For outdoors enthusiasts, discovering new places is as much a part of the adventure as the adventure itself, and the list of places to discover in Northeast Florida is endless.
By Kevin Mims
Dubbed Florida’s “First Coast” because it was the first area where Europeans settled, the name could also describe its place as a top outdoor destination. From pristine Atlantic beaches to winding single-track bike trails to scenic paths cut through the wilderness, Northeast Florida is well worth exploring.
Bike: Hanna Park
Whether you want to get the adrenaline flowing or just have some fun with the family, this place has you covered. More than 20 miles of bicycle trails at Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, better known as simply “Hanna Park,” make this city of Jacksonville property a must-stop for riders of all skill levels.
With names such as “Tornado Alley,” “Grunt” and “Misery,” the off-road bike trails promise an exciting ride. Novice riders will feel comfortable on the “Back 40” and “Long Trail” paths.
While you’re there, be sure to stroll the 1.5 miles of unspoiled beach. Also watch for surfers and stand-up paddleboarders at The Poles, a favorite location for playing in the waves — or grab your board and join them.
Hike: Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve and Theodore Roosevelt Area
As its name suggests, the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve is a combination of Florida’s culture and history and vast tracts of the state’s wild lands — more than 46,000 acres of them, in fact.
The preserve in Jacksonville is divided into several sections, including the Theodore Roosevelt Area, 600 acres of wilderness that is home to an abundance of wildlife. The Theodore Roosevelt area includes several short, easy hiking trails: Willie Browne Trail, Spanish Pond Trail, Timucuan Trail and Hammock Trail. This is an excellent area for birding, so bring the binoculars and field guide. The best times to visit are in the fall, winter and spring.
Bike: Fort Clinch State Park
Between Fort Clinch State Park’s beach, historic fort, gardens and wooded trails, you won’t run out of things to do. If time on a bike is what you are after at this Fernandina Beach-area park, check out the paved and off-road trails. Bicyclists can ride an easy 3.3 miles of paved, oak-shaded road through the park, or go off-road on a 6-mile multi-use trail. Keep in mind the off-road trail is recommended for mountain bikers with intermediate skill level or above. Hills, turns and changes in terrain make this an exciting ride — just watch out for hikers and other trail users while you’re there.
If you’d rather have two-wheeled adventure along the beach, pick up a rented beach cruiser from the visitors’ center and ride the nearly one-mile stretch of coastline, taking in the sights that include the historic fort.
Hike, Bike, Paddle: Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve
Just call it GTM Reserve— everyone else does. The name might be difficult to say, but the property is easy to fall in love with. The 73,000-acre reserve south of Jacksonville includes many properties and is perfect for those who want to get away from it all. Its uplands, dunes, open ocean, lakes and rivers make paddling and hiking there an unforgettable experience.
To begin exploring this area, start at the Environmental Education Center in Ponte Vedra Beach.
Get a feel for the uplands’ natural beauty by bike, by foot or even horseback on 10 miles of multi-use nature trails.
By kayak, head to the boat ramp to explore Guana Lake, also known as Lake Ponte Vedra. Guided paddling tours are available for the surrounding areas through Ripple Effect Ecotours in St. Augustine.
Watch Wildlife: Fort Mose Historic State Park
Rich in history, St. Augustine’s Fort Mose is well known for its origins as the first free black settlement in the country. But nature lovers also know it for its wildlife, especially birds. Here you will find endangered and threatened species throughout the salt marsh, which is easily accessible by boardwalk.
Expect to check off a variety of species on your birding list, including the roseate spoonbill, marsh wren, wood stork, northern harrier, great blue heron and bald eagle.
Hit the beach: Jacksonville and St. Augustine
No trip to Northeast Florida would be complete without seeing its famed beaches.
Known as a luxury island escape and golfing destination, Amelia Island is home to 13 miles of pristine beach and plenty of wildlife. Paddling is a popular activitiy off the beaches of this island, which is part of the Sea Island chain of barrier islands.
Conde Nast Traveler recognized it on a list of “Top 25 Islands in the World” in 2013 and USA Today ranked it No. 5 on its list of “Top 10 US Islands.”
For a family-friendly day on beach, check out Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.
Before You Go ...
To make the most of your visit to one of these destinations, be prepared with the right gear. Don’t forget:
- Safety equipment: bicycle helmet, personal floatation device,
- Trail maps for hiking and biking
- Insect repellent, especially during warmer months
- Sun protection: hats, long sleeves and pants (if appropriate for the activity), sunglasses and sunscreen
Check the weather forecast and dress appropriately, and remember to be respectful of wildlife, taking special care not to disturb nesting birds or turtles.