A truly one-of-a-kind vacation starts with a one-of-a-kind destination. Pasco County is one of Florida's most unique hidden gems that can provide endless unexpected fun. Boat around stilt houses and past island lighthouses on the Gulf, and then take the adventure inland. You'll find epic inflatable water parks, friendly locals, and even giraffes as you explore all this magical county has to offer.
The beauty of the Pasco County region is that it really is the best of everything. Stop at the tourism office to learn about culture and activities in metro areas like New Port Richey and Dade City, as well as quiet places to enjoy the beauty of the Gulf; Pasco is right in the middle of Florida's Nature Coast. Start on the coast and cruise inland for an adventure to remember.
There's nothing quite like an afternoon spent swimming and sunbathing on an undeveloped island. Anclote Key Preserve State Park is a chain of four islands only accessible by private boat or ferry, and it's a stellar hidden gem of a beach experience. There are plenty of spots for swimming, and you can enjoy incredible birdwatching here as well. It's all watched over by a circa-1887 lighthouse, which makes for a great photo op. There are several tour operators that offer service out to Anclote Key Preserve, but if you're able to take your own boat, you can camp out at the primitive campground. Falling asleep to the sound of the waves lapping against the sandy shores of a quiet island... sounds pretty nice, right?
Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park protects a unique ecosystem. The deep, mangrove-studded salt marshes along the coast provide a habitat for dolphins, foxes, tortoises, eagles, otters and more. Since there aren't any beaches for swimming here, the best way to experience the beauty of the marshes is by paddling out onto the water. Paddling Adventures at Werner-Boyce is the onsite boat rental. Their staff will lend you a kayak, canoe, or even a stand-up paddleboard to explore the waterways through the park. Pro tip: if you're set on swimming, Durney Key is located outside the park but is a short paddle away if you launch from Werner-Boyce.
For those who want a true taste of untouched Florida beauty, check out the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park. It's 8,300 acres of pure, untamed nature. The best way to enjoy the park is by hiking along its miles of trails. There's a birding trail, a 7.3-mile-long paved multi-use trail, a 10-mile equestrian trail, and 13 miles of standard hiking trails. There's a nice little campground with showers, cabins, and bathrooms, along with playgrounds, picnic sites, and activities like horseshoes and volleyball. There's so much lush greenery to explore here, you might find yourself coming back whenever you need an escape.
As you cruise further inland, you'll find other ways to enjoy fun in the sun. SunWest Park is set on the shores of a 70-acre spring-fed lake, and is home to The Lift Adventure Park. The Lift features a Wake Park that can help newbies and pros alike learn to wakeboard or train to improve, and an incredible Aqua Park. The Aqua Park features loads of huge inflatable features to climb up and jump off, all floating on the water. Additionally, you can rent stand-up paddle boards, kayaks, or just enjoy the beach at SunWest. Whichever activity you choose, it's sure to make for an enjoyable afternoon.
Take your Pasco adventure to the next level with an excursion from American Balloons. A hot air balloon ride is a bucket-list-worthy item, and there's no better place to cross it off your list than in Florida. A balloon ride with American Balloons starts with an early morning ride above the landscapes of Pasco County, going wherever the wind takes you, and ends with a light brunch and champagne toast back at headquarters. The pilots are seasoned pros, and the whole process, from watching the balloon inflate, to floating up in the air, to the thrill of landing, is absolutely incredible.
Another way to get a birds' eye view of Florida’s wilderness is from the ropes course at TreeHoppers. Unleash your inner Tarzan as you tackle obstacles like ziplines, ropes, bridges, and more. TreeHoppers has 8 unique courses with about 100 different elements, and each course ranges in difficulty from easy (lower to the ground) to intermediate to "crazy." As you climb, crawl, zip, and balance, you'll gain a new appreciation for the forest... and get in a pretty good workout at the same time.
For a totally unexpected experience, stop by Giraffe Ranch in Dade City. It's a working ranch and refuge that's totally hands-on and lets you get up close and personal with exotic animals. The staff care for pygmy hippos, rhinos, lemurs, camels, zebra, oryx, llamas, and, of course, giraffes, among other creatures, and let you learn all about the animals with a variety of special encounters. From safari tours to llama treks, camel expeditions, animal feedings/encounters, and even Segway safaris, there's something for everyone.
Whether you're looking for a quiet vacation where you can enjoy time in nature, or you're after a week of bucket list experiences, Pasco County is the best of both worlds. From the Nature Coast to the city, to everything in between, a trip to Pasco is guaranteed to be memorable.
Banner Photo Credit: Shutterstock/ michael barrington