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.

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.

The Disappointment of Polished Historical Ruins

In my imagination, when I think of historical ruins, I think of a fascinating testimony in the time of an event that took place. It’s fun to put the ruins back together in your mind and imagine the people who inhabited the ruins. This was the case when I visited Fort Clinch. I imagined the Confederate army scrambling around, preparing for the Union soldiers to go to war against each other. At the Dungeness ruins on Cumberland Island, I’d imagine the Carnegie family living their best lives on an exotic island. At the textile mill ruins at Sweetwater State Park in Atlanta, Georgia, I can see the workers toiling night and day to meet the growing demands of the industry. I realized something about these ruins. The atmosphere and surroundings of these helped sell the story of the past. Ruins are designed to tell their own stories. It is a disappointment when they are tampered with with modern technology to appear ruined. The polished upgrade ruins the story. I have seen two recent examples of this: The Castillo de San Marco fort in St. Augustine, Florida, and the Horton House in Jekyll Island, Georgia.

Dungeness Ruins

The Castillo de San Marco fort looks fantastic on the outside. It has that old-world look with the greyish rough high walls, the cannons peering over the top edge of the fort, the American flag waving proudly in the breeze. You would think at any moment, one would hear the sound of cannon fire, and the battle would be on, but that isn’t the case on the inside. The first time I went inside the fort, I was disappointed that it looked like some theme park at Disney. The worst of it was the installation of modern bathrooms and food venues in the fort’s rooms. They used the fort as a prop to use capitalism to make money off of its historical importance. I’ve been to forts in the southern part of this country. I’ve never seen anything like this. They stole the natural beauty of a historical landmark and turned it into a carnival.

Castillo de San Marco fort. Library of Congress Archives.

I recently went to Jekyll Island, Georgia, for my birthday weekend. (YAY!) Like always, I pre-plan my trips down to the restaurants I’m going to dine within. Using Trip Advisor, I planned to visit the Horton House and its pond on the island after spending some much-needed time on the beach. I couldn’t wait to see it because it was a historical ruin with a story to tell. Now, granted, Jekyll Island is infamous for tourism and caters to the rich and powerful. I will admit, never being rich a day in my life made me feel uncomfortable to be in that atmosphere. The perfect example, everyone on the beach had the $90 4-wheel carts. I, of course, had the $30 “homeless cart” that you see most people riding the bus used to carry groceries. I didn’t care too much. In my mind, it was a different method with the same results. It still bothered me, as if I was reminded of the reality of my upbringing and livelihood.

My birthday getaway in Jekyll Island, GA
My wop-sided beach tent and my $30 cart to hold my stuff.

Anyway, after enjoying private time on the beach, I decided to ride over to the Horton House ruins for pictures and notes. Like the Castillo de San Marco fort, I was disappointed at the ruins of the Horton House. It looked as if they built it yesterday. It appeared as if someone came up with the idea to place some ruins on the island to give the tourist a little taste of history. Other tourists there took pictures in front of it as if it were some background filter for Snapchat. At first, I just stared at the tiny, so-called ruins and wondered if its story was even real. I wasn’t able to go to Horton’s Pond because it was blocked off. I eventually snapped my few images of the Horton house and left in my misery. The Horton House was my primary focus. It was the reason I chose Jekyll Island for my birthday getaway, just to be disappointed that they polished the ruin so that it could fit into the prestigious reputation of the island.

Horton House
Inside the Horton House

Ruins, to me, are a metaphor for living life, that one day we are in our prime, and eventually, we age and die, but our story lives on for others to know long after we are gone. I can understand preserving the ruins because, finally, nature will wipe them clean from our grasps, but it is wrong to polish them and mold them for the satisfaction of reputation and capitalism. These ruins are supposed to tell their own story, and we should allow them to do just that.

The Deserted Old Spanish Trail

Time and time again, I’ve made the long straight journey from Jacksonville to McClenny. The only accurate scenic view is a river. Besides that, its trees, car shops, corporate stores, and trailer homes. Beaver Street, also known as US-90, was once called the Old Spanish Trail. It runs well over 1600 miles, hitting most of the major cities in the Southern States like Interstate 10. Along US-90 between Jacksonville and McClenney, I kept driving past a building built in Spanish style called “The Old Spanish Trail.”

There was more to the area than you could see from the street. Most of that white parking lot area is now covered over with trees and overgrowth.

Every time I drove past it, it drew me in, as it begged me to explore. This past Saturday, I finally felt it was time. I had nothing else to do. Why not? I packed my camera, notebook, and Gatorade and was off.

The parking lot stretches another quarter mile back, but you can’t see it.

When I arrived, I noticed that the fence was kicked down. At first glance of the building made me realize that vandals wanted to have their way with the place. They did not disappoint. It was vandalized so severely, the outside staircase that led to doors on the top floor was completely gone. Nature did what it did best when there was no one there to tend to the weeds, bushes, and other overgrowths. I drove through the broken fence across broken slabs of pavement littered with grass and weeds.

At the back of the building, it looked like a haunted house. There was trash all over the ground. The railings rusted to the core. Windows left open. Surprisingly, the windows weren’t boarded up like most of the others. The doors had been kicked down. It was pitch dark inside, but with the help of whatever sunlight that breached the windows, it was evident that someone had a field day with the internal structure. The ceiling was falling apart. It appears the stairs were collapsing too. No way in hell I was brave enough inside. My hearing had never been sharper listening for even the tiniest sound of movement. I even had my knife on me just in case something came running out of the doors.

Ransacked and vandalized.
There use to be stairs here.

Inspecting the rest of the building, it was clear that it was unique in its time. It wasn’t designed like any of the buildings surrounding it. There were archways that you only ever see on old castles and fancy homes. The cascading stairwell on the west side of the building would have made perfect scenery for a wedding. According to some research through google, the Old Spanish Trail served as many things in its prime. Including a grocery store, a haunted house, and a speakeasy. The final owners of the building were forced to abandon it due to costs for it to be made up to modern-day building codes. Now, The Old Spanish Trail’s remaining purpose is to sneak into the imagination of those who drive or walk past it. If anyone is lucky, they’ll be able to tell the tale of the little boy who supposedly haunts the building only seen by three of the previous owners.

Graffiti at its best.

For more on that story and the history of the Old Spanish Trail, check out the Time’s Union article, “Call Box: Spooky tales, colorful past in Jacksonville building.”