The U.S. National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and it’s never been a better time to visit one of the natural wonders. The U.S. has more than 400 national parks, five of which are waiting for you to discover during your visit to Northeast Florida.
All along Florida’s First Coast are remarkable representations of America’s natural and historical legacy, perhaps none more historic than our very own Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine. Here’s our guide to the national parks, and a few state parks, near Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Amelia Island and why they’re worth checking out.
The Castillo de San Marcos
The oldest masonry fort in the continental U.S. was build by the Spanish militia to protect St. Augustine from pirates, the British and other attackers. After invaders burned nine earlier wooden forts, the Castillo was constructed from locally sourced coquina, a stone-like compound made of shell and limestone prevalent throughout North Florida. Construction began in 1672 and took 23 years to complete. The finished fortress proved nearly indestructible due to millions of microscopic air pockets in the coquina that make it compressible and able to absorb or deflect projectiles rather than shattering upon impact.
Though it never experienced open battle, the Castillo played a pivotal role in protecting Spanish St. Augustine from the 1700s to the late 1800s. In 1924 it was designated a national monument by President Calvin Coolidge. During self-guided tours of the fort, guests can witness daily re-enactments of historical weapons demonstrations as well as presentations on the life and experiences of the colonists who dwelt here. $10 ages 16 and up. Open daily from 8:45 am to 5 pm. Closed Dec. 25. 12 S. Castillo Drive, St. Augustine.
Built by the Spanish to protect the “backdoor” to St. Augustine from attackers entering Matanzas Bay, Fort Matanzas is located on the Intracoastal Waterway south of the Old City. The Spanish word “Matanzas” translates to “Slaughters” and commemorates the killing of nearly 250 French Huguenots by the Spanish nearly two centuries prior to the fort’s construction.
Today Fort Matanzas National Park features close to 300 acres of walking trails, picnic areas, small tidal beaches and the fort located on Rattlesnake Island, which visitors get to by ferry. A free boarding pass acquired at the visitor center is required to ride the ferry. 8635 A1A S., St. Augustine.
Timucuan National Park
Named after the Timucuan Indians who inhabited Florida 1,000 years before European settlers landed on the shores of North Florida, this 46,000-acre preserve provides visitors the opportunity to explore untouched wilderness, historic buildings and informational exhibits on the region’s natural history.
Among the hardwood and live-oak forests, thickets of palmettos, wetlands and scrub vegetation, ancient piles of discarded oyster shells left by native peoples some 6,000 years ago provide what little evidence remains of their extinct culture. A wildlife observation platform overlooking the salt marsh offers breathtaking views of the vast, untouched wilderness.
Within this ecological and historical preserve lies Fort Caroline National Memorial, which pays homage to the short-lived French presence on the site during the 16th century. Here you’ll find the Timucuan Preserve visitor center, bookstore and information desk. The neaby Ribault Monument, positioned at the apex of St. Johns Bluff, provides a commanding view of the St. Johns River. The park is also home to the Kingsley Plantation, a preserved 19th century Florida plantation that includes a slave quarters, barn, waterfront, plantation house, kitchen house and interpretive garden. The planter's house at Kingsley Plantation is cited as the oldest plantation house still standing in Florida.
Beach access, segway rentals and kayak trails provide additional recreational opportunities for visitors. 12713 Fort Caroline Road, Jacksonville.
Cumberland Island National Seashore
Part of Georgia's Golden Isles, just north of Amelia Island, Fla., and south of Jekyll Island, Ga., Cumberland Island encompasses 36,000 acres of Atlantic beaches, coastal wetlands, salt marshes and inland forests. The National Seashore includes designated wilderness areas, undeveloped beaches, historic sites, cultural ruins, critical habitat and nesting areas and thriving plant and animal communities, including 150 feral horses. The Island’s human history spans nearly 4,000 years, from early native peoples to the Colonial expansion, Plantation Era and Gilded Age.
Georgia's largest and southernmost undeveloped barrier island, its pristine maritime forests, undeveloped beaches and wide marshes can only be accessed by ferry. The journey begins in St. Marys, GA, where visitors board the ferry and visit the museum, visitor center and bookstore, or at Amelia Island River Cruise, which takes visitors on a 90-minute ride around the island. The ferry lands at Cumberland’s Sea Camp Dock where bikes are available for rental.
