By Janet K. Keeler
Jacksonville is Florida’s largest city both in population (about 840,000) and landmass (888 square miles). Even with all those residents (add another 22,000 for Jacksonville Beach), there are plenty of ways to get your adventure on in Jax.
The city is just miles from the roaring Atlantic Ocean and all that a beachside town has to offer explorers in the way of activities. Plus the St. Johns River runs through the middle of the city, providing more than just something pretty to look at with its 300-plus miles of paddling, gator-watching and fishing.
10 ways to be adventurous in the Jacksonville area...
PADDLING THE ST. JOHNS
There are more than 40 places in Jacksonville to start a canoe or kayak adventure on the St. Johns. The Greater Jacksonville Paddling Guide is a detailed planning source that shows paddlers where to put in for a quiet experience through cypress groves in creek tributaries or a sightseeing excursion past the city’s skyline. Wildlife sighting opportunities abound from bird-watching nearly everywhere (keep eyes peeled for red-shoulder hawks at Riverview Park) to dolphins in the wider areas of the river as they jump in the wake of motor boats.
EXPLORE THE BIG SIX
There are six parks that make up Talbot Islands State Parks and each of them has experiences for adventure-seekers, among them camping, paddling, biking, hiking and even geocaching. The parks on the barrier island just miles east of downtown Jax are Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park (five miles of multiuse trails), Amelia Island State Park (horseback riding on the beach), Fort George Island Cultural State Park (restored 1920s resort), Yellow Bluff Fort Historic State Park (preserved Civil War encampment), Little Talbot Island State Park (surfing and shelling along five miles of beach), Big Talbot Island State Park (birdwatching while hiking and biking trails) and George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier State Park (one-mile, pedestrian-only fishing bridge.)
Nature has carved a serious niche in the Guana Park Wildlife Management Area midway between Jacksonville and St. Augustine and adventure-seekers can experience it on foot or mountain bike. There’s fishing (red fish, sea trout and red drum, among other species) and waterfowl hunting (ducks mostly), too. Miles and miles of biking (and hiking) trails draw visitors who want a more rugged experience. Some of the trails lead to observation platforms that show off the marsh views. The park skirts Lake Ponte Vedra in the southern half and winds through the Duval County lowlands in the north. Open Road Bicycles is one of several vendors who rent mountain bikes.
The Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve is a coastal wetlands preserve on the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Jacksonville. Part of the draw here, especially for school field trips, are the Kingsley Plantation and Fort Caroline. For hikers, though, there are several trails that lead through the unique landscape. The trails mimic those walked by the Timucuan Indians centuries ago and also by slaves trudging to the fields. It’s quiet now, allowing hikers time to reflect on what went before and to also see where hardwood hammocks, coastal dunes and salt marches intersect.
Fishing is a major pastime in the Jacksonville area for locals with boats (or those who have friends with them). Fishing charters cater to visitors who want to get out on the many inshore waterways. There are lakes, creeks, preserves and state parks that offer plenty of opportunities to drop lines. Anglers can ply the waters inshore and near shore for bass, redfish, speckled trout, flounder and sheepshead with the expert guides at Beaches Fishing Charters. Fishing Jacksonville is a worthy resource for guides, regulations, equipment rental and favorite fishing holes.
WOO-HOO FOR WAHOO
Anglers with sea-faring stomachs ready to cruise out in the Atlantic 25 miles or more, can plan on bringing in mackerel, barracuda and mahi-mahi. The general rule is the farther out the boats go, the larger the fish. There are a number of charters that can be booked for the ultimate big-game fishing adventure. Hardcore adventurers can opt for 60-mile trip out to the Gulf Stream. Way out there, wahoo, tuna, sailfish and marlin bite in the warmer months, March through November. Bottom fishing in the “bluewater” can net amberjack and triggerfish. You might call this the Ernest Hemingway experience.
Winter is the best time to surf that Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville with the waves coming in frequently and giving surfers the opportunity for more rides. The summer waves are gentler (unless there’s a big storm brewing) and better conditions for beginners. Atlantic Beach is best for beginners and Jacksonville Beach Pier is where surfers who want to be seen do their thing. Huguenot Park and Mayport Poles at Hanna Park are the hot spots for experienced and mid-level surfers. There are a number of surf competitions to check out or maybe even enter, including the big amateur contest, WaveMasters, every fall. Surf lessons are also offered and they include equipment rental.
A chain of barrier islands stretches from South Carolina to Florida, and Amelia Island is the most southern. Taking part in a Segway tour is a cool way to get to the know the island and to work on your core at the same time. It does take some balance to stand upright and right these two-wheel vehicles. Segway of Amelia Island offers three guided tours, all less than four miles that take riders through marshland, near golf courses, along the Atlantic and through natural oases. Plan your tour to coincide with the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival in Fernandina Beach in May. Fernandina is one of three towns on the island, the others being Amelia City and American Beach.
ST. AUGUSTINE EXPLORATION
Just 45 miles south of Jacksonville is St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States. Plenty of folks head to St. Augustine to stay in B&Bs and walk the old streets. Adventure seekers who want to get a view from above can climb the 219 steps to the top of the historic barber-pole striped St. Augustine Lighthouse for a 360-degree-view of the coastal town and Atlantic Ocean.
The water is one of Jacksonville’s biggest draws and sailing is a great way to experience the salt spray of the Atlantic. There are a number of sailing schools for newbies and boat rentals for those ready to push off on their own. Windward Sailing in Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island offers packages for all levels of expertise. Sailing excursions also leave out of Jacksonville. Visitors who want a more relaxing experience can see the sights on a two-hour catamaran tour. For those with bigger ambitions, there are a number of sailing classes for beginners and even multiday classes for those who want more sailing experience and maybe even certification.
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