7. Duval County: Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve, and St. Johns River Ferry

Welcome to Duuvall! And with that, welcome to the LARGEST city in area in the Continental United States—Jacksonville. And with that, welcome to the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve, a 46,000-acre piece of paradise that many outside of Jacksonville—and probably some that live within the county/city limits—do not know exist.

To some, Jacksonville is a big city with big city problems such as crime, pollution, and inner-city blight. To others, it is a city that lacks sophistication and is instead a large place full of hicks.

Jacksonville tends to become the brunt of jokes, especially during the NFL football season when the Jacksonville Jaguars, always under scrutiny by national media, often struggle to compete as a relevant team. In recent years, except for an exciting 2017 season when it looked as though the Jaguars were heading to the Super Bowl before Tom Brady and the New England Patriots took the AFC Championship game over in the fourth quarter (Jaguars were robbed) to win 24-20,…

Jaguars were screwed.

… the Jaguars have performed miserably, winning only 12 of 48 regular season games played. This includes last season’s debacle, winning the first game, then going a 15-game losing streak.

And speaking of Super Bowls, Jacksonville, despite having one of the NFL’s smallest TV markets, actually was chosen to host Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005. This didn’t sit too well with quite a few sports media folk.

From the Florida Times-Union: “Insults, celebrities and bad weather: The week the Super Bowl landed in Jacksonville” by Matt Soergel (January 20, 2015):

Tony Kornheiser of The Washington Post got in some early and enthusiastic jabs: What in the wide world of sports was this smelly backwater doing hosting the Super Bowl? He pondered: “What, Tuscaloosa was booked?”

ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio was among the many who got in on the fun: “Really, really, really nice people in a really, really, really crappy place,” he pronounced. You know the drill: A boring, cold Hooterville filled with doublewides, gun racks, Hooters and Waffle Houses.

Even compliments were juxtaposed with insulting jabs.

The niceness even swayed Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe – somewhat. ‘The locals could not be more hospitable. The local spirit of volunteerism will melt the cynical soul,’ he acknowledged. “But it’s still a yahoo town.”

Following Super Bowl week, Jacksonville was linked to Waffle House forevermore.

There are nine Waffle House restaurants in Duval County, including one just off A1A in Jacksonville Beach, but who’s counting?

I am.

I guess that Butthole #1 (Sal) wouldn’t mention that Waffle House is an Atlanta-area institution—with an actual museum just northeast of the city along with over 130 Waffle House locations within its metro area—when “the New York of the South” hosts major sporting events.

Before I go further and get to the crux of Duval County and A1A, I must admit, I am a fourth-generation Jaxon who truly loves this city, even with its sordid past regarding race relations, its tendency to contribute to the social media phenomenon known as Florida Man, and its reputation as a city that has smelled bad in the past (the smell is not as bad since the latest turn of the century following the closing of two paper mills).

As Butthole #2 (Dan) mentioned, Jacksonville is, generally speaking, a friendly, welcoming city. It is also, generally speaking, a beautiful city.

And you will easily agree if entering Jacksonville via A1A from Amelia Island.

So let’s get back on the road.

From Amelia Island, before crossing the Nassau River into Duval County, you will find Amelia Island State Park to the left and the George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier State Park to the right. Crossing the bridge, you arrive at Big Talbot Island State Park; just short of seven miles further, you cross Myrtle Creek and arrive at Little Talbot Island State Park. For another six miles, A1A takes you to Fort George Island Cultural State Park.

That’s five state parks, each within the pristine Timucuan Preserve, before you arrive at the St. Johns River Ferry, A1A’s ONLY ferry service, and cross the river to Mayport.

Other state parks within the preserve are Pumpkin Hill Creek State Preserve and Yellow Bluff Fort Historic State Park.

Within Fort George Island is Kingsley Plantation, which is under the auspices of the national park service, and Huguenot Memorial Park, operated by the City of Jacksonville.

This confluence of national, state, and local parks contributes to Jacksonville having the LARGEST urban park system in the United States, especially after the Timucuan Preserve was established in 1988.

