The Jacksonville area is blessed with eight terrific state parks, but you can only camp at two of them — Fort Clinch and Little Talbot Island — both of which are ideal summer destinations with beaches for swimming, waterways for canoes and kayaks, hiking and biking trails and playgrounds for the kids.
From a tourism perspective, Fort Clinch is the right choice. But getting a campsite reservation here can be extremely difficult in summer, so you really have to do some advance planning.
Little Talbot State Park is more accessible to campers, and it’s pristine, representing Florida’s barrier islands the way they were. You remember those days, back before the condos.
Both parks have outstanding beaches for summer fun in the sun, and camping at Little Talbot gives you access to a cluster of six other state parks collectively known as Talbot Islands State Parks.
Fort Clinch State Park
2601 Atlantic Ave., Fernandina Beach, FL 32034. (904) 277-7274.
One of Florida’s oldest state parks, Fort Clinch is on a peninsula at the northern end of Amelia Island. The fort was built in 1847, after the end of the Second Seminole War, and was a Union garrison during the Civil War. During the 1930s, the state purchased the land and put the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps to work restoring the fort and buildings.
The park has 3.3 miles of paved roadway for bicycling, and you can ride for miles on the beach at low tide. In addition, Fort Clinch has a six-mile nature trail for off-road biking and hikers. You can fish on the banks of the Amelia River, along Cumberland Sound, from ocean beaches or off the half-mile-long fishing pier.
Kayaking is not an officially sanctioned activity at this park, but it’s hard to ignore that paddling opportunities exist nearby, though probably more suited to experienced paddlers because of the open water and stiff currents.
The campground features 61 sites in two separate campgrounds – 40 tree-shaded sites in the Amelia River Campground and 21 sites tucked behind the dunes on the ocean in the Atlantic Beach Campground. Each site has a fire ring, picnic table, water and electric hookups. Each campground has its own dump station, soft drink vending machines and new bathhouses with showers and washing machines. Pets are permitted in the campground. (Maximum RV length is 40 feet.)
Sites are $26 per night, plus tax. 50% off for Florida residents 65 or older, or if you are certified for federal disability. Reservations accepted by phone, 800-326-3521, or online through ReserveAmerica.
Reserve early. This park is on a beach, so you can expect considerable difficulty reserving a site in summer. Winter can also pose a challenge, though less severe, because the campground is a pit stop for travelers heading south.
Getting there: Take I-95 to Exit 373, the exit for Fernandina Beach, and go east on State Road A1A for about 16 miles until you hit Atlantic Avenue. Turn right and go two miles.
Things to do nearby:
Fernandina Beach — This quaint, historic seaport is a popular tourist destination that anchors the north end of Amelia Island. The flags of eight nations have flown over the island, dating back to 1562. On the first weekend of May, Fernandina Beach hosts the annual Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival (May 3-5, 2013). Shopping and dining are key attractions, or take a horse-drawn carriage through village streets lined with Victorian and Spanish Colonial homes, many of them bed and breakfasts for those who don’t want to camp. Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to Fernandina Beach.
Cumberland Island — Across Cumberland Sound from Fernandina Beach, Cumberland Island National Seashore is Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, long a refuge for the rich and famous with 9,800 acres of designated wilderness areas now set aside for everyone to enjoy. You can get there by ferry from Fernandina Beach. During summer, the ferry serves the island twice per day. For more information, visit the National Park Service’s web site for Cumberland Island National Seashore.
Little Talbot Island State Park
12157 Heckscher Drive, Jacksonville, FL 32226. (904) 251-2320.
Little Talbot Island is one of the few undeveloped barrier islands that remain in northeast Florida, and it features more than five miles of white-sand beaches. For that reason, Little Talbot is a popular destination in summer, although it’s not nearly as difficult to book as Fort Clinch, especially in a tent.
This park is part of a cluster of seven state parks collectively known as Talbot Islands State Parks, but Little Talbot is the only one with a campground.
Tidal creeks border the western edge of the campground, ideal for launching kayaks and canoes, and there’s a three-mile nature trail for hiking. There is a canoe and kayak concession outside the park where you can rent boats, take guided tours or obtain local maps for paddling.
The park has 2.5 miles of paved roadway for bicycles, or you can ride along the beach on hard-pack sand.
There are 40 campsites tucked into the sand dunes, surrounded by a maritime hammock of live oaks and magnolia trees. Each site has electric (20/30 amp) and water hookups, fire ring and picnic table. The campground has a laundry facility and two bathhouses with hot showers. A dump station is available for RV campers. Pets are allowed in designated areas of the campground. (Maximum RV length=30 feet).
Sites are $24 per night, plus tax, with 50% off for Florida residents age 65 or older. Florida residents with federal disability certification also get half off. Reservations accepted by phone, 800-326-3521, or online through Reserve America.
Getting there: Little Talbot Island is 17 miles northeast of Jacksonville on State Road A1A.
The other Talbot Islands State Parks
Amelia Island SP, State Road A1A North, Jacksonville, FL (904) 251-2320– Horseback riding on the beach, fishing and paddling opportunities are the hallmarks of this 200-acre state park on the south end of Amelia Island. And shorebirds are valued highly, making this a prime destination for both birds and birdwatchers during the fall migration. Amelia Island web site.
Big Talbot Island SP, State Road A1A North, Jacksonville, FL (904) 251-2320 — Primarily a nature preserve, Big Talbot encompasses diverse habitats once typical of Florida’s barrier islands. There are several nature trails for hiking, There’s a boat ramp for motorboats, kayaks and canoes to launch your exploration of wetlands and islands. Big Talbot is immediately north of Little Talbot and accessible from State Road A1A. Big Talbot web site.
Fort George Island SP, State Road A1A South, Jacksonville, FL (904) 251-2320 — People have been evident on these islands for more than 5,000 years, and it was named after a fort built in 1736 to defend the neighboring Georgia Colony. Today, park visitors enjoy hiking, biking, fishing, boating — and Segway tours are offered by a private concession. A launch for kayaks and canoes can be found behind the Ribauld Club, which was once an exclusive private resort and now a popular attraction for visitors. Fort George Island web site.
George Crady Bridge and Fishing Pier SP, State Road A1A South, Jacksonville, FL (904) 251-2320 — This is really part of Amelia Island State Park, and the only way you can access the bridge is through the park. It’s a one-mile-long, pedestrian bridge that was once a highway crossing Nassau Sound and now a popular fishing destination. If you fish here, you’ll have to leave Fido home. No pets allowed. George Crady web site.
Pumpkin Hill Preserve SP, 13802 Pumpkin Hill Road, Jacksonville, FL; (904) 696-59080 — This is a special place — a 4,000 acre preserve with 14 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Creeks in the preserve provide miles of paddle trails through pristine habitats for kayaks and canoes. Wildlife is abundant. Dogs are allowed on hiking trails. Pumpkin Hill web site.
Yellow Bluff Fort SP, New Berlin Road, Jacksonville, FL (904) 251-2320 — This small (1.3-acre) state park is preserved for its history. There was never a fort here, at least not a structure, but it was a strategic gun position on the St. John’s River for both Union and Confederate armies. There are still earthworks that once shielded soldiers manning the cannons. Other than a short hike, there’s not a lot of other outdoor recreation. Yellow Bluff web site.
Canoe and Kayak Rentals: Long Island Outfitters is Talbot Islands State Parks’ official canoe and kayak provider and is located on State Road AIA between Little Talbot and Big Talbot Islands. The service offers everything from basic rentals to guided tours. Call (904) 251-0016 or visit their web site at Kayak Amelia.