Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve is One of the National Park System’s Best Kept Secrets

The trail to Round Marsh at Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve. Photo by grifray via Flickr.

Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve is one of the best kept secrets in the National Park System. Relatively few Americans at large know where it is or what it is, and those who do know are wondering how a million-visitors-a-year park could maintain such a low profile on the national scene.

Now one of America’s larger urban centers, Jacksonville, Florida, has grown at a rapid clip for much of the past half-century. One result of the metro area’s space-gobbling sprawl has been the obliteration or severe degradation of hundreds of square miles of natural areas in the city’s day-tripper zone. It remains that, for reasons various and sundry, many ecologically significant areas have escaped relatively intact. None of the Jacksonville area’s “ecosystem survivors” is more significant or interesting than the remarkable estuarine ecosystem preserved within Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve.

Situated within the city/county limits scarcely more than a dozen miles from downtown, this uniquely-titled park -- the only one in the entire Park System dubbed “Ecological & Historic Preserve” -- encompasses about 72 square miles of coastal wetlands, forest, and beaches situated within the estuaries of the Saint Johns and Nassau Rivers. Nutrient-rich, teeming with life, and very dynamic, this estuarine zone is where freshwater flow mixes with briny ocean waters in a setting replete with salt marshes, barrier islands, tidal creeks, mudflats, coastal dunes, sandy beaches, and hardwood hammocks.

Established 21 years ago on February 16, 1988, Timucuan Preserve (commonly pronounced tim-oo-qwan) is a greenline park that leans heavily to cooperative stewardship of natural and cultural resources. The latter is a necessity, given that only 9,000 acres within the authorized boundaries of Timucuan Preserve are actually owned by the National Park Service. The remaining 34,000+ acres consist of state and municipal park lands and over 300 tracts belonging to The Nature Conservancy, other NGOs, and various private landowners.

Timucuan Preserve, named for the Timucua-speaking Indians of north Florida and south Georgia, is actually managed as part of an even larger 84,000-acre entity that bears the awkward title Timucuan Trail State and National Parks. Set up as a three-way partnership among the National Park Service, the Florida Park Service, and the City of Jacksonville, it is advertised as one of America’s largest urban park systems.

If you are beginning to think that this whole arrangement has National Recreation Area overtones, you are not alone.

There are no federally owned and operated facilities at Timucuan Preserve. Fort Caroline National Memorial (annual visitation about 250,000) has administrative responsibility for Timucuan, and it is at Fort Caroline that Timucuan Preserve’s visitor center is situated. (Given the estuarine setting of the park, the park’s “Where the Waters Meet” exhibit is appropriate and instructive.)

There are also two visitor contact stations at prominent historic sites. One is at Kingsley Plantation at the northern end of Fort George Island, where park visitors can view an antebellum plantation house (the oldest in Florida), a kitchen house, slave quarters, and related interesting features. Kingsley Plantation was added to the park in 1989.

The other visitor contact station, located in the Ribault Club (built 1928), is also on Fort George Island and is operated in cooperation with the Florida Park Service.

Sea kayaking, hiking (the 600-acre Theodore Roosevelt Area is especially nice), horseback riding, Segway riding (in designated areas), historic site visiting, camping, birding, fishing, and beach activities are among the many visitor attractions that make Timucuan Preserve a very popular destination. Having tallied 1,011,989 recreational visits in 2006 and almost that many (999,833) in 2007, the park is, albeit just barely, a member of the “million club.” This may be eyebrow-raising revelation to those unfamiliar with Timucuan Preserve’s first rate attractions and metro-convenient location, but they are certainly no surprise to Jacksonville area residents. Local residents are delighted to have a national park of this quality close at hand, and who can blame them?

Traveler tips, no extra charge: (1) If sea kayaking is your thing, you are really in for a treat. Timucuan’s saltwater paddling routes, which are linked to the recently established Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, include Florida Sea Islands Paddling Trail options. Be sure to download a copy of “Kayaking the Timucuan Preserve,” which is available at this site. Since paddling excursions at this park carry kayakers through various managerial jurisdictions, check out the information provided by the Timucuan Trail State and National Parks program. You’ll also want to download a copy of the Jacksonville Intracoastal Saltmarsh Paddling Guide. (2) If you’re a Civil War buff, be sure to do your homework before you visit Timucuan Preserve. Union forces invaded Jacksonville four times, and two fairly significant battles were fought at places now within the park borders.