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.

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.”

Evening on the Southbank Riverwalk

Living in River City has its perks for sure. With the demolition of the infamous Jacksonville Landing entertainment area, the Southbank Riverwalk is basically all Jacksonvillians have left for entertainment and social gatherings. Granted, Jacksonville is a large city, and there are a million and one places you can go for entertainment, but downtown Jax is the beating heart of the city. There is too much history, and we just lost one of our biggest gems.

 

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The Jacksonville Landing before demolition. (visitflorida.com)

The Southbank Riverwalk sits across the river from the former Jacksonville Landing. It begins at the Friendship Fountain and runs beneath the John T. Asop Jr. Bridge (aka Main St. Bridge) and along the river’s edge until it reaches the Duval County Public School building.

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The Friendship Fountain

 

The Friendship Fountain has been around since my mother was a girl. The aging fountain is still running on all cylinders and is still a treasure to the people of the city. There are about fifteen active spouts that run during the day. On occasions, they sprout high into the air and dance with color projectors attached to towers adding wonder to the spectacle. The fountain is popular for setting a romantic mood near the river and becoming every child’s running track around the 200-foot wide pool of water. Along the outside of the fountain are white arbors with benches beneath for resting or reading. Picnic tables are set up in the grassy area left of the fountain for family events. The Museum of Science and History is only 100 feet away if you want to do something entertaining for the entire family. Further left of the grassy area and the fountain is the River City Brewing Company, a good place to wine and dine yourself. If you have a boat, you can park right outside the restaurant in their marina.

 

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The Friendship Fountain

 

 

St. John’s River

The St. John’s River is the soul of Jacksonville. I would that is why Jacksonville is named the “River City” because the St. John’s River runs directly through the city. As you walk along the boardwalk, you will get the view of at least five of Jacksonville’s iconic bridges; the Hart Bridge, the Matthews Bridge, the John T. Alsop Bridge, the Acosta Bridge, and FEC Strauss Trunnion Bascule Bridge (or train bridge).

As you walk away from the Friendship Fountain, you have two paths to choose, you could either climb the ramp that will allow you to walk across the John T. Alsop Bridge or you take the boardwalk that will lead you beneath the bridge further along the boardwalk. If you take the bridge ramp, you can take awesome selfies at the top of the Main St. Bridge and walk into downtown where all the cafes reside. If you continue on the boardwalk, it will seem like you are preparing to walk underwater due to the boardwalk’s dip. The river is literally at your face and gives the illusion that it may spill over at any moment. Beneath the bridge is a commissioned mosaic art piece of glass and tile along the wall. It, too, is perfect for selfies. If you are lucky, you can catch a pod of dolphins playing and swimming together beneath the bridge. In my experience, night time is much easier to see them. It’s quieter at night, and there are no boats zipping back and forth, so it is safer.

 

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Beneath the Main St. Drawbridge

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“Mirrored River: Where do you see yourself?” commissioned mosaic piece

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Boardwalk leading under Main St. Bridge.

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View of the Acosta Bridge and the Train Bridge.

 

The Boardwalk

Along the boardwalk, you take notice of more than just the pretty views. You can also see the see in full scale, and it’s growing development. There seems to always be construction cranes seen somewhere to show something new being built in the city. Lately, a lot of hotels and condominiums are being constructed. Jacksonville lives and breathes for tourism, so it would make sense. When you come from beneath the bridge, you can see as far west down the St. John’s river as your vision will allow you. Across the water, you can view the TIAA Bank Stadium home to the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars. If you are a coffee fiend, Maxwell’s Coffee manufacturing plant can be seen and smelled no matter how far you are. At some point along the boardwalk, new helicopters will fly above your head as they circle around the bridges and highways for traffic readings. If you get tired, there are fancy-designed benches with triangular umbrellas overhead to keep you cooled off. Near the end of the boardwalk, you get a great look at the Strand Apartments building and its high-class lifestyle through its glass lobby walls.

 

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Benches with triangular umbrellas.

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TIAA Bank Stadium for the Jacksonville Jaguars

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River Taxi

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The Hart Bridge

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Maxwell Coffee manufacturing plant.

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The Strand Apartments

 

An evening on the Southbank Riverwalk is perfect for families, couples, soloist, photographers, and even runners. No matter how much Jacksonville grows and expands, the beauty of the River city will always lie at the heart of downtown Jacksonville.

