Check out Mitch’s fantastic St. Augustine video. My role in it was very painful:
Usually we freeze in St. Augustine. Winter in north Florida can be cold, and it’s a damp cold – the worst kind. Those that live out West don’t understand. “Fifty degrees?” they say. “Fifty degrees is nice.” In Moab or Steamboat or Fountain Hills, fifty degrees is shorts weather. But in Florida, a damp wind-blown fifty degrees penetrates stocking caps, gloves, winter coats, and especially bones.
This year we lucked into the warmest temperatures we’ve ever experienced in St. Augustine in the winter – upper 70s to low 80s. With so much we wanted to do, not having to bundle up before going out the camper door made life so easy it almost felt like cheating.
Anastasia State Park:
Scoring a spot at Anastasia State Park is akin to winning the lottery. We love this park because the sites are snuggled under the protective arms of giant Live Oak trees with Saw Palmettos on either side shielding you from your neighbor’s annoying wood-chopping or noon-bright-all-night security light. Also Mitch loves surfing at Anastasia. The wide, gently sloping beach creates fun waves that don’t punish. But, in all honesty, the reason we love it the most is because it is a bikeable distance to an endless supply of bars and restaurants and taco joints.
A site is $28 per night.
We launched from a small parking area north of the Matanzas Bridge on the river side of A1A. Mitch headed to the confused seas, waves, and current in the mouth of the inlet. But, chicken that I am, I headed the other direction, towards the Fort Matanzas National Monument on a palm-fringed shoreline across the calm, blue waters of the Matanzas River.
On my way to the fort, I nosed into a salt marsh cut. Lined with black mangrove trees, the deep, narrow creek flowed quickly. When the current carries me through one of these cuts, I always feel like it’s taking me somewhere magical. Maybe it’s a nod to my childhood wonderment at the “It’s a Small World” ride: Hop on a boat, float through the darkness, and discover a new world around each bend. Here, instead of beaming, multi-colored kids singing in perfect harmony (and English), the surprise was the heron flying ahead of me and the mullet that nearly landed in my cockpit. And at the end of the ride, instead of getting off the boat, squinting into the bright sunlight with, “It’s a small world after all,” looping endlessly through my head, this creek quietly deposited me back out into the river, slightly closer to my destination.
As I neared the fort, instead of looming larger as I’d expected, it looked smaller. Maybe it’s the welcome center, I thought. Would a fort have a welcome center? Not likely. When I reached the dock, I found multiple signs stating that it was for the National Park Ferry use only. I’d have to be content with a view of it from the water. I was expecting something like the Castillo in downtown St. Augustine. But this looked like an outhouse with a sentry tower. However, I’ve heard from several friends that the tour of the fort is fascinating, so next time I’ll return to it in the approved manner – the National Park Ferry.
I paddled around the northern point of land just to see what was around the bend and then headed back. In a creek mouth near the monument I watched two young men leaning over the edge of a small skiff prying oysters from the river bank. They tossed the clumps of oysters into a cooler in the bottom of their boat where a third man pounded them to a pulp with a short 2×4. “Chum for Sheepshead, ma’am,” the pounding one said, pausing mid-crunch. “Yes, ma’am. Sheepshead are delicious.”
There was no charge for parking or launching.
Downtown St. Augustine:
We launched from a boat ramp on the north end of Salt Run across the street from the St. Augustine lighthouse. Salt Run is a finger of tidal water separating Anastasia Island from Davis Shores. It ends in Anastasia State Park where we could have put in if we weren’t lazy.
Right away after launching I saw the beak and big eyes of a small sea turtle rise to the surface and Mitch spotted a Reddish Egret, and as we neared the Matanzas River, we spotted four dolphins. New mansions and 1950s ranchers swapped spots along the waterfront. We paddled under their docks and along their bulkheads until we crossed the river to the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.
