Traveling south soon? Here is a list of some attractions you may wish to visit on the way.
By Lazelle Jones
‘Tis the season when Eastern snowbirds pile supplies into their motorhomes and head south on Interstate 75 to the Sunshine State. I-75 is nearly 1,800 miles long and connects Miami, Florida, to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. What follows is a sampling of several Florida attractions that may cause snowbirds to “land” for a while and explore.
You can spend a day, a night, or even several at delightful stops that are within easy striking distance of an exit or off-ramp.
The Florida portion of I-75 covers 482 miles, with exit 1 located in south Florida and exit 467 located near the Florida-Georgia state line. For ease of use, the following attractions along I-75 are listed from south to north by exit number, starting with the attractions having the lowest exit numbers (to the south).
We’ll start with more developed spots. Five minutes from I-75 at exit 161 in Punta Gorda is a museum that will make you think of driving quite a bit, and not in a motorhome. It does offer plenty of parking for RVs in the lot, however.
Rick Treworgy’s Muscle Car City features more than 200 restored, colorful, and gleaming classic cars. Each one is kept in running condition. The 99,000-square-foot museum includes 80 years of makes and models, but its focus is on the “muscle cars” of the 1950s to early 1970s. Pontiac GTOs, Chevrolet Corvettes, Oldsmobile Cutlass 442s, Chevelles, Camaros, and high-horsepower Impalas all shine on display. The collection includes one or more Corvettes from each year between 1954 and 1975, plus ‘Vettes from later years as well.
Also at the site is a 1960s-style diner that serves breakfast and lunch, as well as a gift shop. Admission is $12.50 plus tax and free to children under 12. Visit www.musclecarcity.net or call (941) 575-5959 for more information.
The South Florida Museum in Bradenton is only 15 minutes from the interstate (exit 220 B southbound). This is a huge complex with a museum, an aquarium, and a planetarium. You easily can spend many hours here. The aquarium’s most famous resident is a manatee named Snooty who is now 62 years old “” one of the oldest such creatures in captivity.
Fossils, artwork, and all kinds of historical artifacts can be seen in the two-story museum, and the planetarium offers a variety of shows.
The museum is open daily from January through April, as well as in July, and open six days a week (closed Mondays) all other months. Admission is $15.95 for adults, $13.95 for seniors, and $11.95 for children 4 to 12. Parking is available in the lot north of the building. For more information, visit www.southfloridamuseum.org or call (941) 746-4131.
Two miles west of I-75 at exit 265, both Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay offer RV parking. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay features a combination of animal encounters, live entertainment, and thrill rides and is recognized as being one of the top zoos in North America. Busch Gardens brings you face-to-face with both exotic and endangered animals, more than any destination outside of Africa. For the thrill of motion there is the heart-pounding excitement of SheiKra “” America’s first dive coaster, as well as several other exciting coasters. At Jungala, you can discover a colorful village and come face-to-face with orangutans and Bengal tigers. Little tykes are not left out at Sesame Street Safari of Fun, with kid-size rides and attractions.
If you visit from mid-March through Labor Day (and on weekends through October), you can check out Adventure Island, located immediately across from Busch Gardens. It is an amazing water park with high-speed thrills and tropical, tranquil surroundings. The park is closed from November through mid-March.
Admission fees to these parks vary. For more information, see www.buschgardens.com or www.adventureisland.com; or call (888) 800-5447.
If you have grandkids or children along with you, and even if you don’t, be sure to visit Lowry Park Zoo near Tampa, 13 miles off of I-75 (I-275 South exit 274 to exit 48). This 60-acre park is open year-round and boasts 2,000 animals found living in their natural outdoor habitats. Included are exhibits and opportunities designed to let visitors interact with wildlife. You can feed a giraffe, ride a camel, hold a lorikeet, touch a stingray, and encounter a white rhinoceros. The Manatee Hospital expands the traditional boundaries of a zoo, where visitors can see the efforts being made to provide critical care for injured, sick, and orphaned wild manatees.
The zoo also offers amusement rides, educational shows, and keeper talks. Free, on-site RV parking is available. Admission is $20.95 for adults, $18.95 for seniors, and $15.95 for children 3 to 11. For more information, see www.lowryparkzoo.com or call (813) 935-8552.