Metropolitan Park: Death of Childhood Fun

When I was in middle school, on the weekends, my best friend, my sister, and I would bike ride three miles to Metropolitan Park. Metro park was heaven on earth for most of the kids in my neighborhood. It was a place for everyone to be wild and free from our school and home lives. You made friends so quickly because you all shared in the freedom and adventure of riding through Jacksonville’s rugged downtown. There was never any question of what the plan was when Saturday came. We’d spend hours biking along the St. John’s River, having bike races beneath the Hart Bridge Expressway, and playing on the empty stage. With very little security and adult supervision at Metro Park, we were alive, wild, and free. Fifteen years later, I visit the place that made our childhood magical. I see only an investment in the death of childhood fun..

The city of Jacksonville is adamant about tourism and catering to our NFL team’s fans. So much that they painted Jaguar pawprints on the main streets around the stadium to appear, “festive.” Not exactly the word I would use, but whatever, right? Anyway, you drive the curved street around the stadium until you get to the entrance of the park indicated by a sign. Unfortunately, the metal gate behind it is closed, like most of the entries going along the park. There is only one way into the park, and it makes you do some zig-zag dance to finally getting to the parking lot. The first parking lot you come to is, of course, for anyone using the marina. So now you have to go back out the way you came to find the right lot to park. I didn’t have time for that so I just parked. (Hehe.) I grabbed my travel writing journal and prepared to be taken back in time to my favorite place, unfortunately, that was not the case at all.

The renovations to the park made the park seem… tamed. In the eyes of teens, the land was wild and barren. It was a haven for bike riders, skateboarders, and kids who just wanted to play. Now, it was a place for people who just wanted to walk around and sit on benches to gaze at the scenery. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What in the hell is this?” The park screams boring and antisocial but visually “pretty.” The fishermen were yards away from each other attending to their equipment. It was Sunday, and the park was as lifeless as a cemetery. I remember Saturday, and Sundays were filled with bodies. Families having parties and BBQ, skateboarders doing tricks on whatever rail they could find, and bikers racing down the winding sidewalk. Now, I was looking at a multi-million dollar dead zone.

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Granted, I may have come on a quiet day. The NFL Jacksonville Jaguars team wasn’t playing Sunday so I suppose that’s the reason for the lack of attendees at the park, but it’s Metro Park! This park was the heart of the city, the creme de la creme of parks. It didn’t have fancy jungle gyms or slides, but it was the place where your imagination created fun. Now, all the cute hedges and paved walkways make it another tourist attraction and profit for the city. My childhood memories swiped away with a signature.

“Life is about change. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it’s beautiful. But most of the time it’s both. ”   – Lana Lang

I realize the city’s need to improve and upgrade their property. Tourism is a major payday to any growing city. A lot of programs and services probably depend on that income. Change is inevitable. Change exists in every aspect of human life. I am not a bike-riding teenager anymore. I am a working tax-paying adult. The old Metropolitan Park will always live in my memories and that will be enough, I hope.

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The Trails of Kingsley Plantation

The near three-mile, pot-hole filled, low-land, flood-threatened dirt road entrance to the Kingsley Plantation is only the beginning trail among other trails which recounts the story of slavery and freedom. The trails at Kingsley Plantation offers more than your typical southern slavery tale. It provides the opportunity to let your imagination drift back into a critical time in history, even if it means hallucinating a bit. 

 

The Entrance Trail

Growing up in the modern world, I couldn’t be happier to be able to drive on paved streets. Though my Toyota Camry has hit some potholes in her day, it was nothing compared to the rugged road from Hell, otherwise known as the entrance to Kingsley Plantation. Unless you have a boat, there is only one way in and out of the plantation through the entrance trail. Previous rain makes the trail worst. My car bounced and jumped through hole after hole to the point where I had to reduce my speed to crawl mode. Tall trees and vines enclave the narrow road, so it appears darker than it actually is outside. I had to roll my windows u,p thanks to the drop in temperature due to constant shade and humidity. Along the way, the trail past several marshes. Because of the rain, the water levels are high and slowly inch across the path, nearly consuming it. As I approached water-filled holes, I either had to maneuver the car to drive on half trail half grass in order to escape the hole or I had to floor the gas pedal through water-filled holes to keep from getting stuck. The trail seemed like it would go on forever until you come to a split road, one going to the Kingsley Plantation. The other road going to the Ribault Club, a beautiful mansion often used for weddings. After another quarter of a mile, you come to some ruins of a tabby house off to the left and voila! You are at the Kingsley Plantation. It is very interesting that your first welcome through the gates of the plantation is a semi-circle row of slave quarters. 

