Day Trip: Fort Caroline Memorial Park

Fort Caroline Memorial in the Arlington area of Jacksonville is the first place I’ve been to that feels like a day trip. The memorial is very simple and is designed for field trips, families, and getaway walks. There is no entrance fee. There is much to learn about the fort once occupied by the French and taken over by the Spanish. If you want simple walks, great views, and a history lesson, Fort Caroline Memorial Park is the day trip for your curiosity.

Tug boat on the St. John’s River.

In pre-planning my day trip, I originally came across Spanish Pond Trailhead, located directly across the street from Fort Caroline Memorial Park. I was fascinated about seeing the very same swamp pond the Spanish had to cross to overtake the fort successfully. It wasn’t until I got there the fort drew me in.

There are three significant points to the educational visitor center. There’s a gift shop area with books, t-shirts, and other souvenirs to purchase for memories. Half of the building is a memorial display of one of the park’s longest working employees, Ranger Craig Morris, who recently passed. He was a natural-born storyteller and naturalist who loved what he did for the park. The other half is a museum-style display with video, information boards, and glass displays of the history of Fort Caroline.

National Park Ranger Craig Morris in 2017. Bruce Lipsky/Florida Times-Union

Read the beloved Ranger Craig Morris’ full story on the Florida Times-Union website.

When you exit out of the visitor center, you can walk straight out to a viewing dock where you can see an expansive view of the St. John’s River. It’s perfect for pics and quiet observation. A nearby trail will lead you to a model of the original Fort Caroline. Before you reach the fort, you will run into an outdoor classroom where two displays of Timucuan huts are constructed for visitors to explore. These displays are helpful to imagine what it was like in the life of Native Americans.

Overlook view of the St. John’s River.
Timucuan hut replica.

Finally, you get to a fork in the road. One trail leads you on a nature trail which eventually takes you back to the parking lot. A second trail will lead you to another fishing dock. It’s better than the one by the visitor center because it goes further out on the water. A third trail will take you to the model Fort Caroline. I’ll admit, it’s pretty cool to walk through the large, heavy doors with the fort’s emblem above your head. Inside the fort, you see what it was like for the French soldiers and settlers who lived there. There are information boards everywhere to help paint an actual picture of “fort life.” Make sure to pack your imagination.

Fishing dock.
Entrance to the model Fort Caroline.
Inside the model Fort Caroline.

In all honesty, my favorite part was walking along the outside of the fort model, where I got the very best view of the St. John’s River. You stand right at the edge of the water. You listen as the waves crash from the energy flowing through the water from the speeding boats and jet skis.
Now, if you’re a hiking junkie like me, try out the Spanish Pond Trailhead across the street from Fort Caroline. Half of the trail is paved as a boardwalk. The other half is good ole grass and dirt. Fair warning, though, the dirt part of the trail is heavy on tree roots sticking up out of the soil. I would suggest keeping your eyes on the ground until you can clear that part of the trail. I took my eyes off for just a minute. I tripped and darn near went face-first into the dirt.

Part of the path at Spanish Pond Trailhead.
Pond at Spanish Pond Trailhead. The very pond the Spanish crossed before overtaking Fort Caroline in September 1565.

Fort Caroline makes for a perfect day trip if you want a nice and simple day out of the house. Pack your hiking shoes and your imagination for a day in the life of the year 1564.

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