Plus, more than 50 miles of hiking trails, tons of navigable waterways for boating and paddling and dozens of campsites make the island and adventurer’s dream. 113 St. Marys St., St Marys, Georgia.
GTM Research Reserve
Located on scenic A1A, the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM Research Reserve) is a dedicated conservation area committed to preserving natural biodiversity and cultural resources. A hiker’s delight and popular fishing spot with boat ramp access, the hiking trails and coastal estuaries offer incredible views of lush vegetation and possible sightings of Atlantic bottlenose dolphin and the West Indian manatee.
The 21,000-square-foot environmental education center offers visitors the opportunity to learn through interpretive exhibits, aquariums, classrooms and working laboratories. The auditorium and outdoor amphitheater overlooking the Guana River Aquatic Preserve feature programming on the importance of estuarine ecosystems and a coastal training program offers certification courses for professionals on issues of concern in our local community including watershed, invasive plants and much more. 505 Guana River Road, Ponte Vedra Beach.
Fort Mose State Park
The first free African-American settlement in the United States, this state park listed on the National Register of Historic Places is home to a 40-acre waterfront historic site complete with picnic areas, observation and birding boardwalks, kayak launch, visitor center and museum. Founded in 1738 by the Spanish governor of Florida as a settlement for those fleeing slavery from the English colonies in the Carolinas, Fort Mose became a sanctuary for Africans from the clashing European powers in the New World.
The park hosts several festivals and historic re-enactments each year for those interested in learning about this first stop of the Underground Railroad. 5 Fort Mose Trail, St Augustine.
Anastasia State Park
Spanning 1,600 acres of rich ecosystems and abundant wildlife, the park is a favorite among visitors due to its quiet, white-quartz-sand beaches perfect for sunbathing, swimming, fishing and bird watching. The park is also the location of the coquina quarry, an archaeological site where coquina rock was mined to help construct the nearby Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.
The park’s campsites within the beautiful maritime hammock and just a short walk or bike ride from the beach earned it a spot on Travel + Leisure Magazine’s list of America’s prettiest beach campsites. Visitors enjoy plenty of parking, restrooms, a snack bar and picnic areas in addition to rentals of bicycles, paddleboards, kayaks, sail boats and canoes.
There is also a grill area with complimentary Wi-Fi and a small gift shop for visitors to take home an Anastasia memory. Open 8 am to sunset, daily. 300 Anastasia Park Road, St. Augustine.
Washington Oaks State Park
Although the formal gardens are the centerpiece of this park, Washington Oaks is also famous for the unique shoreline of coquina rock formations that line its Atlantic beach. Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Matanzas River, the property once owned by a distant relative of President George Washington served as the winter residence of Louise and Owen Young who purchased the land in 1936. The park is named for a more than 200-year-old live oak towering over the center of the gardens.
The riverside portion of the park is home to the gardens along a scenic stretch of seawall along the Matanzas River that’s a popular fishing spot for locals and tourists alike. On the beachside is lined with large, pink coquina sandstone rocks. Short trails provide opportunities for hiking and biking, and visitors can learn about the park's natural and cultural resources in the visitor center. 6400 N. Oceanshore Blvd., Palm Coast.
Fort Clinch State Park
Situated on Florida’s northernmost barrier island, Amelia Island, Fort Clinch State Park features a three-mile shoreline and a half–mile-long fishing pier along with historic attractions and living history interpretive programs. In addition to swimming, fishing, sunbathing, shelling and shark-tooth hunting near the pier and along the St. Marys Inlet, visitors can enjoy miles of hiking and bicycling on the historic oak-canopy drive or the six-mile, off-road trail.
On the first weekend of every month, the park holds a garrison of period soldiers who reenact life during the Civil War. Live demonstrations of historical carpentry, masonry, cooking, blacksmithing, small arms and cannon firing provide interpretations of what the fort was like in 1864. The park also offers guided nature walks at the Willow Pond Nature Trail every Saturday at 10:30 am.
The park is open 365 days a year from 8 am-sundown; fort 9 am-5 pm. An additional $2 per person fort entry fee is required. 2601 Atlantic Ave., Fernandina Beach.