Off the Beaten Path from St. Augustine: Putnam County, Fla.
It’s where you’ll find Florida’s oldest diner and one of its deepest ravines. A stretch of the St. Johns River as majestic as the Mississippi and a fishing lake that led a waterfront town to dub itself the “Bass Capital of the World.” When you’re ready to see Florida without pretense, Putnam County is a destination to add to a road trip itinerary. Most sights are centered around the town of Palatka, while great back roads lead to even more discoveries.
1. Garden Party
Ravine Gardens State Park is a natural wonder that’s even more wonderful in the early months of the year. That’s when its gardens spring to life to paint 59 acres with a burst of flowers, accented in March with a palette of red, pink, and white azaleas.
Although most visitors tour by car, circling the twin ravines along the 1.8-mile loop road, the overall atmosphere is one of quiet and calm. Some park their cars and walk to scenic overlooks to join other visitors who’ve arrived on foot or on bicycle, all peering into ravines etched as deep as 120 feet into the earth. Ready for a close-up? A walkway descends into to the floor of the ravine to follow the course of the Whitewater Branch, the underground river that carved the gorge.
2. On the Waterfront
Thanks to the transportation and the commerce they provide, history rivers have helped small towns grow into large cities throughout history. It happened in London, Rome, Paris… and Palatka.
In addition to transportation and commerce, the St. Johns River provided the Putnam County seat with one of the most beautiful backdrops in Florida, one enhanced by James C. Godwin Riverfront Park. Slipped between the waterfront on the east and the historic commercial district on the west, this is a lovely setting in which to take a walk along the river, relax on a park bench, lay out a picnic lunch, listen to an outdoor concert, cast a line for the catch of the day, or walk to Memorial Bridge where statues of WW I sailors and soldiers have remained on post since the 1920s.
3. Things Will Be Great (When You’re Downtown)
The above-mentioned commercial district is worth a visit to patronize enterprising retailers who are investing in the town’s future, and next for the collection of more than two dozen murals depicting memorable moments and notable people in the city’s history, from steamboats on the St. Johns to explorer William Bartram’s arrival in 1774. For foodies, the draw is Angel’s Dining Car that has been in its present location since 1932, making it Florida’s oldest diner. It may not win any Golden Spoon Awards, but the vintage eatery does deliver a classic diner experience with all-day breakfasts, burgers, fries, crab cakes, onion rings, frog legs, chili, hot dogs, shakes and more.
4. A Lake You’ll Like
At nearly 13 miles long and an impressive two miles across at its widest point, gallon for gallon Crescent Lake is one of the prettiest bodies of water in Florida. Maybe that’s because the state’s fifth-largest lake has remained largely unspoiled by development. With a population of around 1,600, the largest waterfront community here is Crescent City which, in its own way, is as attractive as the lake itself.
The majority of commercial businesses here are found along U.S. 17, with a handful of businesses found on Central Avenue, which leads to the lake. It’s where you’ll find the Sprague House Bed & Breakfast and, at water’s edge, the 3 Bananas restaurant; a popular destination for motorists and motorcyclists who park in front and boaters who tie up out back on the restaurant’s riverfront dock. In this lake, as well as in rivers throughout Putnam County, are largemouth bass, striped bass, speckled perch, bream, catfish, and mullet. And what would the ‘Bass Capital of Florida’ be if the local Rotary Club didn’t host an annual Catfish Festival each April?
Connecting Crescent Lake with the St. Johns River, Dunns Creek is the waterway which made this area habitable for Native Americans, steamboat operators, turpentiners, and cattle ranchers. A favorite destination for horseback riding, hiking and, especially, canoeing and kayaking, the 6,200 acre-state park encompasses nearly 20 natural communities - sand hills, deep ravines, pine flatwoods, and sand pine scrub among them. Keep an eagle eye open and you may spot a few eagle’s nests.
For more information, visit putnam-fl.com
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