The key to making it through the summer might be the opposite of past years (our usual annual advice: Park yourself in front of the strongest air conditioning and don't move). In fact, we think taking in some fresh air, sunshine and greenery – in a space so big you'll be free to move while staying safely distanced – might the best way to get a moment of mental respite during this deeply messed-up 2020 summer.
Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area
3365 Taylor Creek Road, Christmas, 407-568-5893, myfwc.com
Head east on Colonial Drive until the road forks, then steer right to take State Road 520 until you see the small brown sign beckoning you to turn left and discover Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area. It's off the beaten path, but its many trails offer a rare solitude typically encountered exclusively in apocalyptic storybooks and doomsday movies. Once inside, enjoy hiking the rugged Florida landscapes – quaint ponds, open fields of wildflowers and canopies of hanging moss – populated in the early morning hours by wild turkeys, boar, deer and more birds than Audubon Park documents on its street signs. Butterflies flock here, too; the Palamedes Swallowtail, Gulf Fritillary, Silver-spotted Skipper and Northern Cloudywing are just some of the species commonly seen in summer.
Orlando Wetlands Park
25155 Wheeler Road, Christmas, 407-568-1706, orlando.gov
The 1,650-acre property in east Orange County used to be a cattle pasture. Then the city of Orlando purchased the land in 1986 to build a water treatment plant, but left the land open to the public. Today, an estimated 15,000 visitors flock to the park annually to enjoy the 20 miles of trails for bird-watching, cycling, running, horseback riding, photography or simply enjoying a change of scenery. Though the park is just 27 miles from downtown, it feels far away from Orlando's city sprawl. The biodiversity of the wetlands makes it a boon for animals as well as visitors – more than 220 bird species live in the park, and 19 endangered or threatened species thrive there as well: 12 birds, three reptiles, two mammals and two insects.
Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area
10525 Clapp Simms Duda Road, 407-254-6840, osceola.org
The county line between Orange and Osceola runs right through this park, untouched in centuries by Central Florida's rampant development. Only hiking and permitted horseback riding are allowed, while hunting, camping and biking are prohibited. The mostly flat terrain of pine woods and scrub hammocks is home to threatened gopher tortoises, scrub jays, sandhill cranes, Sherman's fox squirrels, gopher frogs, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, indigo snakes, bald eagles, and feral hogs. The fate of the Split Oak Forest has for the last couple of years been a struggle by local environmental advocates against Central Florida's self-destructive instinct to give developers whatever they want, whenever they want it but now, in a strange twist of fate, it seems the coronavirus might save Split Oak. Local governments are taking massive revenue hits because of the coronavirus pandemic, and a lot of projects are being slashed. The highway extension planned to mow right through the middle of Split Oak will be delayed for a very long time, and maybe even shelved. Enjoy it while you can, though, because in Florida nothing is certain.