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It is not every day you step in a place that has 500 years of history. So as you plan a visit to Jax, keep in mind not only do we have the largest urban park system in the nation, we also have some of the oldest historical sites in Florida! And with that I take you on a tour of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. This one takes the cake when it comes to things to do, see and learn.
The Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve is home to Fort Caroline National Memorial, Kingsley Plantation, Ribault Club Visitor Center, Fort George Island as well as several State Parks, and fishing spots like Cedar Point, Sisters Creek Marina, and Betz Tiger Point Preserve. It is a 46,000-acre area filled with salt marshes, coastal dunes and miles and miles of beautiful calm waters. You can fish, kayak, boat, swim, hike and go on the adventure of a lifetime.
In order to see all the places the Preserve has to offer, it's best to do it by boat, so I chartered a boat with a local captain that knows the area like the back of his hand and armed with some info I collected from the National Parks System in Jacksonville, we are off on this adventure!
Today our tour begins with a boat ride from the Timucuan Preserve Visitors Center, located next to Fort Caroline National Memorial, headed to Kingsley Plantation. Both locations are accessible by land, they are a 35-minute car ride away from each other but on this tour I want to get the best possible views of the entire Preserve.
The boat first waits for me at the end of a dock that leads to the Memorial, it is open to the public and free to use for up to 59 minutes, not 60 just 59. The unusual timing is there to make sure you pay attention and use your time wisely. As we embark on our boat ride I get a chance to see just how beautiful this area is, Fort Caroline National Memorial sits on the St. Johns River close to the Jacksonville Port. The sight is just incredible, big boats, big cranes, beautiful homes and vegetation and water for miles. Despite being so close to the city you are immersed in nature and the noise of the city is forgotten. The boat ride is just fun and gives you a whole new view of Jacksonville to discover. On any given day you can spot turtles and dolphins just swimming around.
After about 35 minutes of riding thru this beautiful scenery, we reach Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island, it also has a public dock you can use for free, you guessed it, for 59 minutes. Kingsley is the last plantation house standing in the State of Florida, the house is big and the views from inside are just breathtaking. It sits is right on the water. Back in 1797 when it was built, it was only accessible by boats and that’s how they used to transport the cotton produced on these lands. Nowadays, the Plantation house is open to the public for guided tours, but you have to call in advance of your visit and reserve a free tour.
Next to the house is the Visitors Centers where you can buy souvenirs and see some of the cotton the Plantation once produced. As you tour the rest of the grounds you can see the slave quarters, 25 surviving cabins. They have been recently restored. Be sure to speak to the Rangers on site, they know the history of slavery in the area and can help you understand how life was back in 1797. Daily guided tours of Kingsley Plantation are free, and you can also do a self-guided audio tour.
A short drive away, also located on Fort George Island, is the Ribault Club. Once a golf resort, it is now a meetings and events venue. The Ribault Club is open to the public, as well, and can be rented out to host a variety of events.
Before our 59 minutes are up it is time to head back, this time we take another boat ride and end up at Cedar Point, a great fishing spot with a large dock where visitors can launch their boats from. The view of the Preserve in this spot is spectacular!
As my tour nears its end, we arrive back at Fort Caroline National Memorial. To my surprise, this is not the real deal. Turns out, the real site of the Fort --built in 1564-- has never been discovered. Instead, this reproduction comes from original drawings of it found in Spain; the original Fort was completely destroyed in 1568. The new location is an approximation of where historians believe the Fort once stood.
As I finish my “Dora the Explorer” day, I head back to the Timucuan Preserve Visitors Center and check out their museum; it has a very modern installation about the more than 500 years of history of the Fort. This particular area of Jacksonville has been under the control of the Timucuan Indians, France, Spain, England and the United States during its 500 years of history. So much to see and learn!
And I am not done just yet - before I drive home, I take a short drive over to the Theodore Roosevelt Area, a large chunk of land that’s part of the Preserve with several hiking trails that lead to the water. The trails are maintained with regularity and free to use. As I drive home after a full day of adventure I can truly say you can really do it all here, just take the time to explore it!
-Take a whole day to really see the Preserve. Time restrictions may keep you from just being able to sit down and enjoy the view.
-Take the time to call ahead and reserve a tour of the Kingsley Plantation house. It is FREE and so worth it.
-Bring comfortable shoes and a bathing suit.
-Despite being accessible by land, a boat really does give you a great view of the park. Contact one of Jacksonville’s many boat charter services to book a tour.
If you want more information on any of these amazing locations, visit the National Park Service online at www.nps.gov/foca/index.htm
To see more photos of my visit to the Timucuan Preserve check out our Facebook gallery.
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