The place to go for outdoor adventure in Central Florida, Apopka is a city by the headwater of the Wekiva River.
The transparent waters at Wekiwa Springs State Park and Kelly Park are mild throughout the year, and pure bliss on hot summer days.
People flock to the springs to swim, go tubing or take an intrepid paddling trip down the Wekiva River, spotting gators, wading birds and a catalog of other wildlife.
To the southwest of the city is the fourth-largest lake in Florida. Once declared a dead zone, Lake Apopka has now bounced back in a big way, and has driving and hike trails on its undeveloped north shore.
All of the Orlando area’s big attractions are in reach. In particular, I love using the West Orange Trail to visit neighboring communities. Winter Garden, a few miles to the south, has a stellar farmers’ market.
1. Wekiwa Springs State Park
Moments from Apopka, Wekiwa Springs State Park is a natural escape for those in need of a calm alternative to the area’s bustling theme parks.
The park sits at the headwater of the Wekiva River, which are fed by azure blue springs that have mesmerized visitors since the mid-1800s.
You can amble through verdant tropical hammocks, or spend some quality time paddling the slow-moving waters of Wekiwa Run.
The swimming hole at Wekiwa Springs is simply paradisiacal, with water at an invigorating 72° no matter the season. The water is remarkably clear, so I’d urge you to bring goggles so you can see the water bubbling from deep underground.
2. Kelly Park
Rock Springs Run, a ten-mile tributary of the Wekiva River, rises near the northern boundary of this beautiful park just north of Apopka.
Like the other springs in the vicinity, Rock Springs Run has a steady temperature of around 70° year-round, and this makes it a refreshing spot for some tubing in summer.
With crystal clear waters, the creek meanders past verdant banks with palms, oaks, American sweetgum, tulip trees and cabbage palmettos.
The waters have sparkling visibility from above and below, and there’s abundant wildlife. I saw turtles, deer, a great white heron and some playful otters on my last trip.
3. Wekiva Island
On the southeastern edge of Wekiwa Springs State Park there’s a privately owned recreation complex. Wekiva Island offers a wide range of activities and services.
The main one is canoe and kayak rentals for amazing paddling trips along the Wekiva River. This is a slightly wilder experience compared to the others I’ve talked about so far.
From the safety of your vessel you’re going to see a lot of alligators, as well as turtles, wading birds, and possibly some otters. The gators tend to be small and always keep their distance.
Back at the center, there’s a boardwalk, a general store, and the Without a Paddle Café, which has a deck by the water.
Wekiva Island has a real festive atmosphere, and you can rent a private cabana to spend the day partying and cooling off in the spring-fed waters.
4. Lake Apopka
Since the 1980s, the lake next to Apopka has come through an amazing transformation. It began with the purchase of agricultural land on the north shore, creating an Enhancement Area here.
What was the most polluted body of water in the state, badly affected by farm runoff, is now relatively pristine. Fish populations have rebounded, in turn bringing back the birdlife that preys on them.
Since 2014 it’s been possible to travel across Lake Apopka’s northern shoreline via a 17.6-mile trail. The eastern trailhead is at Magnolia Park, in the south of Apopka.
Passing through the wetlands, I had an awesome bike ride here, spotting a roseate spoonbill, turtles and a handful of gators.
5. West Orange Trail
There’s a 22-mile rail trail between Apopka and Killarney, along the alignments of no fewer than four old railroads.
Completed in 1999, the award-winning West Orange Trail is a convenient way to get to nearby Winter Garden without a car, passing through Plant Street in the heart of downtown.
The Central Florida Railroad Museum is right on the trail here, and housed in a preserved depot from 1913. There are also several bike rental spots along the route, Winter Garden and Oakland.
An ideal place to start your trip is Apopka Station, in the heart of downtown, where there’s a little park with a water fountain, picnic tables and a playground.
6. Magnolia Park
I have a lot of fond memories of this small park, on the eastern shore of Lake Apopka. The best time to be here is just before the park closes on a winter’s day when you can watch the sun go down over this massive sheet of water.
As I mentioned, the park is also an access point for the long trail through the reclaimed wetlands on the lake’s north shore.
If you would rather hang out in Magnolia Park, there are playgrounds, sports amenities, picnic areas, and a lot of wildlife to see.
Gators are never far away, and the lake’s improved waters bring sandhill cranes and roseate spoonbills to the shore. Most unexpected of all are the peacocks, which have roamed this property for years.
7. Avian Reconditioning Center (ARC)
Founded in 2001, the Avian Reconditioning Center rescues and rehabilitates birds of prey, but also raises public awareness about Central Florida’s birdlife.
An important element at the center is a set of three flight barns, ranging from 30 feet to 100 feet. Here the ARC’s kestrels, Cooper’s hawks, owls, and bald eagles learn the skills they’ll need to survive in the wild.
