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.

Reflections: My First “Real” Trip

What was your first real trip? Why would you call it your first real trip?

My first real trip was in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina with my mother. I consider that trip my first real trip because it was the first time I got to experience a different world outside of beaches and bridges in Florida. Seeing mountains made my spirit soar. Experiencing elevation, rigorous hiking trails, and exploring hidden waterfalls opened my eyes. 

Mom and I.

What were the best and worst parts of the trip?

The best part was the grandeur of the scenery. The mountains commanded beauty. Also, how the people lived in the mountains. They lived a slower and more peaceful lifestyle than what I’ve lived my entire life in Jacksonville, Florida. The worst was the steep hiking trails. I swear nothing reminds you of how out of shape you are unless you are hiking up the side of a mountain. 

I can’t handle the cold. LOL.

What was the life lesson you gained? 

The Blue Ridge Mountains taught me that everyone should get the chance to know the world outside their doors. It’s a big world out there, and we can’t continue to let it pass us over. The internet is a powerful tool, and Google opened our eyes to everything. Any country or culture you wish to learn about on the face of the planet is a simple internet search. The best part is, you can share those experiences with the help of social media. Joining groups and chats about places worldwide helps you become more in touch with people you’ll probably never meet a day in your life. It’s essential to care about what happens outside your world. Traveling through mountains and observing the lifestyle taught me those fundamental lessons. 

Loved the view.

How did this trip lead to wanting to travel?

Honestly, my curiosity got the better of me. I was curious to see how people lived in other parts of the country and eventually worldwide. When I became a truck driver, I was fortunate to see how people lived in small towns versus big cities. Trust me, the difference is astounding. 

I can’t wait to go back…

Tickfaw State Park, A Backyard Swamp

One of the best things about hiking and traveling up North is the changing landscapes. One moment you’re looking at a large hill, then mountains, then farmlands, and meadows. I have traveled to nearly ten state parks in the South between Florida, Southern Georgia. I swear if I have to hike another trail with nothing but swamp water, invasive thorny vines, and saw palmetto covering the landscape, I’m going to scream. The part that grinds my gears is when the park workers cut the trees, let them fall where and try to pass it off as nature being responsible. In my opinion, it doesn’t enhance the feel of nature. It makes the woods appear fake or staged. How would the Redwood forest in California look if an eighth of the trees were just cut and lying on the ground?

Gazebo area.
Boardwalk trail.

Tickfaw State Park felt like just another backyard swarm hike. The park’s primary purpose is camping, fishing, and light hiking. It’s not a thrill-seeker or hike on the Appalachian Trail. There are no rugged hills to climb or makeshift trails to follow. One path, the board. Ugh! The excitement in any hike is wondering what lies ahead at the end of the hike. When I found my parking spot and saw three teens come off a trail with zero interest in what they hiked through, I knew I wasn’t going to be spending very long in this park.

The worst part about parks that are heavy on camping and RV life is dealing with the youth. Unsupervised teens disrespect the park and its features. For example, I tried to get photos of the trail’s only exciting thing: a suspension bridge stretched across the river. It was hard to capture my pictures because the teenagers kept bouncing on the bridge, making it wobble and jump like a trampoline. It took a couple of dirty looks to end that fiasco. If that wasn’t enough, I watched as the five teens held up a large branch together before tossing it off the side of the bridge, falling into the river—such amusement for them. I took a few more photos of what I could and left.

Tickfaw River
Aimless wandering.

I thought going to the nature center would be interesting. I always struck up a conversation with the visitor center clerks. Their job is to be social and inviting. Not this guy. I walked into the center, and he didn’t say two words even when I spoke first. He raced behind the counter, drenched his hands in sanitizer, and quickly pulled up his mask as if I had COVID-19 written on my forehead. I ignored the terrible welcome and went on to explore the center. I looked at the depressed wildlife living their existence in glass boxes. The depressed look of the Alligator Snapping Turtle did it for me. I left the center without so much as a “have a nice day!”

Rainbow Springs, A Playground for All

Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon, Florida, is a playground for whatever crew you decide to bring along. My mother was eager to join me on my adventures. We were glad to get there before the church crowd let out. I had never heard of Rainbow Springs before, but I imagined it was similar to the other springs I’ve visited in the past. There’s always a limited swim area for kids. Scuba divers and snorkelers are welcome to explore the depths. The water always painted a glittery teal and green but clear as glass on closer inspection. One can see straight through to the bottom of the striving ecosystem below. Rainbow Springs had all of this and much more. Different areas of the park drew in their own fan base. 

A small shack at the end of the right side trail allows for canoe and paddle board rentals.
This couple’s canoe began to sink. They had to hurry back to the launch ramp.

Paddle Boards and Canoes

There are two short paths to follow on either side of the spring. One side has paved trails to view waterfalls; the other side leads to the limited swimming area and a small shack where you can rent either paddle boards or canoes. My mother and I can’t swim, so we have a natural fear of canoeing. The very thought of it flipping over gives me the heebie-jeebies. We watched as families and couples launched off the off-ramp into the spring. One team who was a bit too heavy for the double canoe had to quickly paddle back to the off-ramp because the water filled the canoe. A small boy about seven or eight with an exotic European accent entertained us with his knowledge of canoes, paddles, and the paddleboards. I was fascinated to see a kid take such an interest. He was born to be on the water. Mother and I watched brave people take on the paddleboards. If I thought canoeing was scary, standing on a board with a single paddle over deep waters with only balance as your saving grace is downright horrific. I challenged my mother to try it out. She laughed it off. 