Video by Timucuan Parks Foundation

This stretch of A1A is full of natural beauty and wildlife; its historical value, however, is also to be embraced, from the Timucua people who inhabited this area before European settlers came to what is referred to as Florida’s First Coast, to the slave economy and the Civil War, to economic contributions made from the shrimping and fishing industries, and to the impact from having one of the largest deep water ports along the Atlantic Coast.

You can drive this 12-mile stretch in under 40 minutes, but you would do yourself a disservice. Give yourself a full day or two for awesome, outdoor adventure and exploration.

Big Talbot Island State Park, one of only a few undeveloped barrier islands in Florida, is what first welcomes you to Duval County/Jacksonville from A1A, and it is, as its website states, “a premiere location for nature study, bird-watching, and photography.”

Big Talbot Island offers a wide range of activities for outdoor enthusiasts. Biking trails, both paved and off-road, are available. The Timucuan Trail, a paved trail that runs through Big Talbot Island, is popular for biking, hiking, and rollerblading.

Boating and kayaking opportunities are plentiful, as is nearby pier and shoreline fishing at the George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier.

At Big Talbot, Kayak Amelia offers guided and self-guided kayaking tours, SUPY (stand up paddling yoga classes), and bike rentals to enjoy the Timucuan Trail. Kayak Amelia also offers summer eco-camps for kids age 7-14.

At the foot of Crady Bridge Fishing Pier, accessories and refreshments are provided by On the Line Bait and Tackle Shop. The pier offers some of the best fishing in Northeast Florida.

Big Talbot Island, as is all of the Timucuan Preserve, is part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. An elevated, wooden boardwalk along the Timucuan Trail provides an excellent view of Spoonbill Pond, a premiere location for birdwatching; where over 200 species have been sighted. November through April are the best months to view migratory species, though certain bird species can be seen year-round.

This video provides an excellent overview of the bird species that visit Spoonbill Pond.

With all that Big Talbot Island offers, probably the most popular activity is to hike either the Shoreline and Black Rock trails, as both lead you through maritime hammock to Boneyard Beach.

Black Rock Trail at Big Talbot Island takes you through a maritime hammock onto a beach scattered with bleached live oak tree remains and a patches of black rock that mimics that of volcanic rock, but is in fact hardened soil.

Boneyard Beach, a three-mile stretch of beach like no other, gets its name for the scattering of sun-bleached live oak remains along the shoreline. Along with the large variety of bird species, these skeletal tree remains is a haven for shutterbugs. Walking along Boneyard Beach, you cannot escape a combined sense of eeriness and serenity.

If this is what Butthole #3 (Tony)—believes is backwater, us Jaxsons will take it.

Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve is named after the Native Americans that inhabited the area for centuries prior to the arrival of European settlers in the 16th century; established Timucua communities, with a combined population of 200,000 in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia, were wiped out by the long incursion of the Europeans by the early 1800’s.

Much archaeological research has been conducted within Timucuan Preserve. Most recently on Big Talbot Island, research has been conducted by archaeology students from the University of North Florida, as they are focusing on a past Timucuan village known as Sarabay.

Traveling through much of A1A’s Buccaneer Trail will bring you close to Timucua shell mounds, often referred to as middens. It is through these ancient “garbage dumps” that archaeologists are able to discover how, when, and where Timucua tribes lived.

One of the more significant middens within Big Talbot Island is known as the Grand Shell Ring, which dates the Timucua period on the island to 900-1200 B.C. It is evident that the Timucua feasted on oysters; during hikes, it will be hard to miss oyster shell remains.

From Big Talbot Island, going south on A1A brings you to Little Talbot Island. Along with similar amenities found at Big Talbot Island, Little Talbot Island also provides camping facilities, swimming, and beachcombing. The northern beach section is a popular site for surfers.

Gopher Tortoise at Little Talbot Island

And, of course, there is wildlife.

A highlight of Little Talbot Island is the Dune Ridge Trail. From the park’s website:

“The Dune Ridge Trail loop winds four miles through five distinct natural communities, including maritime hammock, beach dune and depression marsh, and finishes its last mile and a half with a breathtaking stroll on the sandy beach. Keep your eye out for colorful painted buntings from late spring to early fall that nest in the scrubby flatwoods here.”

