Camping, hiking and history all make it a great place to discover near St. Augustine
PALM COAST — Once upon a time I visited St. Augustine and traveled through an enchanted forest. Fairy tales always require a challenge, and I faced one: Inadequate signage and directions. Finally, when I was about to give up, I was rewarded: I found Princess Place Preserve.
I had never never heard of this county park before this visit, but I love a place with a story, and this one has quite the tale. I was glad I found it, and I think you will be too.
Princess Place preserves 1,500 of pristine land midway between St. Augustine and Flagler Beach. It offers miles of hiking trails under ancient 80-foot-tall live oaks, a wild-life-rich saltwater marsh and primitive camping. To top it off, you can tour a beautifully preserved 1888 hunting lodge fit for a princess, who indeed lived here for many years. And admission is free.
The story of Princess Place is colorful, but not always happy.
Princess Place is the oldest homestead in Flagler County. It was founded by a wealthy 24-year-old from New England, Henry Cutting. In 1888, he built a grand hunting lodge in the Adirondack Camp Style. You might think that northern design would look out of place in Florida, but the rustic hunting lodge uses local materials, including the area’s wonderful coquina rock. (Coquina is also used in St. Augustine’s fort.)
I loved the lodge, especially the way all the pillars are made of unfinished tree trunks and the interior is finished with cypress wood. Here, too, is a historic Florida first: the first in-ground swimming pool. This one is fed by an artesian spring and is not in use today.
The unfurnished lodge is open for tours on a limited basis — 2 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday only. Not knowing this, we arrived around 4 p.m. on a Saturday, but the friendly ranger took about a dozen visitors on an impromptu peek inside anyway.
The porch of the lodge overlooks the saltwater marsh and gets a steady breeze from the ocean a mile away. (You can see the rooftop of Marineland on A1A from here — the only development that meets the eye.) A row of rocking chairs sits on the porch, begging you to relax in this peaceful place.
But what about the princess? The same year the lodge was built, Henry Cutting married Angela Mills, 19. They entertained prominent people from St. Augustine and had two children. Four years later, however, Henry died on a boat near St. Augustine.
His widow married two more times. Both of these husbands died, as did both her sons.
It was the third husband, who she married in 1923 at age 54, that made her a princess. He was Russian Prince Boris Scherbatoff, exiled after the Bolshevik revolution. From then on, the site was known as the Princess Estate or the Princess Place.
The “royal couple” lived and entertained here for two and a half decades. The prince died in 1949. The princess sold the place in 1954 and died in St. Augustine two years later at 87.
Fortunately, the two subsequent owners of Princess Place preserved the lodge and the property. Flagler County bought it in 1993.
Hiking is extensive here, and I want to return to explore the half dozen trails. The longest, the Hominy Branch, is 2.5 miles under a canopy of oaks. Others run along the banks of Pellicier Creek or through the saltwater marsh. One has good views of the bay and estuaries; another goes to a spring-fed pond and bird rookery. There are 7.2 miles of equestrian trails that can also be hiked. (The .7 mile Blue Trail is good for wheelchairs and strollers.)
In addition to a great variety of birds, wildlife frequenting the park include opossum, raccoon, armadillo, deer, fox and wild boar.
There are seven family campsites, one equestrian campsite and a group campsite. All are primitive tents-only campgrounds. The fee for non-county residents is $20 for family sites. Reservations are made by calling (386) 313-4020.
The park has a kayak launch area and the rivers and marshes would be perfect for exploring by kayak. Local kayak outfitters, such as Kayak Cafe in Palm Coast, run eco-tours or rent boats in Palm Coast and promote Princess Place as a kayak destination.
Planning your visit to St. Augustine area:
Remember what I said about bad signage? For such a wonderful place, you might expect more extensive signs. We were thrown off by the fact that the signs do not references the 1888 hunting lodge at all. We drove on a dirt road into the park for a long time,convinced this couldn’t be the place.
Much of this part of Flagler County is park or preserve. As a result, there are few roads (happily!) running east-west across the watery corridor of rivers, marshes and Intracoastal Waterway that parallels the coast. Princess Place is on the west side of this water. It’s easier to reach from U.S. 1 than from A1A. Either way, you have to be on North Old Kings Road to find the turn-off.
From I-95, take exit 298 and take U.S. 1 south. From U.S. 1 take the first left onto Old Kings Road. Then turn left at the park sign into Princess Place Road.
- Princess Place Preserve, a Flagler County park
- Camping at Princess Place
- Kayak Cafe in Palm Coast, kayak outfittters
- Castillo de San Marcos, the fort in St. Augustine is a must-visit in the area.
- Fort Matanzas, a fascinating fort you visit by free boat ride.
- Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, historic gardens plus unusual conquina-rock beach
- Flagler Beach, an Old Florida beach town