There’s something about islands, especially ones you must still reach only by boat.
Hontoon Island State Park is located in the St. Johns River; no more than 500 feet of water separate it from “the mainland.” Yet that separation makes Hontoon Island State Park a bit more remote and romantic and has helped keep it from blending into the nearby town of Deland.
We’re lucky for that, because Hontoon Island State Park is a terrific refuge for camping or a stay in a rustic cabin and as a base for a kayaking or canoe trip.
The paddle around the island is 10 miles filled with birds and wildlife, past ancient cypress and oak trees. Even if you don’t spend the night in the park, it’s an ideal place for a hike and picnic. There’s also a playground for kids and a small museum.
Hontoon Island State Park, in Central Florida just outside Deland, is actually easy to reach. A free electric ferry buzzes back and forth every few minutes, carrying hikers, campers and fishermen and all their gear. (Campers and cabin guests and gear are then shuttled by van to the campground a half-mile from the marina.)
Camping and cabins at Hontoon Island State Park
Because there are no cars and parking lots, the camp and cabin sites are among the prettiest you’ll find. They are situated in a shady hammock secluded from the busy waterfront.
There are 12 campsites and six very basic cabins clustered around a central bath facility with hot showers and flush toilets.
These aren’t luxury cabins; they are just one step above camping. There’s no heat or air conditioning, no kitchen and, like the campers, you walk to the central bathroom. The cabins have bunk beds with vinyl-covered mattresses and you bring your own sleeping bag (or linens.)
The cabins are inexpensive ($30 a night for a four-bunk cabin; $35 for six bunks) and for us they provided a perfect option: The fun of being in the woods and cooking over a campfire, while guaranteeing we’d stay dry in a storm and be able to avoid mosquitoes. (In March, there were none.)
The cabins have a screen porch with a table and chairs – perfect if we had bad weather. They also have ceiling fans in the bedroom and porch, lights in both rooms and a single electric outlet. The cabins come with a fire ring with a grill and a picnic table, like the campsites.
Campsites and cabins fill up on weekends, so you must plan ahead. If you can visit on a weekday, it is easy to get a reservation, even at the height of the spring break season in March.
Kayaking and canoeing at Hontoon Island State Park
Circumnavigating Hontoon Island in a canoe or kayak is a perfect day’s paddle. You can bring your own or rent them at Hontoon. Note, however, that there are only two double kayaks and five canoes and they cannot be reserved. On busy weekends you must get to the marina early. (A backup plan would be to take the ferry to the mainland and drive 15 minutes to Blue Spring State Park and rent a boat there. The concession there, however, does limit you to paddling near Blue Spring. )
There are maps of the route at the park and the helpful ranger suggested we start counter-clockwise around the Island. This took us first along the scenic Hontoon Dead River. It is anything but dead: It was full of wildlife and lined with a thick forest. What its name denotes is that it ends in a dead end, but many miles away. It probably was an earlier route of the St. Johns River.
From there, a left turn took us on the narrower, twisty Snake Creek, which meets up with the St. Johns River at Blue Spring State Park.
We had a picnic at Blue Spring and admired some late-season manatees in the spring run. Then we paddled the last two or three miles on the wider St. Johns River back to Hontoon Island State Park.
It’s all scenic and full of wildlife, but the best section is the Snake Creek. The least appealing part – and we were also just tired – is the last few miles on the wide St. Johns.
An alternative route leaving from Blue Spring could skip the main river and go directly to the Snake Creek. There are other lagoons, canals and channels in that area that look promising to explore.
On our paddling trip we were continually surrounded by the sight and sounds of birds. The island has an active eagle nest and we saw a nesting blue heron with its chick. We also spotted osprey, ibis, heron, egrets, kingfishers, limpkin, sandhill cranes and cardinals. Other wildlife included turtles, alligators – including 10-inch babies — and, happily, manatees.
Along the way, we admired the trees with so many air plants that they were positively fuzzy, knobby cypress knees and the tangled mats of aquatic plants in vivid greens.
There was never a piece of trash and we saw little sign of man’s encroachment. he whole route is open to motorized boats but there were just a few fishermen present. On the St. Johns, an enormous barge passed while we had lunch, so it is possible to see substantial boat traffic on that leg. When we paddled the St. Johns portion, however, we were passed by only three motor boats.
We loved this kayak trip – it was long enough to be a challenge; it included a great picnic spot where we could stretch and explore, and it was full of all the beauty and wildlife we always hope to experience.
Hiking at Hontoon Island State Park
Hontoon is also a great place for hikers. The 3-mile-long Hammock Hiking Nature Trail takes you through a thick hardwood forest with lots of sprawling live oaks draped with Spanish moss. On a previous visit we saw deer; this time we spotted only an armadillo shuffling along. The path ends at a huge Indian shell mound, a hill about 20 feet high and 400 feet long. The midden is thousands of years old so on its top you’ll find some of the biggest oak trees in the park.
There are miles of other trails that are actually sandy roads. These pass through more open pine and palmetto palm forests. Spurs of these trails go to overlooks and landings on the river. If you like hiking, you have lots of possible routes. The trails are also open to mountain bikes.
History on Hontoon Island State Park
The park has an interesting small museum devoted to its history, particularly to the Native American Indians who gathered shellfish from the St. Johns River and left that midden some 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. The museum also includes artifacts found on the island. Near the playground is a replica of a large wooden owl totem that was found by a dragline operator near the park’s parking lot in 1955.
Planning a visit to Hontoon Island State Park
If you want a bit more comfort, you can have the whole Hontoon Island experience by staying at the Hontoon Landing Resort, which is almost adjacent to the state park’s parking lot. The resort also operates a river nature cruise and rents pontoon and fishing boats. If you stay at Hontoon Landing Resort, you can take the ferry over to Hontoon Island for hiking and launch your canoe or kayak for the paddling trip.
Nearby Blue Spring State Park
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.