Unlike Big Talbot Island, Little Talbot Island has a ranger station with a small gift shop selling along with t-shirts and other mementos, animal skulls and a frightful-looking rattlesnake replica; thus a reminder, snakes, both venomous and non-venomous, are part of the wildlife.

From Little Talbot Island is Fort George Island, home to the first park operated by the City of Jacksonville, Huguenot Memorial Park. Like Little Talbot Island, Huguenot Park offers full-service amenities. Also part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, it is considered one of the premiere bird-watching spots in Florida.

Flock of seagulls at Huguenot Memorial Park

The park opens daily at 6 a.m., thus providing a perfect opportunity to watch a beautiful Florida sunrise. Huguenot Park is also a place for stars—movie stars that is. The park appears in the films G.I. Jane, The Year of Getting to Know Us, and Manchurian Candidate.

The following video offers an excellent overview of Huguenot Park.

The last Timucuan Preserve park along A1A is Fort George Island Cultural State Park, which includes the Saturiwa Trail, the Ribault Club, Kingsley Plantation, and St. George Episcopal Church Exploring this park is a trip back in time; it is Old Florida at its best, and not to be missed, even if only to drive the four and a half mile loop.

The Saturiwa Trail at Fort George Island Cultural State Park

From the park’s website:

“A site of human occupation for over 5,000 years, Fort George Island was named for a 1736 fort built to defend the southern flank of Georgia when it was a colony.”

The Saturiwa Trail, a canopy road named after a Timucua speaking tribal leader, begins and ends at the Ribault Club, where travelers can pick up a 23-stop CD audio tour (the club is only open Wednesday-Sunday). One of the first sites along the trail is the Thompson Tabby Ruins, which sits atop the McGundo Midden; the midden’s oyster shells were used in the uncompleted construction of the house.

The Ribault Club, named after Jean Ribault, the French colonizer who established the ill-fated colony of Fort Caroline in 1564 after first arriving in 1562, currently serves as the Fort George Island State Park visitor’s center and is a popular event location, especially for weddings. The LARGEST wooden structure in Northeast Florida, it was in its heyday a resort for the rich and famous; among its guest list were Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Winston Churchill. The club featured a nine-hole Scottish golf course, tennis courts, fishing, hunting, and boating.

Next to the club is the Mount Cornelia trailhead and an uphill hike, strenuous by Florida standards. For some irony—with Florida being the FLATEST state in the country, Mount Cornelia, at 65 feet above sea level, is considered to be the HIGHEST point on the Atlantic Coast south of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Mount Cornelia was one of the golf course’s tee areas.

While the Ribault Club’s history is based on the Roaring 20’s, the story of Kingsley Plantation, built in 1798, reflects a period when the tragic end of Timucua civilization is replaced with the injustices of slavery. Built by slaves, the plantation’s namesake, Zephaniah Kingsley and his wife, Anta Madgigine Jai, took over the plantation in 1817. Anna, who was purchased by Zephaniah before they married, mainly ran the plantation’s operations, overseeing several dozen slaves. The cultivation of sea cotton, and various fruits and vegetables, were staples of the plantation’s slave economy.

Many of the readings regarding Zephaniah Kingsley refer to him as a lenient slave owner, thus contributing to the plantation’s complex history. The remains of 25 slave cabins is a reminder of this awful period in American history.

The Kingsley Plantation is the OLDEST surviving plantation structure in Florida.

Another site worth a visit is St. George Episcopal Church, built in 1882. The church’s architectural style is Carpenter Gothic, prevalent after the Civil War. The style emphasized the use of local craftsmen using local materials in its construction.

Architect Robert Schuyler, the church’s designer, also designed the Fairbanks and Tabby houses in Fernandina Beach, and St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Downtown Jacksonville; all four buildings are listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

A feature of the church is its red doors, symbolizing the church’s welcoming to all worshippers:

“Jesus Christ is our refuge. The red doors at St. George remind us that our parish community too must be a refuge for all those who enter through them. In this holy place, there will be no outcasts. Our doors are open to all!”

