Just outside Daytona Beach, Port Orange is a much quieter city with more than 150 years of history.
Things have developed quickly in the last 20 years, and when I wrote this article there were more than 60,000 inhabitants.
The city is known for its award-winning municipal complex, on the shores of a beautiful pond, and the multimillion-dollar Riverwalk development, by the Halifax River.
Although the city is just a few minutes from all of the action at Daytona Beach, there’s a lot of nature in all directions.
I’ve spent time here kayaking on the swampy Spruce Creek, and camping in the pine islands at Tiger Bay State Forest.
There’s also an adorable little farmer’s market that pops up at The Pavilion on Saturday mornings.
1. Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens
In this mysterious place you can explore a botanical garden among the ruins of a 19th-century sugar mill.
The history of the Dunlawton Sugar Mill goes all the way back to the early 1800s, when much of Florida was still the property of the Spanish empire.
What’s now part of the sugar mill was originally a nearly 1,000-acre plot of land that was leased to a local man in 1804. At that time much of the southwest region of the country was forested and undeveloped.
The mill operated until the 1830s when it was destroyed at the beginning of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842).
With plentiful live oaks, the grounds now contain cultivated gardens, historical exhibits, and a variety of well-marked walking trails.
My family was amazed by the concrete sculptures of dinosaurs, including a stegosaurus, T-Rex and triceratops. These are a holdover from a short-lived theme park from the late 1940s, called Bongoland.
2. Tiger Bay State Forest
On tens of thousands of acres, Tiger Bay State Forest is a region of hydric swamp forests broken up by drier pine islands.
These habitats support an amazing assortment of plants and animals, many of which are unique to this part of the state.
Two of the stars are black bears, which have a roaming habitat here, and the bald eagle, nesting in the woods between October and May.
This is my top spot in the area for some semi-primitive camping. Even though you’re a few short miles from the city, you’ll need to plan carefully and bring everything you could need, including potable water.
Kayaking, fishing, bicycling and horseback riding are all popular park activities at Tiger Bay State Forest.
Remember, if you plan on fishing, you’ll need a valid Florida fishing license whether you’re a state resident or visitor.
3. Marine Discovery Center
For more than 25 years, the Marine Discovery Center has helped protect the vibrant but delicate ecosystem of the Indian River Lagoon.
Including the local Halifax River, the lagoon is more than 150 miles long and is considered America’s most biologically diverse estuary, home to more than 4,000 species.
The center conducts important research, but also offers a range of education programs. These include boat trips, setting off the from nearby New Smyrna Beach
I’ve been on the Dolphin Discovery Tour, cruising along the lagoon for two hours, getting close-up views of dolphins, manatees, shorebird rookeries.
There’s also a sunset tour, which I hope to try on my next visit, because the scenery is breathtaking late in the day.
4. Smyrna Dunes Park
A marvelous piece of the southern shoreline of Ponce de Leon Inlet is protected as a 184-acre park.
With a gorgeous Atlantic beachfront, and boardwalks through the dunes, this is the perfect place for walks, beach time, or simply soaking up the Florida sun.
Smyrna Dunes Park attracts nature-lovers, outdoor enthusiasts, and amateur photographers. I’ve seen quite a few gopher tortoises minding their business by the boardwalk, and there were dolphins playing in the mouth of the inlet.
The boardwalk runs for nearly two miles, and there are pavilions, scenic overlooks, and covered picnic areas along the way.
5. Daytona International Speedway
Some spots need no introduction. I’m certain that everyone who is aware of Florida will know about Daytona International Speedway.
Since the late ’50s, it’s been a Florida racing icon that’s grown into a well-known international brand. During its premier Daytona 500 race, it draws visitors from all over the world.
Though tickets to that event aren’t cheap or easy to come by, the facility hosts a variety of other racing events throughout the year that are just as exhilarating, and easier on the wallet.
I think it’s even worth going when there’s nothing special going on. This is the best time to dive into the Motorsports Hall of Fame on the speedway’s grounds.
This attraction is filled to the brim with legendary vehicles and motorsports artifacts. For instance, I had no idea that this was the home of the Blue Bird, which was the first car to break the 300 mph barrier in 1935.
6. Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse and Museum
Rising 175 feet over the Ponce de Leon Inlet, the tallest lighthouse in Florida is less than 15 minutes from Port Orange.
I think it’s fair to say that climbing the spiral staircase and taking in the view is one of those things you have to do in the Daytona area.
The panorama of this low-lying region is astounding, and will be just what you need after battling up 200 stairs.
Admission to the museum and lighthouse is dirt cheap by local standards, and it’s not only fun but historically significant and educational.
Back on solid ground l I had a great time touring the three old lighthouse keepers’ houses and browsing the rare collection of Fresnel lenses.
7. Wilbur Beach
The World’s Most Famous Beach is less than five minutes from Port Orange, across the Halifax River.
Daytona Beach is 23 miles long, with a flat spread of white sand. In places the sand is packed so tight that you can drive on the beach.
