Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve is named for the indigenous Timucua people who lived along northeast Florida’s waterways. Considered an ecological time capsule of Old Florida, the predominantly undeveloped salt-marsh preserve encompasses 46,000 acres of city, county, state, and federal land. Make your first stop the Timucuan Preserve Visitor Center at Fort Caroline National Memorial to get oriented and ask questions. Take time to tour the center’s exhibits to learn about the 6,000-year continuum of human occupation of the Lower St. Johns River Valley, as well as the estuarine salt-marsh environment dominating over 75 percent of the preserve. Inside Tip: To visit the preserve’s Fort George Island Visitor Center, located in the historic 1928 Ribault Club, take the St. Johns River Ferry between Mayport Village and Fort George Island. The 2.5-mile ride takes five minutes (about 40 minutes faster than driving), and dolphin sightings are common.
When to Go: Mid-October to April is peak season due to cooler temperatures and fewer biting insects. May to September is the best time to visit the Kingsley Plantation's living history garden (which grows rare Sea Island cotton and indigo plants) and to view American bald eagles, songbirds such as the painted bunting, and colorful wading birds, including the pink-hued roseate spoonbill.
Must Dos: Walk the four trails of the Theodore Roosevelt Area located near the Fort Caroline National Memorial. The trails offer a glimpse of Old Florida: uncut first-growth trees, pristine salt marshes and tidal creeks, and Native American shell mounds dating back thousands of years.
Did You Know? The preserve includes the 8.5-acre sand dune (known locally as NaNa) at historic American Beach. Located on Amelia Island, the beach was established as an African American resort community in 1935 by the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. Before passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, African Americans were denied access to most public beaches in Florida.
Photograph by Matt Moyer, National Geographic Travel
Amelia Island State Park
Amelia Island State Park in the Jacksonville area protects 200 acres of original Florida wilderness on the southern tip of Amelia Island. The day-use park is one of the seven Talbot Islands State Parks. Spend the day hiking or biking through the coastal maritime forest, kayaking in the salt marshes, and beachcombing for shark’s teeth and shells. Inside Tip: This is the only Florida state park where you can ride horses on the beach. Advance reservations are required. Contact Kelly Seahorse Ranch for information and rates.
Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park
Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park (another of the Talbot Islands State Parks) is within the Jacksonville city limits yet seems a world away. The park’s more than 4,000 acres of protected coastal uplands include meadows, marshes, maritime forests, creeks, and five miles of multiuse hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. And Pumpkin Hill is a favorite spot for geocaching—high-scavenger hunting with any GPS-enabled smartphone or other handheld device. Over 40 caches, or containers, are hidden in the park. Inside Tip: Prescribed burns to help reduce wildfire risk and restore the natural ecosystems can cause temporary trail closures. Check the park website for updates.
Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park
Oceanfront Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, known simply as Hanna Park, is part of the expansive Jacksonville urban park system. The 450-acre park includes roughly 20 miles of hiking and biking trails, nearly two miles of beach, and the Poles (named for the submerged pole border between Mayport Naval Station and Hanna Park), one of northeast Florida’s top surf spots. Inside Tip: Drive around the naval station (about ten minutes via A1A) to Singleton’s Seafood Shack for lunch or dinner. The dockside fish camp in Mayport Village (4728 Ocean St., Atlantic Beach, Florida, 32233; +1 904 246 4442) serves fresh-off-the-boat seafood platters, plus clam chowder, hush puppies, conch fritters, and more. Fried everything is the specialty, but any seafood can be prepared blackened, steamed, or grilled.