We went camping, but that’s just beginning.
You don’t feel like you’re in Florida’s largest city, but you are.
You are on the unsullied, windswept edge of Jacksonville. Separated from the urban sprawl by a marshy back-country alive with spirited wildlife, these islands, waterways, coastal forests and beaches defy the presence of a city.
The Talbot Islands are an awesome collection of state parks and wildlife preserves with striking beaches that stretch for miles, excellent back-country kayaking, off-road trails for hiking, biking and equestrians, picnicking, shelling, surfing, swimming and sunbathing.
Little Talbot Island State Park
My most vivid image of Little Talbot Island was at the end of the road, a beach on the edge of the edge, where Little Talbot Island meets the Fort George Inlet, facing the shifting sands of a broad shoal besieged by currents so strong, even the thought of swimming should be prohibited.
No worries. There are plenty of other options for dunking your bod in ocean’s swells.
Little Talbot Island supports five miles of impressive beach protected by natural dunes, easily accessible from three well-spaced boardwalk entry points along a bicycle-friendly 2-mile park road.
If you are up for a hike, you won’t have any trouble carving out an isolated patch of sand.
Each of the boardwalks has a pavilion area with picnic tables and grills, but it’s the broad beach that will snap you to attention. White sands stretch uninterrupted as far as the eye can see. An endless line of dunes topped with sea oats separates beachgoers from the rest of the world.
The grand bundle of preserves anchored by Little Talbot Island State Park also includes Big Talbot Island State Park, the George Crady Bridge State Fishing Pier, Amelia Island State Park, Fort George Island, Yellow Bluff Fort and the Pumpkin Hill Preserve, neatly packaged around the shady, scenic campground on Little Talbot Island.
There’s plenty to explore and history to be seen. Plan on spending several days in this coastal wonderland.
The campground at Little Talbot Island State Park
Little Talbot Island State Park has the only campground in the Talbot Islands, but there are others nearby.
Motor homes and travel trailers can expect narrow, unpaved access roads tracking through the campground, as well as tight, oddly angled sites, but it’s manageable and rewarding when you are finally set up. All 40 campsites are well shaded and private.
Rigs longer than 30 feet are not permitted, and some RV sites are capped at 15 feet, basically for teardrops and tent trailers. Like I said, it’s tight, but if you meet the length restrictions (each site is different), you should find adequate room for slide-outs and extended awnings.
Car campers with tents, of course, will find the conditions ideal.
It’s notable that this campground has 10 sites designated for hammocks and hammock camping. (Site Nos. 2, 6, 10, 13, 18, 23, 27, 28, 32 and 39.)
The campground is on the inland side of the island, away from the beaches and across State Road A1A from the ranger station, but you still must go to the ranger station to check into your campsite, turn your rig around and go back to cross A1A. Not a big deal, but it’s confusing for first-timers.
Each campsite has water and 20/30-amp electric, picnic table and fire ring. There are two restrooms with showers, laundry facility, and a dump station is conveniently located near the campground exit. There are no sewer hookups at campsites.
We visited in August, and the campground’s mosquitoes were brutal. Bring DEET.
For reservations, go online or all (800) 326-3521. The ranger station does not accept reservations in advance, although sites may be available for walk-ons on the day of arrival.
Daily camping fees are $24, plus a non-refundable booking fee of $6.70, and includes water and electric. Florida residents 65 and over received a 50% discount, as do holders of a Social Security disability certificate or a 100 percent disability award certificate from the Federal Government.
Check in any time after 3 p.m, and check out by 1 p.m., although early arrivals may be allowed to proceed to their site if it has already cleared inspection.
Your camping pass includes admission for all of the state parks in this bundle of preserves.
- Wi-Fi: None
- Cellular service: The AT&T data stream on which we ride with Consumer Cellular did poorly, but Verizon data streams to my iPad were good. I used my iPad’s personal hot spot for internet access on my laptop.
- TV: Multiple digital channels via antenna out of Jacksonville and South Georgia. No cable. Although I don’t have a satellite dish to test, I expect it would have been difficult to get a signal because of the dense tree canopy in the campground.
Day use fees for Little Talbot Island State Park
$5 per vehicle (2-8 people); $4 for a single-occupant vehicle; $2 for pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, passengers in vehicle with holder of Annual Individual Entrance Pass.