Dade City’s Wild Things is a zoo affiliated with the Stearns Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, and is located only five miles off I-75 (exit 293) in the Dade City area. Be sure to get there in time for one of the two tours, and better yet, make a reservation. Tours begin at 9:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.; the zoo is open Tuesday through Saturday. Lions, tigers, a jaguar, a cougar, a panther, bears, monkeys, prairie dogs, and many more creatures live there. Zoo tour admission is $22.95 for adults and $12.95 for children 2 to 12. A 10 percent discount is given to seniors. Photo opportunities of “encounters” with a variety of critters can be purchased as well. Call (352) 567-9453 for details or visit www.dadecityswildthings.com.
Beautiful State Parks
Speaking of nature, the remainder of the I-75 stops highlighted in this story are Florida state parks. Expect to pay a vehicle entrance fee, as well as any camping fees or other recreational fees. Domestic pets are permitted, but only in designated areas. They must be kept on a handheld leash. Check individual parks for specific areas prohibiting pets. For information about all of these parks and more, visit www.floridastateparks.org or call (850) 245-2157.
Dudley Farm Historic State Park (352-472-1142) is in the Gainesville area, seven miles west of I-75 (exit 387) on State Route 26. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this park demonstrates the evolution of Florida farming from the 1850s to the mid-1940s through three generations of the Dudley family. An authentic working farm, the homestead consists of 18 buildings. Self-guided tours are available during operating hours Wednesday through Sunday. The park also has a visitors center, a picnic area, and a nature trail.
Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park (352-955-2008) is a place with a strange name, and a very unusual feature. Imagine a rain forest stuck in the middle of north Florida’s sandy, pine-covered terrain, and you get the idea. It is located two miles northwest of Gainesville via I-75 exit 390.
A bowl-shaped cavity 120 feet deep leads to this miniature rain forest. Small streams trickle down the steep slopes of the limestone sinkhole, disappearing through crevices in the ground. Lush vegetation thrives in the shade of the walls, even in dry summers. Researchers at this National Natural Landmark have found fossil shark teeth, marine shells, and the fossilized remains of extinct land animals.
Visitors can learn more about this sinkhole through interpretive displays; in addition, guided ranger walks are available every Saturday at 10:00 a.m. The visitors center offers exhibits and an audiovisual program.
Our next two state park stops are neighbors: O’Leno State Park (386-454-1853) and River Rise Preserve State Park (386-454-1853) are both reached by taking exit 414 off of I-75. For O’Leno, go six miles north of High Springs on U.S. 441.
O’Leno is located along the banks of the scenic Santa Fe River, a tributary of the Suwannee River. The river runs through the park and then disappears underground “” and re-emerges three miles away in the River Rise Preserve. A suspension bridge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s still spans the river there. Visitors can picnic at a pavilion or go fishing. Bicycles can be rented, as can canoes that let you explore the river’s scenic beauty and wildlife. Interpretive exhibits are available.
O’Leno has two scenic walking trails. The River Trail takes you along the river to the “river sink,” where the river disappears underground. The Limestone Trail winds through a hardwood hammock, a limestone outcrop, and a pine forest. Other trails for hikers and bikers are available also.
Motorhomers will want to note that O’Leno has two campground loops and 61 campsites, each with water, electric hookups, and a centrally located restroom in each camping area. Maximum RV length is 50 feet. Reservations may be made up to 11 months in advance through ReserveAmerica: (800) 326-3521 or www.reserveamerica.com.
To reach River Rise, go two more miles west on U.S. 27. Fishing is available at this park, and hiking and wildlife viewing also are popular along trails shared by hikers, bikers, and equestrians.
Finally, another National Natural Landmark is located farther west of River Rise via U.S. 27: Ichetucknee Springs State Park (386-497-4690). Situated near Fort White, this park is said to have the nation’s most pristine river, with tubing, kayaking, and canoeing available. The crystalline Ichetucknee River flows six miles through shaded hammocks and wetlands before it joins the Santa Fe River. Tubing down the river is the premier activity in the summer, and from October through March, scuba divers plunge into the Blue Hole (cave certification is required). Tubes and snorkeling and diving equipment can be rented from private vendors outside the park.
Three superb hiking trails are located at the north entrance of the park. Trail maps are available at the ranger station or the information booth. Picnicking is available at both the north and south entrances.
The next time you turn your motorhome wheels toward I-75, remember, it has more going for it than just pavement and possible construction delays. Check out some of these Florida stops, and enjoy the ride.