Destination: Lake Kissimmee
Not much has changed at this state park located a few miles east of Lake Wales since the days when "cow hunters" ruled the Florida prairie. You'll see white-tailed deer, bald eagles, sandhill cranes and wild turkeys. Anglers can catch bass on lakes Kissimmee, Tiger and Rosalie. There are also 13 miles of hiking trails, six of which are open to equestrians. The full-service campground is one of the best places in Florida for stargazing. And while Florida might be known today for oranges, in the 1800s cattle was, literally, the state's biggest cash cow. The Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon can be credited with kick-starting the industry in 1521 when he introduced seven Andalusian cows to Florida's ample grazing lands. Life was hard for those cowboys who drove the cattle through the wild Florida scrubland. In the 1800s, Florida was an open range with no fences, so the great herds of cattle, some with as many as 50,000 head, roamed freely. Florida's first cowboys had to hunt their cows in the cypress swamps, pine flatlands and hardwoods hammocks. After a while, folks started referring to these hardened men as "cow hunters." The cattle themselves, skinny by today's standards, were survivors. These "scrub cows" could eke out a living almost anywhere. And by the late 1800s, there were cattle operations, or "cow camps," spread out across the state. One of the better-known cow camps was located among the rich grazing lands of the Kissimmee Valley. Locals called it "Cow Town," which was a good fit since most of its residents had hooves. Today, the state park has a little living history to share: an authentic cow camp straight out of 1876. Take the kids on a Saturday. It shouldn't be missed.
High flyin' in Bradenton: TreeUmph
Modern humans seldom get to test themselves, push their limits, venture out of the comfort zone. Luckily, Bradenton's TreeUmph!, with its 76 treetop adventure games (including one called the "Leap of Faith," and the zip line that's longer than two football fields), is just the thing you need to make this holiday season one to remember. The park, open year-round every day except Wednesday, is an ideal place for families looking for fun and fitness. If you go, don't rush your visit. Bring a smartphone or a camera that you can stick into a bag that attaches to your safety harness. TreeUmph! provides gloves, which help protect your hands, but if you have workout or baseball gloves, bring your own. Wear long pants; the harness can chafe. Instructors will show you what you need to know to stay safe. Do as many of the games as possible, and don't miss the zip line at the end. To learn more, go to treeumph.com.
Quench your thirst: Camelbak Hawg
Ditch that old Army surplus aluminum canteen and get yourself a modern hydration system. The Camelbak Hawg holds 3 liters of water and has 1,200 cubic inches of storage space. Prices vary depending on the color and supplier, but count on spending $125 to $150. If you love outdoor adventure, this is an essential piece of gear.
Nesting time: Great Horned Owl
Florida's largest owl is a fierce nocturnal hunter. Sometimes called a "tiger owl," it will take on everything from snakes to rabbits. Nesting season in Florida starts in December. Good places to see these mighty birds of prey include Honeymoon Island State Park and Fort De Soto Park.