Nearby campground alternatives:
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Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park. Oceanfront park at 500 Wonderwood Drive, Jacksonville Beach, with 300 sites with water and 30-amp electric in a wooded setting for RV, tent and cabin camping. Tent camping, $20.34 (including tax); RV camping, $33.90; Cabins, $33.90. I haven’t visited this park, but it gets high marks in Moon Outdoor’s Florida Camping Guide by Marilyn Moore, my go-to book for camping anyywhere in Florida. Reservations for Hanna Park can be made online at tinyurl.com/jaxparksonline or call 904-249-4700.
Fort Clinch State Park. Oceanfront park at 2601 Atlantic Ave., Fernandina Beach, on north end of Amelia Island. 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. , FL 32034. (904) 277-7274. Camping fee is $26, half-price for Florida seniors and camper who meet disability standards. For reservations, Call (800) 326-3521. Florida Rambler story on Fort Clinch State Park.
The other Talbot Islands, a blend of wildlife, recreation and history
Each is unique in its own way. I’ll get on with it.
Amelia Island State Park
Not actually in the Talbot Islands but just across the bridge, this 200-acre state park sits on the southern tip of Amelia Island. It’s claim to fame are stables that offer horseback riding on the beach. The park also provides access to fishing on the mile-long George Crady Fishing Bridge, which is open 24 hours a day. The beach side of the park closes at sunset.
If you have a four-wheel drive vehicle, and we saw a few, you can drive down the beach and carve out your own little hideaway. As tempted as you might, don’t try this with anything less than four-wheel drive. This sand is pretty soft in lots of places.
Shorebirds make this beach prime destination for both birds and birdwatchers during the fall migration.
As you enter the park from A1A, you’ll see the entrance to Kelly Seahorse Ranch, which offers guided, beachfront horseback riding along the beaches of Nassau Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Rides go out at 10 a.m., 12 noon, 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. daily. For reservations and prices, call (904) 491-5166.
Visitors may also enjoy Amelia Island on their own horse. The park’s capacity is 15 privately owned horses at one time, so riders must first check in with the Little Talbot Island ranger station at (904) 251-2320 prior for availability.
Park web site: Amelia Island State Park. Admission: $2 per person (honor box). State Road A1A North, Jacksonville, FL (904) 251-2320
Big Talbot Island State Park
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.
Boneyard Beach is a must-see. We would have passed it by if we weren’t told about it by a park ranger, who was patrolling nearby Amelia Island State Park when we visited there.
The beach does indeed look like a boneyard with the twisted and tangled skeletal remains of live oaks and cedar trees, beaten down and uprooted by erosion, then repeatedly salt-washed, sea-bashed and sun-beaten. An eerie site, indeed.
An added bonus is the adjacent Blackrock Beach, an unusual lava-like formation that is actually hardpan sediment uncovered by severe erosion.
Access to both beaches is via the half-mile Blackrock nature trail that has a small parking area on the east side of State Road A1A. Be forewarned that this parking area can get jammed on weekends.
Keep your eyes peeled for flashes of color in the woods. The colorful painted bunting makes its home here.
The parking area is also a trailhead for a 3-mile segment of the paved, multi-use Timucuan Trail, which winds through maritime forest of gnarled live oaks, bays, and magnolias surrounded by palmetto, adding to more than two miles of existing paved trail on Little Talbot Island.
Eventually, this trail will link up with another segment on Little Talbot Island as part of a 18-mile trail from Jacksonville’s Kathryn Abbey Hannah Park, through Fort George Island, Little Talbot and Big Talbot, to Amelia Island State Park.
A deepwater boat ramp is located on the north end of Big Talbot for kayaks, canoes and motor boats. The Sawpit Creek ramp has a floating dock and offers access to the Intracoastal Waterway, Nassau Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.
You can launch your personal kayaks and canoes from the Kayak Amelia concession to access Myrtle Creek and Simpson’s Creek. Launch fee is a modest $1 per person. Kayak Amelia also offers group eco-tours of the waterways. Check their web site for prices.