The stained glass window above the altar, put in place in 1884, depicts St. George slaying his dragon. A stopover here might also provide a chance to see some of the island’s peacocks known to roam the church grounds.

A piece of trivia: John F. Young, the second Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Florida who established the mission in Fort George, is credited with the English translation of Silent Night.

With history and beauty within Fort George Island State Park, there is also a site that is simply weird:

Welcome to the Neff House!

The house is not advertised anywhere within both the Timucuan Preserve and Fort George Island State Park websites, nor do the visitor’s center attendants share knowledge of the house; yet, the story of the house and the Betz Sphere garnered national attention in 1974, and has been the subject of very recent media coverage, as well as curiosity seekers (count myself among the latter).

The history of the Neff House includes the tragic story of the Neff family which included the deaths of Nettleton Neff, his wife, and three children before taking his life prior to the completion of the house in 1927, along with the mystery of the Betz Sphere and some reported hauntings within the house.

From the Jacksonville Historical Society article, “Historic Properties in Jacksonville”:

“During the Betz family’s occupation, the house contained an ‘aura of mystery.’ According to Sandy Strickland’s article in the Jacksonville Journal in October 1975, one could hear ‘organ music in the seven-level, 21-room mansion, but no organ was found in the house; mysterious phone calls…voices and banging doors were heard in the house; and glass from closed cupboards would sometimes crash onto the floor.’ Another very mysterious story that dealt with the Neff House and the Betz family was attached to a strange sphere located on the property in 1974.”

Read about the Neff House in my recent blog, UFO off A1A? The Neff House and the Betz Sphere or The Mysterious Betz Sphere of Fort George Island, published by The Jaxson on October 30, 2019.

Below is a clip from the History Channel’s show, Ancient Aliens.

The entrance gate to the trail leading to the house has signage warning not to trespass. But do not be surprised to see cars parked outside the gate while driving the Saturiwa Trail.

Upon leaving Fort George Island State Park, take a left and an immediate right to visit Fort George Surf Shop.

Housed in what was once a WWI army barracks, the shop is jammed-packed with beach and surf apparel, along with surfboards and accessories.

However, the highlight of a visit to Fort George Surf Shop is to meet its owner, Jim Rodgers. An avid surfer and encourager of the sport, Rodgers has kept himself involved in keeping the north jetties of St. Johns River a surfing destination, especially within Huguenot Memorial Park.

He has operated his shop since 1974, and still today, he evokes the surfer spirit. If you enter the shop and are alone with him, do not worry about trying to engage him in conversation. He will handle that for you—and plan to hang around a bit, because he is a storyteller that will share much knowledge about the area.

During my recent visit to the shop, a father and son came into the store.

“Have you started surfing yet?” Rodgers asked the young boy.

You will also leave knowing how influential Jacksonville-area surfers have been to the sport. This includes the selling of ROZO surfboards, shaped by East Coast Surfing hall of famer, Dick “ROZO” Rosborough, who lives and shapes surfboards on the island.

The Florida Times-Union has a pair of wonderful write-ups, one on Rodgers and the other on Rosborough:

“Met the man behind the Fort George Island Surf Shop” by Bill Longenecker (August 1, 2009)

“Surfer Dick Rosborough: ‘I’ve always kept one step ahead of fame and fortune'” by Matt Soregal (February 4, 2016)

Hungry? Here are a couple of options.

Next to Fort George Surf Shop is a Steve’s Famous P-Nuts stand, which offers up some nutty snacks, including plain or Cajun-flavored boiled peanuts. The stand tends to be open only on the weekends.

For seafood dining, along with a wonderful view of the St. Johns River, the popular Sandollar Restaurant and Marina is the FIRST of many restaurants on the Duval County stretch of A1A. From here, you can take a short walk and take a pedestrian ride, or continue your drive on the St. Johns River Ferry, the ONLY ferry service along A1A.

Next stop: Mayport!

Before closing out, here is a Boneyard Beach sunrise video.

Sunrise at Big Talbot Island’s Boneyard Beach

Happy Traveling! But please, don’t be a butthole.

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