I’d walked around the perimeter of the Castillo a couple of days earlier. It had been a Saturday afternoon and visitors crawled over the old fort like ants invading a picnic. People walked up stairs next to signs saying, “Please don’t walk up stairs;” they ran their hands over the centuries-old coquina next to signs saying, “Please don’t touch the coquina;” kids tumbled down the ancient glacis; couples kissed in front of sentry towers.
On the east side of the fort, evening-wear-clad wedding guests gathered around white chairs arranged to form an aisle facing a rustic, white tulle draped arch with the river in the background. Female guests arrived on twisting ankles in four-inch heels as they walked over well-worn dirt paths grasping their date’s hand. Three young women played classical violin music while strands of hair blew across their faces.
I loved all of it. I loved the fact that these rough, weather-worn walls built in 1672 to protect a city and keep invading armies out, now opened its arms every day to visitors from all over the world. It’s kind of like your teetotaling parents from whom you still hide your stash of hard liquor now allowing their granddaughter to cover the bumper of their Ford Taurus with micro brewery stickers.
We paddled past the Castillo, through the sailboats on their mooring balls, under the Bridge of Lions, around the city docks then retraced our route back.
There was no charge for parking or launching.
The Ancient Dunes trail inside Anastasia is short but fun. It is less than a mile, but it has a couple of short, steep hills and it twists and turns through dense vegetation. A no name trail follows the perimeter of the park. The tangled trees of Anastasia are on one side of the trail and the backyards of neighborhood houses on the other. And of course you have the beach to run on. What makes it a good surfing beach also makes it a good running beach – flat and wide.
The entrance fee for Anastasia is $8.
Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve:
It’s enough of a workout just to say the name of this place! About seven miles north of Vilano Beach, the GTM offers miles of flat easy trails on a low peninsula between the Guana and Tolomato Rivers. Trail posts mark each intersection, although I still found a way to get slightly turned around. The trail takes you under canopies of live oak dripping with Spanish moss, through tall pine trees, scrub oak, saw palmettos, and over swampy areas via boardwalks with occasional views of the river and creeks. The biggest obstacle here, as with most trails in Florida, are tree roots. The tree gets ten points for each runner that does a face plant (five for obscenity-laced toe-stubs).
The entrance fee is $2.
St. Augustine – Palatka Trail:
It would be lovely if it did, but this paved rail-trail doesn’t start in St. Augustine. The eastern terminus is Vermont Heights, about seven miles west of I-95 on SR 207. Mitch’s knee was complaining, so he dropped me off at the eastern trailhead and drove to Palatka to park and start pedaling east to meet me.
The trail paralleled SR 207 in multiple places, but also veered away from the four-lane road to go through forested and swampy areas and small town parks. I pedaled through Hastings (the potato capital of Florida) and beside huge fields of cabbage before meeting up with Mitch.
The westernmost trailhead had looked a little skeevy to Mitch, so instead of leaving the Jeep there, he’d parked at the beautiful riverfront park in downtown Palatka. This meant that we’d have to go over the St. John’s River to finish the ride. The St. Johns is popular for boating so the bridge is high enough for large sailboats to sail under, making cyclists earn their lunch.
Before calling it a day, we rode to Ravine Gardens south of town. It has a 1.9 mile paved trail that encircles the steep, jungle-like banks of the ravine. Hiking trails disappeared over the edges only to reappear on the other side. We caught glimpses of suspension bridges, and spring fed creeks on the bottom. Mitch’s knee called it quits, so we didn’t explore the depths of the park. But I’d love to go back when the azaleas are blooming.
No charge to park or use the trail. $2 bike/pedestrian entrance fee at Ravine Gardens.
Although I wouldn’t consider it a bike-friendly town, St. Augustine does make an effort. And from the campground you can weave through eclectic, quiet neighborhoods and over wide sidewalks to get anywhere. It is only three miles to old town and three miles to St. Augustine Beach, both with endless options for shopping, eating, and drinking. When you don’t have to turn the key in the ignition to get the necessities (yes, beer and tacos are necessities) the town gets high marks from me.
Price depends on number of tacos and beer consumed.