Jacksonville, Florida, is a historic port city that is reinventing itself with a renewed focus on active outdoor fun. Spread over 841 square miles in Northeast Florida and poised alongside the St. Johns River and the Atlantic Ocean, Jacksonville offers plenty of options for outdoor family adventure.
Jacksonville features 22 miles of white sand beaches, all within 25 minutes of downtown. Popular beaches include Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach and Jacksonville Beach, which holds a Blue Wave Beach certification for cleanliness and ecological stewardship from the Clean Beaches Coalition, a non-profit regulatory body.
While visiting Jacksonville’s beaches, make plans to take paddle board or surf lessons with Jacksonville Surf and Paddle, located in Atlantic Beach. And during summer months (May-Sept.), jump on the Beaches Trolley to explore beach neighborhoods and attractions between Atlantic Beach and South Jacksonville.
Just 18 miles east of Jacksonville is Naval Station Mayport and the historic seaport of Mayport. Historians estimate the village dates back to 1562 when the French first settled the area and 1828 when the town began to grow. From Mayport, take the St. John’s River Ferry to Fort George Island to see the St. John’s River lighthouse from the water. Be sure to enjoy some freshly caught shrimp and seafood while visiting this seaport town.
Talbot Islands State Parks is a complex of parks located on barrier islands to the east of Jacksonville. (Photo: Visit Jacksonville)
Explore Talbot Islands State Park
Talbot Islands State Parks is a complex of parks located on barrier islands to the east of Jacksonville. These undeveloped islands offer quiet beaches, hiking trails and paddling opportunities in the marshes surrounding the islands.
Big Talbot Island is the largest of the islands and a great place to explore undisturbed beaches and access the marshes for boating and fishing. A popular location on the island is Boneyard Beach and the Big Talbot Bluffs at Nassau Sound. The bluffs have been eroding over time, causing trees to fall to the beach below. Salt-washed tree limbs of live oak and cedar trees have become a driftwood forest of sorts. The best time to see Boneyard Beach is around low tide, when there is more room to explore the shoreline.
Little Talbot Island is another coastal sanctuary, with beaches on one side and a salt marsh and maritime forests along the other. Camping is available at Little Talbot Island Campground, which features two bath facilities and 40 campsites with water, electricity, an in-ground fire ring, and a picnic table. Bike rentals and canoes are available at the Ranger Station.
Paddling & Fireflies
Explore the waterways surrounding Talbot Islands State Parks with Kayak Amelia, the official outfitter for the parks. Owned by Jody and Ray Hetchka for 20 years, the outfitter is located on Simpson Creek between Big Talbot Island and Little Talbot Island. They offer guided kayak tours and rentals, SUP tours and instruction (and yoga), Segway eco-tours (for kids ages 13 years and older) and bike rentals throughout Talbot Islands State Parks and Amelia Island. Best of all, each tour includes a homemade chocolate chip cookie break!
Each Spring, Kayak Amelia offers access to one of the park’s most spectacular natural events: fireflies hatching and twinkling on the forest floor. During the hatching period (March and April), Kayak Amelia offers a paddling trip and hike to see the fireflies, or a short hike to the site.
From May through October, paddlers have the opportunity to see sea turtles, dolphins and manatees, as well as migratory birds. “Our water is a salt marsh, which is not crystal clear, so I don’t make any guarantees about what people will see, but our guides know what to look for,” Jody says.
The trailhead for the Jacksonville-Baldwin Rail-Trail is located in Jacksonville. This 14.5-mile trail features a dense tree canopy on much of the paved path, as well as several restroom facilities and benches. It’s 14.5 miles from Imeson Road in Jacksonville to the town of Baldwin.
Midway along your trek, you’ll visit Camp Milton Historic Preserve, once home to the largest encampment of Confederate troops during the Civil War.
The site includes the remains of a mile-long defensive works, a re-creation of a late 19th-century homestead, a replica bridge, an arboretum and extensive boardwalks.
The Timucuan Trail is an off-road walking and bike pathway that is part of the East Coast Greenway, which will eventually connect Florida to Maine. Big Talbot Island has a three-mile stretch of the Timucuan Trail that connects to a 6.2-mile section on Amelia Island. Bring your own bikes or rent them on Amelia Island.
Kayak Amelia also offers guided bicycle eco-tours that explore the upland hammocks of Talbot Islands State Park. Bikers pedal over gently rolling trails on paths shaded by enormous old oak trees.
Plantation History & Beyond
History buffs will enjoy the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, a 46,000-acre preserve located just to the east of Jacksonville that was named for the Timucua Indians who once inhabited the area. Archaeological excavations in the area include some of the second-oldest pottery found in the United States, dating to 2500 BC.
The oldest-standing plantation remaining in the United States, Kingsley Plantation, is located within the Timucuan Preserve on the northern tip of Fort George Island. Visitors can tour the 18th century plantation home and view the remains of 25 tabby cabins, which represent the plantation’s former slave community, the men, women and children who lived and worked there. Each October, Kingsley Plantation hosts the Kingsley Heritage Celebration, which coincides with the Kingsley family reunion.
The Fort Caroline National Memorial is also located within the Timucuan Preserve along the St. John’s River. Fort Caroline was one of the first French colonies in the United States, established in 1564. The Visitor Center hosts exhibits about the natural and cultural history of Northeast Florida.
Food & Fun in Jacksonville
Families will have no trouble eating their way through Jacksonville’s thriving food scene. The city boasts 15 chefs on America’s Best Chefs List, more than 20 locally-owned farm-to-table restaurants, and more than 90 licensed food trucks. The dining scene includes elegant bistros such as HobNob at Unity Plaza to locally prized fish camps like Clark’s Fish Camp.
Jacksonville’s sweetest destination is Sweet Pete’s Candy Factory, a whimsically decorated historic home featuring a candy factory and floor after floor of colorful handcrafted candies.
Add a little culture to your trip with a visit to the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, located in the historic Riverside section of Jacksonville. The museum overlooks 2.5 acres of gardens situated along the St. Johns River and is home to nearly 5,000 works of art spanning from 2100 B.C. through the 21st Century, as well as gardens featuring fountains, arbors, sculptures – and one of the oldest trees in Jacksonville, the majestic Cummer Oak.
To plan your trip to Jacksonville, check out the Visit Jacksonville website.
Special thanks to Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront for a wonderful stay in 2016.