The center is open to the public on Saturdays, year-round except during August. It’s an experience I’ll remember fondly.
You get to see raptors up close in the education pavilion, and there are flight demonstrations with hawks throughout the day.
8. Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive
You can also explore the vast wetlands on the north shore of Lake Apopka without leaving your car.
The Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive is like a free safari, on a one-way 11-mile route through the marsh and floodplain, all teeming with native Florida species.
There’s a 10 mph speed limit along the route, and you’ll have plenty of chances to park up and enjoy the views or embark on a short nature hike.
My only regret when I made this trip is that I didn’t have binoculars. Using my weak identification skills, I reckon I saw an anhinga, several egrets, and a lot of herons. Of course, there were gators galore—more than I could count.
9. Museum of the Apopkans
One quiet Friday afternoon, I spent a diverting hour studying the exhibits at this local history museum in Apopka.
The museum goes back to 1968, and has large holdings, with modern artifacts from the 19th century to the 1950s.
I was captivated by the Native American exhibits, with numerous arrowheads discovered by the shores of Lake Apopka.
Elsewhere, there’s an 1886 map of the town, a foot-pedal sewing machine, a tractor from 1948, and an array of equipment for cultivating citrus trees and ferns.
10. Apopka Art and Foliage Festival
Apopka’s most distinctive annual event takes place at the end of April in Kit Land Nelson Park.
Organized by the Apopka Woman’s Club for more than six decades now, the Apopka Art and Foliage Festival blends art and horticulture.
There’s a juried art and crafts fair here featuring award-winning artists and makers from across the region. This is accompanied by displays from expert plant specialists, showing off locally cultivated plants and flowers.
The Arts and Foliage Festival is a spirited event, with live music, family entertainment, and great food from a diversity of cuisines.
11. Wekiva Golf Club
An area favorite for more than half a century, Wekiva Golf Club is a local, cost-effective antidote to the resort courses around Orlando.
As well as reasonable rates, this 18-hole par 72 has well-groomed fairways, plentiful water hazards, and smooth greens that were recently laid with Champions Bermuda grass.
The thing that appealed to me most about Wekiva Golf Club was the layout. All of the fairways are fringed by mature pines, oaks and palms, and there are a lot of doglegs and risk-reward dilemmas.
Among the facilities there’s a pro shop, driving range, and The Wekiva Grill, for cold beverages, snacks and light lunches.
12. Winter Garden Farmers’ Market
On the south shore of Lake Apopka, Winter Garden is a beautiful and historic city, first settled by Europeans in the mid-19th century.
For me, there’s no better time to pay a visit than on Saturday mornings when the farmers’ market is in full flow. There are more than 100 vendors each week, about a fifth of which are local farmers.
Taking place at the charming downtown pavilion, there’s a bounty of seasonal fresh produce, plants and flowers, baked goods, herbs, artisan crafts, and prepared food and beverages.
There’s always live music and seasonal events, as well as a free kids’ craft station, and family-friendly games on the lawn.
13. Blue Spring State Park
If you’re willing to travel a little further, my pick for a day trip is this wonderful place on the St. John’s River.
Blue Spring State Park encompasses the largest spring on the watercourse, with more than 100 million gallons of water feeding the river each day.
Between mid-November and mid-March, these mild 73° waters attract West Indian manatees. In fact, those gentle giants have been showing up in record numbers.
The year I wrote this article more than 720 had come to bask in the spring. These can be admired from the boardwalk along Blue Spring Run.
Water activities are not permitted during this season, but at other times this is a wonderful location for paddling, tubing, or snorkeling in the crystalline waters.
14. Walt Disney World Orlando
I can’t ignore the fact that the world’s most famous and most visited theme park resort is only 20 minutes away from Apopka.
On more than 40 square miles, Walt Disney World has four theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Then you’ve got two water adventure parks—Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon—some two dozen resort hotels, two full-service spas, five golf courses.
And that isn’t even all. I haven’t even mentioned the entertainment-driven lifestyle center at Disney Springs, or the 220-acre ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
Walt Disney World caters to people of all ages and interests, whether you’re here for thrills or relaxation, or want to rediscover a childlike sense of wonder.
15. Universal Orlando Resort
Disney’s main competitor is also tantalizingly close to Apopka. Like its rival, Universal Orlando Resort is several vacations’ worth of attractions and experiences in one sprawling complex.
Everything, from the theme parks to its eight hotels, is infused with the fun and excitement of some of pop culture’s most beloved IPs, from Spider-Man to Harry Potter.
The two theme parks Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Both are bubbling with Hollywood razzle-dazzle, light family fun and heart-pumping thrills.
Add to the mix the waterpark Volcano Bay, and the dynamic Universal CityWalk Orlando, rolling together dining, shopping, and a big helping of live entertainment.