Just north of Jacksonville, this state park has history, beaches, pristine forest
It would take days to experience all the different pleasures available at Amelia Island’s Fort Clinch State Park – a broad beautiful beach so hard-packed you can bike on it, a well-preserved Civil War fort with colorful reenactors, six miles of trails for hiking, lots of wildlife and terrific campgrounds.
So, while Fort Clinch is located in the far upper right corner of the state, it (and the entire Amelia Island area) is worth visiting, even if it requires a considerable drive.
Fort Clinch looks over the St. Mary’s River, which forms the border with Georgia. Across the water, you see Cumberland Island, a national park where you may occasionally spot wild horses on the beach.
Fort Clinch State Park is the big beautifully forested top of Amelia Island and it’s about 45 minutes northeast of downtown Jacksonville. (It’s a 6 hour drive from my home in Fort Lauderdale – do-able for a three or four day weekend.)
The fort itself is one of the best preserved Civil-War-era forts in the country, thanks to work in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was built in 1847, after the end of the Second Seminole War, and was a Union garrison during the Civil War.
It has an unusually active corps of volunteers who serve as Civil War reenactors. They delight visitors as they stay in character and talk about life in the fort. Reenactors are generally on duty every day but participate in greater numbers for garrisons on the first weekend of every month, when they offer demonstrations and drills. On the same weekend as the garrison, rangers lead evening candlelight tours of the fort too.
Here’s how a visitor described her visit to the fort on Yelp: “I was sooo swept up in the history and gigantic-ness of the fort, the giant cannons, creepy castle buildings, and not to mention the gorgeous view of the river! The fort kind of reminds me of a Super Mario game, but in real life.”
To reach the fort, you drive three miles through a pristine maritime hammock; the road is covered by a canopy of oak trees draped in Spanish moss. Driving into the park, you feel like you’re entering a different world. You can bicycle that road, but you also can take bikes out to the beach, which is so hard-packed and wide at low tide that it’s easy to bike on. (You can rent bikes, too, at the visitor center.)
The beach here is spectacular – smooth, wide, dazzling white and also a good place to hunt for shark teeth.
The park has both hiking trails and mountain-biking trails. We hiked the Willow Pond Nature Trail, which was a winding shady walk through the forest past ponds where you might see alligators.
One of the best ways to experience everything at Fort Clinch State Park is to camp, and the campgrounds here get high marks from visitors.
Fort Clinch State Park offers 61 campsites in two separate campgrounds. Shady oak trees with Spanish moss give an old Florida air to the Amelia River Campground and its 40 sites. Just steps from the ocean, the 21 sites at the Atlantic Beach Campground are surrounded by white sand dunes. Both campgrounds have new bathrooms, about which campers rave. RVs up to 48 feet can be accommodated and offer 20 or 30 amp electric hook-up.
Campsites go fast for peak times, so you need to plan ahead. You can book sites up to 11 months out at Reserve America.
Fort Clinch State Park
2601 Atlantic Ave., Fernandina Beach, FL 32034
- $6 per vehicle for 2-8 people.
- $4 single occupant vehicle.
- $2 pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers
- $2 per person additional admission to the fort
Other things to do near Amelia Island:
- Kingsley Plantation: Fascinating tale of slavery could only happen in Florida
- Timucuan Preserve: The Florida national park you’ve never heard of