 

The Garden Trail

The last time I visited Kingsley Plantation was in the summer. Usually, the sample garden displays planted crops. Crops that would have been sold when the plantation was operational. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I am visiting in the middle of winter, and there are no crops. I walked over to the enclosed garden, camera in hand, and there are only weeds that obviously haven’t been touched in weeks. The weeds were so high they were taller than the wooden fencing surrounding them. However, in one corner was a small orange tree and, in the other corner, two stalks of corn. I couldn’t tell at first with all the weeds covering the stalks. Back then, the plantation grew three primary cash crops: sea island cotton, indigo, and sugar cane. Off to the left side of the sample garden are three crates built like an ascending staircase. These boxes were used to produce dyes from the indigo plants they grew. The process was lengthy, and according to the info board next to the boxes, 100 pounds of plant material created only four ounces of dye, the total cost selling at forty bucks. On the right side of the sample garden are four white posts outlining the exact dimensions of a single acre, giving visitors an idea of the workload of working sixty acres that the slaves actually worked. 

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The Slave Owners Home

Slave owner homes are popular for being massive and luxurious. As seen in Hollywood films, the homes were often two-story,  painted bright white, with pillars, and wrap-around porches on both levels. Kingsley Plantation is big too, but not quite like Hollywood films. There is the main house where the owner and his family stayed, and then there’s the kitchen house where food was prepared. A walkway with lattice siding connects the main house and the kitchen house. Visitors are free to walk through the kitchen house, but certain areas, like upstairs, are off-limits either for safety reasons or for remodeling. I never went into either home on my last visit, so I thought I’d do so on this one. I grabbed onto the old metal doorknob and stepped into a small space. The floor is made of tabby (a mixture of oyster shells, rocks, and cement), the windows are small, and the room has been set up as a presentation. Big posters lined the walls detailing the story of the plantation, how it operated, how the slaves were treated before and after Spanish rule. I tried to visit the main house, but only those taking the exclusive tour, led by a Ranger, were invited. These tours often take place on the weekend. The most you can do is admire the structure of the home from the outside. The house was built next to the Fort George River. The large windows and the front porch facing the river was the intentional design to take advantage of the wind that came off the river. Summers in Florida are brutal, so the Kingsley family stayed cool by opening their windows and sitting on the porch. 

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The River Trail

The quiet Fort George River runs pass the Kingsley Plantation. The river was the easiest way to transport goods to and from the plantation. Today, the river is mostly used for watersports and fishing. You can stand on the shore and see how much as changed since the peak days of the plantation. When facing the river, to your right in the distance, you can see the scenic Florida A1A Highway. To the left, boats and jet skis snake through Clapboard Creek. The last time I visited the Kingsley Plantation, a wild peacock walked about the grounds. Every now and then he displayed his lovely feathers. This time he was there, but there are two guarded burrows in the ground for tortoises and other burrowing mammals. A second large building apart from the Slave owners owns houses modern restrooms and a gift store where you can buy trinkets, sign up for a tour, and see artifacts collected on the plantation grounds. 

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The Slave Quarters Trail

When you enter the metal gates of the Kingsley Plantation, you are instantly greeted by a long semi-circle line of slave quarter ruins. From the small parking lot next to the plantation barn is a mulch trail that leads you directly to the beginning of the line of ruined homes. Each home designed from the tabby material. With the roofs missing and the walls nearly deteriorated down to the ground, you can see the interior dimensions of the rooms. It was common for slave quarters to be just as crowded at the slave ships the slaves sailed onto. The rooms were no bigger than a walk-in closet. With only two rooms per living quarter home, it isn’t hard to imagine the cramped lifestyle. Each “living room” area is furnished with a brick fireplace and chimney. Most of the walls in each quarter has three medium-sized holes used for ventilation. As you move down the trail studying each home, you get a greater sense of what lives were like for the slaves. The last time I visited the plantation, I found myself slightly hallucinating. I could hear singing and children laughing. I imagined seeing slaves walking around with huge containers filled with cotton and other vegetables. Naturally, when we think of slavery, we think of the beatings, slave auctions, and slaves running for the lives to freedom in the dead of night. Despite the constant turmoil, there were days that were less tragic than others. In their free time, slaves danced and ate together as one large family. Gazing at the slave quarters together as they are, built like a community filled with support and strength to make it to another day.

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The trails at Kingsley Plantation is an education in itself without textbooks or guided tours. The livelihood of this plantation was a part of a changing country. It would be decades before the actual change would come along, but every story leading to freedom is one worth telling. The Kingsley Plantation is one brick in a very long wall, but it helps to build the story that will forever be told in our American history.