6 Day Trips from Jacksonville,
by Anne Sponholtz
Jacksonville, Fla., is the perfect starting point for day trips into Georgia and the interior of Florida. While the states' coastlines are bright, sun-spangled places, the interior reaches are more myserious landscapes dotted with rivers, creeks, lakes and swamps. There are some interesting stories here, too. So crank up the engine and head to the water's edge.
Stephen C. Foster State Park
Travel time: 2 hours
Alligators, snakes, black bears -- oh, my. Those are just some of the things visitors might see at this Georgia state park tucked inside the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Area. True, you're more likely to spot a deer than a black bear, but it doesn't get much more remote than the Okefenokee Swamp, and this park at the headwaters of the Suwannee River is not for those looking for afternoon tea, sun parasols or other artifacts of civilization (for that, see "St. Marys," below).
A nondescript museum devotes a small section to Stephen Foster, the "father of American music"; the rest of the exhibits feature wildlife and area history. Hiking trails provide a glimpse into the denser areas of this "land of the trembling earth," which is what "Okefenokee" means in a Native American language. A day on the swamp can be an adventure, with possible encounters with alligators and swamp birds around every bend. Take the helm of one of the small motor boats for rent, try your skill at paddling a canoe, or leave the driving to a boat tour guide. Camping facilities and cottages are available. Bring food, snacks and water, and keep the bug repellent handy.
St. Marys, Georgia
Gateway to Cumberland Island
Travel time: 50 minutes
St. Marys, on the Georgia side of the St. Marys River and separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a barrier island, is a beautiful and historic town that dates from 1787. Restaurants, gift shops, historic buildings, churches and bed-and-breakfast inns line the streets, and every step is a step back in time. The Orange Hall House Museum, the "Grand Dame of St. Marys," is the best place to become familiar with St. Marys. Museum tour guides extend the Southern hospitality that is found throughout the town, giving visitors the feeling they arrive among strangers and depart among friends.
There are some hard choices to make, however, on a day trip to St. Marys. Do you tour the historic town, take in the submarine museum, enjoy a plate of fresh-caught seafood, sit beneath majestic magnolias watching the shrimp boats come and go, or do you hop aboard a ferry for the 45-minute ride to Cumberland Island National Seashore, where wild horses still roam? Of course, you can always book a night at a bed-and-breakfast and do both.
Travel time: 1 hour
Tucked away in this tiny community that is but a speck on the map are two Florida treasures most visitors to the state have yet to discover: Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park and Ocean Pond. The park is the site of Florida's largest Civil War battle, where nearly 3,000 soldiers lost their lives. The small interpretive center has exhibits and a documentary about the battle. Memorials and cannons are located on the grounds, and an interpretive trail follows the battle lines. Serious history buffs come in February, when the park hosts a re-enactment of the battle.
A few miles from the park is Olustee
Beach on Ocean Pond, which is not an ocean at all, but
rather a 1,760-acre freshwater lake. With the droughts of
recent years, swimming and boating conditions are often less
than ideal, but the vast picnic area is a wonderful place
to enjoy a quiet day. Walk the Trampled Track Trail to get
a peek into the sawmill industry that once thrived on the
shores of the lake, and follow the interpretive signs to learn
fascinating facts about the pond and history of the area.
If you want to stay awhile, you'll find the Ocean
Pond Campground on the other side of the lake.
Kirkpatrick Dam and Rodman Reservoir
Travel time: 1 hour 45 minutes
This is a lazy-day trip -- a chance to sit under a shade tree, enjoy the sound rushing water, or try your hand at a little fishing - so bring your lawn chairs, binoculars, camera and fishing poles. Award-winning wildlife photographer Glen Lau says, "Never have I seen a place with more wild birds and other wildlife than Rodman Reservoir." Two piers are located just below the dam. Fishing along a small tributary of the Ocklawaha River is good, but adventurous anglers have been known to climb along the rocks at the edge of the dam to take advantage of some great fishing in the spillway. Boat launches, a trailhead and a campground are all available.
The earthen dam and reservoir were created in 1968 from the Ocklawaha River as part of the ill-fated Cross Florida Barge Canal that was to connect the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Never completed and finally abandoned in 1991, the canal route was turned into the 110-mile Marjorie Carr Cross Florida Greenway. After 40 years, folks are still fighting over whether to return the reservoir to its original state as part of the Ocklawaha River.
Stephen Foster Folk Culture
White Springs, Florida
Travel time: 1 hour 20 minutes
The Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center is nestled along the edge of the small town of White Springs, Fla., on the banks of the Suwannee River. In fact, Foster never saw the river he made famous with his song "Old Folks at Home." Songs from the famed composer's repertoire, including such favorites as "Oh! Susanna" and "Camptown Races," chime out across the grounds from a carillon tower, the centerpiece of the state park.
Put on your walking shoes for this park, as there's a lot to see. Open the door at the base of the bell tower and discover the story of the man behind the music and learn the inner workings of the 97-bell carillon. A pillar-fronted museum features dioramas and rare musical instruments, offering more insight into Foster's life and times. In Craft Square a woodworker whittles away at a handmade walking stick, and other handcrafted items fill the shelves of the gift shop. Stroll down to the river's edge for a breathtaking view, or follow the path to the canoe launch. Picnic areas, cabins, a campground, riding trails and nature trails make up the rest of the park.
Princess Place Preserve
Palm Coast, Florida
Travel time: 1 hour
Once upon a time there was a princess. The story of this princess is not found at Disney World; instead, it is woven through the 1,500 acres of Princess Place Preserve, near historic St. Augustine. Skirting Pellicer Creek, this Flagler County preserve is laced with hiking trails that crisscross a variety of habitats. The story of the New Jersey native who married an exiled Russian prince is told within the walls of the stunning 1886 Adirondack-style hunting lodge and its outbuildings.
The carriage house, complete with a carriage, is a reminder of how arduous travel must have been in what was an extremely desolate part of Florida. Florida's first in-ground swimming pool, once fit for a princess, is still filled from an artesian well and spills over into the creek. Later owners built a home on an island in the preserve, now known as Island House. Shore fishing, picnic areas, boat and canoe launches, riding trails and a primitive camping are part of the preserve.
Don't forget the Jaguars
Returning to Jacksonville from a day trip, it's fun to head to the city's River Front along the St. Johns River for some exciting nightlife or for a walk along the river to reflect on your adventures. In the fall, be sure to take in a Jaguars football game. In the spring, head to the ballpark to watch the Jacksonville Suns play minor league baseball.
This is a great part of Florida, whether you stay in town or roam about the countryside. I hope you enjoy it.