This is where Daytona’s motorsports culture comes from, dating back to the first automobile and motorcycle races in 1902
Cars are still permitted in designated areas, but are not allowed at Wilbur Beach, the closest to Port Orange.
For me, that’s a good thing, at an unblemished strip of sandy shore, backed by some fine old houses, with a stairway leading down through the dunes.
8. Riverwalk Park
Twenty years in the making, Port Orange’s riverfront showpiece was finally unveiled in 2017. Riverwalk Park is right on the water, comprising a northern and southern section.
So to the north of the Riverside of Pavilion is a scenic boardwalk with fishing piers, a concession stand, and a kayak launch.
To the south is a stretch of promenade, with a splash pad, playground, picnic pavilions, and yet another concession stand.
There’s also a grassy space here, used for several of Port Orange’s public events. I’ve been here for the Riverwalk Park Festival and Seafood Fest, both in March, and the Food Truck Fest in November.
9. Spruce Creek Park
In the south of Port Orange, the landscape becomes marshy, where Spruce Creek meanders into Rose Bay.
A section of this habitat has been made accessible to the public, with the help of a boardwalk and more than three miles of trails.
For my money, the trails are better explored in the dry season when the going is a bit easier. Come between October and May, and you can hike to a 15-foot observation tower, and then on to the edge of Rose Bay.
Still, the 536-foot boardwalk can be visited all year, and this is handy for fishing, and a great vantage point for bird watching.
10. Cracker Creek
I’ll talk a little later about the wetlands at the mouth of Spruce Creek in Port Orange. Upstream, a few miles inland, there’s also an eco-tourism business based next to the creek.
Cracker Creek is next to Gamble Place, which was the estate for Procter & Gamble co-founder James Gamble (1803-1891).
In fact, Cracker Creek preserves the homestead for the estate’s caretaker, and you can take a look at several historic buildings on the property, with peacocks roaming around.
I came here to rent a kayak, and spent a wonderful couple of hours paddling the creek’s lazy waters surrounded by unspoiled nature. The waters moved so slowly that I had no trouble paddling upstream.
11. The Pavilion at Port Orange
Just off I-95, there’s a lifestyle center with a medley of chain stores, restaurants, and entertainment amenities.
What elevates the Pavilion at Port Orange in my opinion is the farmers’ market, taking place by the lake on Saturday mornings.
There was an excellent choice of prepared foods when I was here last, including super pistachio cannoli from Mama Cannoli.
Elsewhere you’ve got fresh-roasted coffee, local fruit and vegetables, honey, sauces, dairy, and organic beauty products.
Another plus point is the 14-screen Regal Pavilion theater complex, with stadium seating and a premium RPX screen.
12. Port Orange City Center Municipal Complex
As a collection of modern municipal buildings, the administrative heart of Port Orange has no right to be so beautiful.
What makes the municipal complex so appealing is the picturesque Turtle Pond, which is edged by a leafy paved trail, and has flocks of waterbirds on its green shores.
Radiating from the pond is a variety of recreation amenities. There’s a skate park, the Port Orange YMCA, an outdoor sports complex.
Most impressive is the Kenneth W. Parker Amphitheater, with 700 seats, hosting concerts, festivals and movie screenings under the stars.
13. Buschman Park
There’s a parcel of nature in the heart of Port Orange, at this Halifax River Audubon Bird Sanctuary.
Buschman Park is small but has a mix of habitats, with wetlands, a lake, and a forested area. When I was here the water’s edge was teeming with life, from gators to crabs, snakes, turtles and a great blue heron.
There’s a ¾-mile trail surrounding the lake, and a boardwalk that projects out onto the water and leads to a covered observation area.
In the forested part of Buschman Park it’s a great idea to pause for a second and simply listen to the cacophony of bird calls. The live oaks, laurel oaks and sabal palms here are all beautiful.
14. Daytona Flea and Farmers Market
With more than 1,000 booths and 600 vendors, the Daytona Flea And Farmers Market is often counted among the best markets, not just in the USA, but the world.
The market draws millions of annual visitors, and is one of those unique local attractions that shouldn’t be passed up.
You can buy anything from international gourmet foods to tools, antiques, clothing, golf carts, decorative housewares, plants, jewelry, sporting goods—the list is almost endless.
My one word of advice is to get the map and be methodical, to avoid walking around for hours.
It’s also important to note that this complex is only partially air-conditioned, with cooling fans and misters to keep things fresh elsewhere.
15. Daytona Beach Zipline Adventure
There’s no better way to get a bird’s-eye view of the area you’re visiting than suspended above the trees harnessed to a zip line.
Exhilarating, safe and surprisingly inexpensive, Daytona Beach Zipline Adventure has more than 40 aerial obstacles like wooden bridges and ladders, on two high ropes courses.
Course 1 is a fantastic introduction, with 14 obstacles to overcome and four zip lines. Once you’re ready for more of a challenge you can hit Course 2. This is also set a little higher in the treetops and has six zip lines.
If you’re a zip line newbie and are still on the fence, fear not. Before I set off, I got all the safety gear and training I needed for my adventure.