Beach Bums on the First Coast

Most people don’t think of a trip to the beach as “getting back to nature,” but it can be if you do it right.  The first week of June, we changed up our vacation plans, instead of hiking in the Red River Gorge of Kentucky as originally planned, we made camping reservations at Little Talbot Island State Park in northeast Florida.  I’ll admit that for me, Mark, I’m much more in my element in the mountains, forests, or canyons.  But my wife and my son, they are of the water element, and we don’t really get to the ocean nearly as much as we get into the forest.

Originally I was hoping to camp in our favorite part of Florida, “the forgotten coast” along the panhandle.  Sugar white beaches with few tourists and undeveloped barrier islands, that’s our favorite.  But nothing was available on short notice, so as I explored other options, I discovered the Talbot Islands State Parks just north of Jacksonville.  Not an area I would typically think of for getting away from crowds and finding undeveloped beaches, yet that’s what they are!  Between Georgia to the north and Jacksonville to the south, there is a series of state parks, historical parks, and nature/wildlife preserves.  Little Talbot Island SP, Big Talbot Island SP, Fort George SP, Amelia Island SP, Fort Clinch SP, just to name a few.  The “islands” weren’t like the barrier islands we prefer in the gulf, rather they are bordered by the Atlantic on one side, and creeks/salt marshes on the other.  Regardless, it was a new place for us to explore, and that we did.

Little Talbot Island State Park
Little Talbot Island State Park

We arrived at Little Talbot Island mid-morning, too early to set up camp, so straight to the beach we went.  The beach here is notorious for having rough waters due to St. Johns River flowing into the ocean on the south end of the island, so the red flag was flying for dangerous waters, as well as a purple flag for dangerous marine life.  Naturally, we had already investigated what was safe and unsafe, so wading/swimming was okay as long as you stayed on the northern 2/3 of the island.  That’s about 3 miles of beach, very doable.  As for the dangerous marine life, we discovered that was for jelly fish, as we ran across dozens of washed up cannonball jellies on the beach.  The beach itself was often covered in tiny shells and shards, as much as 3 inches deep in some areas, causing a significant crunch underfoot as we walked along.  Robin got busy collecting shells with holes in them for necklaces/bracelets, Kaden played in the tidal pools, and I took photos of anything and everything.

Beach covered in shells
Beach covered in shells

We made it to the campground that afternoon, which has it’s pros and cons.  The pros are that it is in true tropical forest habitat. Sites are close and relatively small but separated by saw palmetto and live oaks with spanish moss hanging off the limbs, well shaded.  There are two comfort stations complete with showers, not the most modern, but clean.  The back of the campground is the shoreline to Myrtle Creek, which is really a meandering salt marsh complete with crabs and shore birds.  You can fish creek side or drop in a small boat/kayak.  The fiddler crabs at dusk or dawn were fun to watch. Amazingly, we did not have a problem with bugs or mosquitoes. Carolina Anoles also skittered along the trees and among the leaves on the ground.  The only real con I felt about this campground was it’s location in relation to the beach, everywhere else we’ve camped on a barrier island you could reach the beach with a short walk.  But this campground was on the opposite side of the island from the beach, with an actual highway splitting down the middle.  To walk to the beach from the campground would be a 20 minute walk at least, so it was easier to just drive over.  The downside to that is I like to get up early, in the dark, to get on the beach for the sunrise, which I never did on this trip simply because that long walk in the dark was unappealing, and you can’t drive over there until the park opens at 8am.  A small price to pay for all the other pros to this park.

Simpson Creek Salt Marsh
Myrtle Creek Salt Marsh

The next couple of days, we explored the Atlantic shoreline of Little Talbot Island.  We walked up the northern 3 miles first, wading and shelling and getting wet.  This was the day we found a dozen intact sand dollars, large ones even.  We made it all the way to the northern tip of the island, but weather was moving in so we couldn’t stay long.  On our way back, we realized we had taken longer than intended, and the high tide was coming in fast, which actually cuts off the northern 1/4 of the beach from the rest.  Instead of trying to push through the pounding surf, we took the one trail that comes out to the beach from the wilderness.  It’s called the Dune Ridge Trail, which traverses through two miles of maritime hammock forest.  It was gorgeous, even encountered a large gopher tortoise on the trail.  The only downside was we didn’t plan for this particular hike as we expected to only hike the beach, so we didn’t have the right shoes for it, nor did we have bug spray, and this was the only time we encountered mosquitoes during our entire week on the island.  One more lesson learned!

Gopher Tortoise on Dune Ridge Trail
Gopher Tortoise on Dune Ridge Trail

The next day we hiked the southern half of the island beach, this is where the surf is much more dangerous with riptides, so we stuck to shelling and wading.  We ran across several sea turtle nests, an actual sea turtle carcass, and found a live Lettered Olive mollusk, something we collect the shells of frequently, but never found a live one.  Overall it was an uneventful day, but there is no such thing as a bad day on the beach.

On Wednesday, we drove up the road a couple miles to Big Talbot Island State Park, just across the salt marsh (Myrtle Creek and Simpson Creek) from Little Talbot.  We hiked the Black Rock Trail out to the bluff overlooking the convergence of the Atlantic with Nassau Sound, then down to Black Rock Beach itself.  To the north of where the trail comes out is Boneyard Beach, an amazing area of driftwood trees that have been bleached bone white.  To the south, Black Rock Beach is an area with layers of hardpan sand outcrops that resemble hardened lava.  We spent most of the day exploring these outcrops, as we found sea snails, fiddler crabs, blue crabs, and dozens of hermit crabs all living within the many alcoves on this beach.  So much more than meets the eye!  The Boneyard Beach was very surreal.

Boneyard & Back Rock Beaches unit
Boneyard & Back Rock Beaches unite

On Thursday, we traveled a bit further north to Amelia Island, where we drove through the resorts of Fernandina Beach to Fort Clinch State Park, where the Atlantic converges with Cumberland Sound.  Looking across the sound was looking at Georgia.  We hiked the northern beaches here, where we had our best day of shelling, AND found live horseshoe crabs in the surf.  Kaden also found what he thought was a balloon on the beach, but it was a washed up Portuguese Man O War, the most dangerous of all jellyfish!  We were hoping to find shark teeth here, as we heard it was one of the best places for them, but we had no luck.  Robin and Kaden took a couple hours to swim at the beach while I hiked the park’s hiking/biking trail, and it was probably the best trail I’ve hiked in a Florida state park so far.  I looked for alligators in the Willow Ponds, but they were hiding from me.  I did run across more gopher tortoise and a deer along the trail.  It wasn’t the best beach we swam at during our week stay, but it was great for shelling and hiking.

Wading & shelling at Fort Clinch State Park
Wading & shelling at Fort Clinch State Park

Friday was spent packing up camp in the morning, and riding the waves in the afternoon.  This week flew by, there was so much more to explore in this area.  But Kaden and Robin got their water elements fulfilled, and that’s what mattered.  The day was eventful too, as we always find something new to experience, and on this day it was finding four live starfish in the tidal pools.  What a unique experience!  So to count our new experiences, they included finding numerous intact sand dollars, live starfish, a live lettered olive mollusk, fiddler crab parades, a hermit crab habitat, anoles visiting our campsite, live sea snails, a washed up Portuguese Man O War, mating horseshoe crabs, hiking through a true tropical forest…did I miss anything?  Can’t wait to do it again, and we don’t have to wait along as we have another excursion to Florida’s gulf coast scheduled in August.

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One thought on “Beach Bums on the First Coast

  1. Loved the pics and the joy of feeling like I have experienced so many new things just sitting at the computer.

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