The National Parks Service, founded by former president Theodore Roosevelt in a move that arguably showed the most foresight of any former president, turns 100 years old today. While most people talk about Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks, most are not aware of the many other parks, preserves, battlefields, monuments and seacoasts that also fall under the NPS jurisdiction. I was inspired by local columnist Mark Woods’ book “Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America’s National Parks” (he is also currently walking across Jacksonville, a fascinating series for The Florida Times-Union) and wanted to do a park this summer as well. Unfortunately, logistics prevented me from traveling anywhere grand, but fortunately, we have our own slice of the NPS here in Jacksonville.
I went out to Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, located on the southbank of the St. John’s River in the Ft. Caroline region of Jacksonville, several times this summer. Despite having lived a large percentage of my life in this city and working for the last four years in the Arlington area, passing signs for it everyday, I had never been to this part of Jacksonville. I will not drive historical figures or backstories into this piece; if you want to know why the area is protected by the federal government than you can google it or just head out to the little museum on-site yourself. I want to tell you what captured my interest out there, and why I will continue to return.
I have walked several of the trails now, but have walked the trail closest to the main compound and fort memorial the most. I am not sure why I choose to repeat that trail, as it is the busiest and shortest, but I think it has something to do with not only finding nature and history for myself but seeing how others react to it as well.
I will preface the remainder of this piece with the fact that I grew up camping with the Scouts and vacationing in places that were built around outdoor activities (and I do not just mean Disney World). That being said, I would never be confused for a ruddy outdoorsman. I appreciate being in nature, but I also enjoy things like air conditioning and showering.
Walking the trails at Timucuan is perfect for spending a few hours in nature before returning to the bustle of city life in Jacksonville. When walking, I find myself noticing things that normally are sensory white noise. The sun-dappled trail in the morning, a woodpecker making its newest abode, squirrels dancing in the underbrush and of course, insects, who’s world I was invading for once. I stop periodically to listen to sounds I would normally never notice. Doves cooing, animals rustling and I swear I could even hear leaves and pine straw finishing their dramatic falls from high up above to the ground below. The location of Timucuan in an urban environment means that it is not completely insulated from the outside world. I heard sirens wailing, dump trucks at a nearby construction site and planes droning overhead as well. Just less than usual it feels.
It is hard not to notice the beauty of the preserve as you walk through it. Distinctly Florida sights, like sable palms lining the trail at your feet and large oak trees with Spanish moss draped long and low off of the branches, like the sleeves of wizards robes, adding to the magic of the area. Trees so tall that you wonder how long they have been standing there, what sights they might have witnessed, if perhaps the secrets of the area surrounding the Spanish massacre of the French colony of La Carolina might only been known by them.
Of course, there are other humans around this busy trail. This is great, because people are taking advantage of the park, but also, selfishly, I find myself thinking how it might be if I was the only one there. Families, school groups, a girl listening to something on headphones as she stops to selfie several times along the trail.
My favorite encounter was with a young boy, decked out in a safari vest, complete with a matching water bottle and binoculars. He excitedly called out to his mother about ships on the river, bugs in the trees and other highlights from the trail. He cannot have been more than eight years old, but he was already experiencing the park at the same level or better than I was, almost 20 years his senior. As long as youngsters continue to display a passion for outdoors and the parks like the junior ranger did that day, then perhaps 100 years from now, people can continue to write pieces like this one.
Timucuan Preserve is located at 12713 Ft. Caroline Rd, Jacksonville, FL, 32225.