A Hike, a Swim, and a Paddle: Ravine Gardens and Salt Springs
Written by Ashleigh Boice, Education Director
Even though they’re in different counties, Ravine Gardens State Park and Salt Springs Recreation Area are only about 30 minutes away from each other. Because of that, they are easily combined for a fantastic day of Florida outdoor family fun. For both big and little hikers, Ravine Gardens provides miles of trails throughout two naturally occurring ravines in Palatka. And once you’ve worked up a sweat traversing the Florida “jungle”, Salt Springs is a spectacular place to jump in and cool off – maybe even take a family paddle down Salt Springs Run. Opportunities for family fun are endless!
Ravine Gardens State Park, located at 1600 Twigg St. in Palatka, began in 1933 as a WPA (Works Progress Administration) site, where thousands of azaleas were planted throughout two ravines. Around this, formal gardens were also constructed, and a series of trails were developed. At the bottom of the ravines lies a spring fed creek – called Whitewater Branch – that flows to St. Johns to this day. Around five miles of trails still exist in the park, with varying degrees of difficulty – so there are definitely options for younger families or those with energetic teens. Each trail has its own unique “personality” and no two are alike. Although the most strenuous of the trails, the Azalea Trail (2.5 miles) is my family’s personal favorite as it takes you throughout most of the park – but it does offer some steep ups and downs so make sure you’re prepared.
If hiking isn’t your style, there’s a lovely paved road around the park, which takes you on a 1.8 mile journey through the beautiful foliage. Ravine Gardens is famous for its azalea blooms – which start popping up in January and peak in a spectacular array of colors around February – March. In a recent study, over 18 different species of azalea were documented. However, the park is a beautiful lush oasis any time of the year. If you miss the azaleas, don’t worry – there’s plenty of other flora to enjoy. If you have very little ones, there’s even a playground on site to get out some energy.
Once you’ve worked up a sweat at Ravine Gardens in the first half of the day, head 30 minutes south on SR 19 and you’ll find yourself at Salt Springs Recreation Area. Gushing a whopping 52 million gallons of mildly salty water (a result of ancient oceanwater trapped in our aquifer), Salt Springs has been drawing people to its banks for thousands of years. It has a large, open, easily accessible spring pool that lends itself to any level of wader or swimmer. Make sure you have a mask and snorkel handy, as the crystal clear water supports an abundance of life; you can see huge schools of mullet, striped bass, freshwater mussels, otters, turtles, wading birds… and you may even spot a blue crab or southern stingray if you’re lucky! The water stays at a typical spring temperature all year round (about 72 on average), so on a hot summer day, Salt Springs is a paradise. Like most springs, it’s very popular in the summer – Id’ recommend going on a weekday or a least a non-holiday weekend.
Still feeling up to some adventure? Take a short trip over to Salt Springs Marina (visible from the headwaters) and rent a kayak, canoe, or SUP for the rest of the day and traverse down the gently flowing Salt Springs Run. This has always been one of my family’s favorite places to kayak since I was little – the run is easily navigable and even the little ones can join in the paddle. In the summer you spot so many birds and wildlife – from swallow-tailed kites to some pretty impressive alligators. If you go in the winter months (which is our family tradition), you’re guaranteed to spot the large number of manatees who come up to the springs to take advantage of the warm water during chilly days. Salt Springs Run isn’t very long – and soon you’re looking at the vast expanse of the mighty Lake George, a part of the St. Johns River and the second largest lake in Florida behind Lake Okeechobee. While it’s a great view, I would advise against a trip out into the lake from Salt Springs Run. Lake George is notoriously grumpy, and can quickly turn into a dangerous place with sudden storms and winds; not to mention it is home to some of the biggest alligators found in north/central Florida. Best visit Lake George with the family on a powerboat on another day (which can be a fun day trip in and of itself)!
As you make your way back to the marina, make sure to take in the unique landscape of Salt Springs Run. It’s just about the perfect mix of Florida outdoors, in my opinion. And of course, I highly recommend a cooling dip in the spring for everyone in the family before you head home. You can make some really fantastic family memories at Ravine Gardens and Salt Springs – I know I have many beloved memories of growing up around those places myself. And the best part is – this adventure isn’t just limited to the summer. You can do a Ravine Gardens/Salt Springs day trip with the family anytime during the year and still have an amazing time; there’s always something new to see out there.
Ravine Gardens State Park
1600 Twigg St.
Palatka, FL 32177
Admission: $5 per vehicle
Open 365 days a year, 8am to sundown
Tip: Any time of the year – bring water!
Salt Springs Recreation Area
Fort McCoy, FL 32134
Admission: $6.50 per person
Open 365 days a year, hours vary by season
Tip: Call before you go during peak season (summer and holidays) to make sure the area is not full.
Salt Springs Marina
25711 NE 134 Place
Salt Springs, FL 32134
$10 parking fee
Boat rental by the ½ day and full day, fees can be found at http://www.saltspringsmarina.com/rates.html
Tip: You can launch your own boat from here as well. If you are renting a boat, call and reserve in advance.