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Timucuan Preserve: The Florida national park you’ve never heard of

Jacksonville site offers intriguing history, great hiking and biking trails

For years, I thought the only national park in northern Florida was the wonderful Spanish fort in St. Augustine, Castillo de San Marcos.

I was wrong. I had overlooked the Timucuan Preserve.

I had never heard of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, which is managed by the National Park Service, before a recent trip to the unspoiled tip of Florida, north and east of Jacksonville.

The Timucuan Preserve: The National Park Service has recreated Fort Caroline at a third scale on the St. Johns River.
The Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve: National Park Service recreated Fort Caroline at a third scale on the St. Johns River. (Photo courtesy University of North Florida/Florida History Online)

I’m glad I took the time to visit one of its key sites — the Kingsley Plantation — because it is a story and visit I won’t soon forget. I would like to return to the area to walk some of the many trails and explore other sites in the preserve.

The Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve is 46,000 acres of salt marshes, coastal dunes, and hardwood hammocks and it preserves key sites in Florida history.

The preserve is named for the Timucuan Indians who lived in this region when the French explorer Jean Ribault landed here in 1562. The Timucua-speaking tribes (there were about 35) inhabited central and north Florida and southeastern Georgia and archaeologists believe their culture had remained essentially unchanged for more than 1000 years. That is, until the Europeans arrived. The Timucuans fared poorly and the tribe disappeared by 1800.

The preserve is all free and it would be easy to spend an entire weekend just exploring and hiking.

The park is located on several parcels separated by the St. Johns River. South of the river is the Fort Caroline National Monument and several excellent hiking trails. North of the river is the Kingsley Plantation and the Ribault Club.

How do you get from one to the other?

The most scenic way is to take the St. Johns River Ferry, which carries vehicles as well as pedestrians, connecting A1A in Mayport and Fort George Island. The ferry runs daily every 30 minutes from 6 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Here’s the schedule. The cost is $7 for cars weekdays/$8 weekends, $1 for pedestrians and $1for extra passengers on weekends. (There’s a price break if you use the MyJTA app.

While you are near the ferry, you should stop at one of Florida’s classic fish shacks, Singletons Seafood. See below for details.

The Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve has roads and trails that pass through an Old Florida landscape.. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve has roads and trails that pass through a lush Old Florida landscape.. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

South of the St. Johns River:
The Fort Caroline National Monument

Fort Carolina is on the bluffs of the St. Johns. The pile of shells and sand is only 60 feet high, but it is the highest point in Duval County.

The French had a short reign in Florida in the 1500 and 1600s, and this site tells the little-known story. History buffs will like the replica of the original fort, built at one-third scale, and the displays. Others appreciate several hiking trails and the beautiful view of the St. Johns River.

This is a good picnic spot; it would be easy to spend a few hours here exploring trails and history.

Warning: Come prepared with mosquito repellent.

Across the road from the monument is Spanish Pond, a key location in the battle between the French and Spanish. Today, there are boardwalks and trails.

Near the Fort Caroline Monument is the Theodore Roosevelt Area , another good place to hike. This land was donated by Willie H. Browne, who turned down million-dollar offers for this property. His goal:  Giving folks “a place in the woods to go to.”

North of the St. Johns River: Kingsley Plantation

The 1798 Kingsley Plantation house faces the Fort George River. It's a key site in the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The 1798 Kingsley Plantation house faces the Fort George River. It’s a key site in the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The Kingsley Plantation may surprise you .

The history told here may not be your image of Southern plantations. It’s full of fascinating characters whose tales are well told through the buildings, signage and the free audio tours.

The Kingsley Plantation is located on Fort George Island, home to magnificent live oak forests with Spanish moss, saltwater marshes and river views.

In the 1800s, however, the land was cleared so it could be planted with a lucrative crop, Sea Island cotton. Zephaniah Kingsley bought the island and plantation in 1814 and his family lived there until 1837. His plantation house, built in 1798 is open for tours. (You must reserve ahead.) Also preserved are the walls and foundations of 25 slave cabins.

Florida Rambler story about the Kingsley Plantation.(Sneak peak: Zephaniah’s wife Anna is a slave from Senegal he bought in Havana, Cuba, and freed.)

Nearby is the Ribault Club, operated by the Florida park service. It recalls the resort era, when Fort George Island was home to private clubs, golf courses and hosted visiting Northerners.

There are hiking trails here and a boat ramp for launching kayaks and canoes.

The Ribault Club, near the Kingsley Plantation, represents the 20th century era when millionaires wintered on Fort George Island. It's part of  the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The Ribault Club, near the Kingsley Plantation, represents the 20th century era when millionaires wintered on Fort George Island. It’s part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Things to do nearby: Beaches, kayaks and a fish shack

    The Timucuan Preserve has some great places to kayak, and Kayak Amelia runs trips and rents kayaks in the region. Their trips range from exploring the salt marsh near their headquarters 13030 Heckscher Drive, Jacksonville, to paddling to the Kingsley Plantation. Kayak Amelia also offers two popular Segway tours. People rave about these trips on TripAdvisor.

    While taking the ferry in Mayport, you are down the street from Singletons Seafood Shack. Singletons has been serving fresh fish for more than 40 years in a weathered building with plywood floors and a view of shrimp boats docked nearby on the St. Johns River.

    Singleton’s was founded by Captain Ray Singleton, a shrimp fisherman who started out serving breakfast to other shrimpers in 1969. But its combination of scenic locale, ambiance and delicious just-off-the-boat seafood has made it famous.

    A few years ago it was featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” and fans of the show’s Guy Fieri have been making pilgrimages ever since. The Minorcan chowder is a must-have and the lightly fried shrimp (available as a po boy or on its own) is another crowd pleaser. Fish shacks shouldn’t be fancy, and Singleton delivers on that promise: Everything comes on Styrofoam plates and with plastic utensils.

    Singletons Seafood Shack, 4728 Ocean St., Mayport, FL Phone: (904) 246-4442

    Planning your visit to the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

    The National Park Service produces a good guide suggesting how to visit the park’s many sites in a day.

    It also offers extensive information online about the preserve and its sites: Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

    Florida Rambler story about Kingsley Plantation

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