Park web site: Big Talbot State Park; Admission: $3 per vehicle, $4 to use the boat launch, $2 to access the bridge pier; State Road A1A North, Jacksonville, FL (904) 251-2320
George Crady Bridge and Fishing Pier State Park
You can access this mile-long bridge with a slow curve through Amelia Island State Park. The “pier” was the old bridge crossing Nassau Sound, but it’s now an extremely popular fishing destination. During our visit, there must of been a hundred people or more casting into the sound.
The new bridge runs alongside it and carries A1A traffic between Amelia Island and Big Talbot. Both bridges offer awesome views of the ocean and the sound. There are rest rooms at the foot of the bridge. If you fish here, you’ll have to leave Fido home. No pets allowed.
Web site: George Crady Bridge and Fishing Pier State Park. Admission: $2 per person, payable at the entrance to Amelia Island State Park. State Road A1A South, Jacksonville, FL (904) 251-2320
Fort George Island State Park
People have been evident on these islands for more than 5,000 years, and the island 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 offered by the park concession, Kayak Amelia. These 1.25 to 2 hour tours depart from the historic Ribault Club and visit the Kingsley Plantation while traveling along 2 – 4 miles of maritime forest, abundant with plant and animal life. No experience necessary, but advance reservations are required so please call (904) 251-0016 for more information.
A launch for kayaks and canoes can be found behind the Ribauld Club, once an exclusive private resort and now a popular attraction for visitors. The club is now a visitor center with a meeting space available for special functions.
The Ribault Club and Fort George Island Visitor Center serve as gateways to the Timucuan Trail and the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.
Web site: Fort George Island State Park. Admission: Free; State Road A1A South, Jacksonville, FL (904) 251-2320. Florida Rambler story on Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.
Pumpkin Hill Preserve State Park
The park has 14 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding, and dogs are allowed on hiking trails.
Creeks in the preserve provide miles of paddle trails through salt marsh estuaries. Park your car and launch your kayaks, canoes and paddle boards from the launch point at the end of Pumpkin Hill Road on the east side. There is a short portage from the parking area to the launch site. Picnic tables and rest rooms are available. No rentals are available at this location.
Nature trails are anchored at the main parking area and are open to hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding and connect to the adjacent City of Jacksonville parks Betz Tiger Point, Cedar Point and the Jim Wingate Preserve.
Varied intermediate terrain invites off-road bicyclists through pine flatwoods and sandhill communities. Cycling may be challenging in spots due to soft sandy soils and trails subject to seasonal flooding. The bicycling trails are anchored at the main parking area.
The long leaf pine forests provide excellent birding opportunities. Song birds, owls, woodpeckers, turkey and bobwhite are evident year around with the added bonus of nesting bald eagles in the pines. Woodstorks, roseate spoonbills and egrets fish the salt marsh. Bring your binoculars and your field guide along on your birding trip.
Web site: Pumpkin Hill Preserve. Admission: Free; 13802 Pumpkin Hill Road, Jacksonville, FL; (904) 696-59080
Yellow Bluff Fort State Park
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.
Web site: Yellow Bluff Fort State Park. Admission: Free; New Berlin Road, Jacksonville, FL (904) 251-2320
Canoe and Kayak Rentals: Kayak Amelia is the official canoe and kayak provider for the Talbot Islands State Parks, located on the west side of State Road AIA on Long Island, 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.
Talbot Islands Brochure: Download this PDF version of the parks’ brochure.
From Florida Rambler: 11 outstanding things to do outdoors on Amelia Island.
Harris Teeter Supermarket, 4800 First Coast Hwy, Shops at Amelia Market, Fernandina Beach. Loved this market. Definitely worth the 11-mile drive north of Little Talbot Island to stock the camp kitchen. Butcher and wine steward were friendly and helpful. Selections were awesome. The shopping plaza was undergoing renovations during our visit. Phone: (904) 491-1213
The Mayport Ferry 9618 Heckscher Drive/SR A1A, south of Little Talbot Island on Fort George Island. Ferries on the hour and half hour from 6 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. We paid $20 to ferry our travel trailer across the St. John’s River in August 2017. Passenger cars were $6. For information, call (904) 630-3100.
Sandollar Restaurant and Marina, 9716 Heckscher Drive/SR A1A, just before the Mayport Ferry on Fort George Island. Casual dining serving lunch and dinner on the St. John’s River, specializing in seafood. Outdoor dining on the deck. Phone: (904) 251-2449.
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning visits.
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 12 years ago.