Limited swim area for the kiddies.

Limited Swim Area for Kids

Every spring I visit has an excellent area for swimmers to play and enjoy themselves without sinking into the depths of underground caves. (Which are expected at some of these springs). At Rainbow Springs, there is a dock where parents stand to watch over their children as they play around in the clear water. Coming off the dock is a large area where families set up their carts and backpacks. There are no lifeguards, so it’s nice that the parents have a decent spot to keep a close eye on their children swimming and playing. 

Lawn Area for Picnics and Yoga

When you come through the state park entrance, a large sloped grassy area is on the right. From a distance, it looks as if everyone on that lawn will slide down into the spring, but the slope isn’t as steep as it appears. The lawn itself is full of sun. The trees are along the perimeter of the lawn, so if you want shade, you’d have to bring your own umbrella or tent. This area is famous for sunbathers, yoga groups, and larger families enjoying picnics. 

Paved trails throughout the park.
Boardwalk near the waterfalls. Gives another extended view of the spring and river.
Check out the Sandhill Nature Trailhead. (Florida Hikes website)

Hiking Trails for Explorers 

When driving into the park, you may see a crossing area where hikers can cross from one hiking trail to another. This is common in most state parks, preserves, and conservations I’ve hiked. Rainbow Springs only have one hiking trail, Sandhills Nature Trailhead. I never got the chance to hike the trail. According to the Florida Hikes website, the trail gives you a sneak peek into the surrounding area that was mined for its resources of limestone and phosphate nuggets that put Dunnellon, Florida a “boomtown.”s

Mom checking out the waterfall.
Hardly any rain for days. The waterfall is dried up.

Waterfalls

My mother and I are suckers for waterfalls. We damn near died on a rigorous trail in North Carolina just to get to a waterfall. If I hear about a waterfall at a state park or nature trail, I intend to do whatever it takes to see it. Could you imagine me at Niagara Falls? One of the things I love about state parks is that they allow their waterfalls to be all-natural instead of hooking up water pumps. Florida hasn’t had much rain in a while.  A couple of the waterfalls at Rainbow Springs were dried up. Smaller waterfalls along the trail had water running successfully because of excess water from the spring. 

The views comes off the end of a boardwalk.

Scenic Views for Photographers 

Naturally, as a travel writer, I have built-in photographer interests in me. I am always searching for charming views to show off on my travel blog and social media pages. Rainbow Springs is full of areas to take nice photos. The hilly geography allows for high views of the spring. (As seen in the featured image of this post). The highest point of the park is right at the entrance. As soon as you come through the gate alongside the visitor center and gift shop, you can see the length of the river that the spring dumps its 600 million gallons of water into every single day. If you want the best views of the spring, I’d recommend renting a canoe. Otherwise, you’ll have to make do with the boardwalks and staged open views between the vegetation. 

Reddie Point Preserve, a Simple Relaxation

Often, living in a big city, nature has to be compromised and created. In other words, nature trails are paved, and paths are forced to their destination. Their use is designed for a specific group of people. Despite the history of Reddie Point Park, it is clear that this park is intended explicitly for fishers, runners, and retirees with pet dogs. Quite a simple relaxation.

Welcome to Reddie Point Park

My favorite part would be the lake at the entrance of the park. The water is still. It looks like glass, reflecting the trees and the sky. If you walk down the bank, the water is so clear you can see the entirety of the thriving ecosystem beneath the surface. I only wish I had a canoe to float out to the lake center to see the depths. God knows what I’d discover.

Lake with water like glass.

A small trail from the parking lot leads you to a tabby-stone-filled shoreline of the St. John’s River. Across the river is a large plant, and in further distance, one can spot massive cranes designed to load containers onto cargo ships.

The shoreline is filled with tabby stones.
A factory or plant across the St. John’s River.

While visiting, I spotted a group of people with binoculars studying the surrounding trees. I had never seen a birding group before. It was interesting to see this form of hobby come to life. I’m sure the birds put on their best performance because the “oooos” and “ahhhhs” were laughable.

The long pier that extends out over the St. John’s River is the best place to go if you want to witness the bending river. Unfortunately, if you aren’t there when the park opens, you’ll have to deal with the abundance of fishermen overtaking the pier.

The fishing pier becomes overcrowded as the day go on.

Reddie Point Park is a 102-acre nature park located behind a group of subdivisions. The most significant part about this park is that it rests where the St. John River bends. You can spot this clear from the long pier. On a positive aspect, the park is relaxing, family-friendly, and offers a gorgeous, inviting river view. Negatively, the park provides nothing for true hikers and nature buffs like me. The hiking trails are too easy and only showcase the exact nature you find in your backyard. The pier is overcrowded with fishers from the time the park opens until it closes. Would I recommend this park? To lovers, dog owners, families, and fishers, yes. Other than that, you’d be highly disappointed for adventurous excitement.