranteed to see them today! Head back out of Cedar Key on Rt. 24 and then south on Highway 19 to Crystal River, the winter home of the largest population of manatees in the United States. You’ll want to head out early as that’s when the water is the clearest and you’ll have the best possible view.

The ultimate must-do on the last day of this free road trip plan is to rent snorkels from the many outfitters in Crystal River that will take you to King’s Bay by boat, and have a face-to-face encounter with a manatee. The best tour, in my oh-so-humble opinion, is Traci’s with Native Vacations – she really knows her stuff! If getting wet isn’t your thing, rent a kayak or a canoe to check out the manatees.

After lunch at one of the many restaurants in Crystal River, head south on Highway 19 to see a real “old school Florida” attraction, Weeki Wachee, where mermaids have cavorted underwater to a packed house in a 400-seat submerged theater since 1947. The costumed and talented women that perform in this show not only know how to entertain, they can do it holding their breath for long periods, only taking occasional breaths of oxygen from a barely noticeable air hose. Kids are always amazed by this show, but even the most jaded adult has a blast watching this show. This great kitschy attraction is classic road-trip material – a great way to complete your wintertime free road trip plan. While you’re here, you can also enjoy the family water-park (flume rides, etc.), their great riverboat tour, or rent a canoe or kayak.

If you want to extend your road trip, you’re not far from Disney World and the other theme parks in Orlando or you can head further south on a road trip through the Florida Keys. This free road trip plan is the perfect escape-hatch from the bitter cold and snow if you live in the north or just a great road trip vacation getaway wherever you live. Happy trails!


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