Bryan Lindenberger

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Saturday, November 2, 2019

Top 6 Nature Trails and Hikes Near Palatka: Putnam County, Florida

Find this list at Google Maps.

John's Landing Trailhead

Welaka State Forest Trail in Putnam County Florida
There are several trails, including a half mile Education Trail loop and a connecting trail that leads to Mud Spring, but the main attraction is a series of trails that form a seven mile loop. In succession, these are Longleaf Lane, Deer Run, Black Bear Slough, Turkey Path, and Indian Pond Road with Hammock Hideaway cutting through for those who want to cut the hike down to 4 or 5 miles. If all this sounds confusing, don’t worry. The trails are wide and clearly marked, with pamphlets available at the trail head, so you will not lose your way.

The diversity of forest is amazing, with open stretches of long leaf pine as well as dense, old growth areas of palms and leafy evergreens. There are also two side extensions of the trail to take, leading to the primitive camping areas of Orange Point and John’s Landing, each overlooking Little Lake George of the St. John’s River.

John's Trail at Welaka Trail and Location Maps with other Information

Longleaf Pine Trail at Etoniah Creek State Forest

Hiking Longleaf Pine Trail at Etoniah Creek State Forest near Palatka, Florida
You’ll never run out of hiking on this shaded, 4.4 mile there-and-back trail. That’s because Longleaf Pine Trail at Etoniah Creek State Forest is part of the Florida Trail system, currently at about 800 miles.

After turning onto Tinsley Road, you go 50 or 100 yards and are greeted by off-road parking and a kiosk with brochures including maps. You’ll find pine and oak growth with few sunny areas and plenty of deer. You won’t get lost here as the narrow trail is well-maintained with Florida Trail blazed in orange and Longleaf Pine blazed in blue.

A flat, well-maintained and serene trail with opportunities for birding and wildlife viewing.

Rice Creek Conservation Area

Tree frog on palm
After parking in the wide parking area, a dirt road continues beyond a simple gate and soon splits. You can continue straight ahead on the no vehicle access road for horseback riding and biking, or veer northwest for a great trail hike. The hiking trail takes you across an open prairie and into the dense woods about half a mile away.

Here you will follow a segment of the Florida Trail that takes you through canopy forest, marshlands and a creek that flows year around, with well-maintained bridges throughout, and even an observation platform.

Dunn's Creek Conservation Area

Lake at Dunn's Creek Conservation Area, Putnam County, Florida
The park, just south of Satsuma, FL, is very well maintained with a short loop of a couple of miles, picnic benches both covered and uncovered, and even grills for family gatherings You’ll encounter all manner of wildlife, including birding opportunities, but I have a fondness for bugs and turtles.

Where the park really shines is with the very large Blue Pond (differentiated from the Green Pond on the trail which can be marshy but mostly dry). The Blue Pond is simply gorgeous in its expanse after a mile or so of hiking through the thick woods. There are two places on the loop to reach it for viewing, one with a bench to sit, watch, and relax with your thoughts.

Ravine Gardens State Park

Walking bridge over creek in autumn, Florida
What makes this stop unique for the region is its namesake – it is in fact a gorge with a nice stream at the bottom. This means you will have many more inclines in the well-kept sandy trails than in most places and get a good workout. In spring and summer you will find an abundance of butterflies and dragonflies, and the flowers change throughout the year. I have not measured the trails, but it is easy to get a good five miles in and the suspension bridges, pond, and water wheel are all very cool.

This is a relatively well-visited area, so one thing you will not find is time alone. But even on weekends I have been able to hike and take pictures in relative calm despite some loud people who tend to scare the birds and other wildlife away.

Caravelle Ranch Wildlife Management Area

Trail at Caravelle Ranch Wildlife Management Area
After pulling over into ample parking, you can grab a map that leads you through 8-10 miles of hiking loops through the woods with the longest, single loop being 4.5 miles.

That route covers white, yellow, and red trails. It’s really one of my favorite hiking trails in the region as you can experience dense, subtropical forest full of pine, southern magnolia, American sweetgum, and bald cyprus one moment, and large, open fields of of downy lobelia and sheep’s sorrel the next.

Take note of hunting season, as hunting is permitted here.

Trails are designated by the St. Johns River Water Management District as multiple use, so whether on bike or by foot, you will enjoy your time here and could likely spot deer, birds, and even bears. As always, take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints.