I have lived in Jacksonville 29 years and yet there are still some really cool things to do here that I haven’t experienced. When Adam and I talked recently about adding some exercise into our schedules, he mentioned Spanish Pond, a set of trails at Fort Caroline National Memorial where he used to run. I wasn’t too keen on the running part but I was definitely excited to check out a new local landmark.
Fort Caroline National Memorial and Kinglsey Plantation make up the Timucuan Preserve, a section of coastal wetlands that have over 6,000 years of history and culture.
During the sixteenth century, France built Fort Caroline in an attempt to expand amongst Spain’s territories. With the assistance of the Timucua Indians, the French colonists built a village and fort on the south bank of the River of May (now known as the St. Johns River) and named the area La Caroline after the French king, Charles IX. Though the colony barely survived a year, the fort remains as a reminder of exploration, religious disputes, and first encounters between Europeans and American Indians.
Spanish Pond is a series of trails through the St. Johns River marsh and hillside across from the Fort Caroline entrance. This is where Menendez camped the night before he attached Fort Caroline. The hiking trails offer brief glimpses into history as well as a quiet walk through some of Florida’s best landscapes. We covered about three miles during our hike and there was still a large part of the trails that we skipped.
The remnants of the Browne cabin mark where Willie Browne lived for over 80 years. Willie is a man who loved these lands and had a deep respect for all nature. He lived in this modest cabin with no electricity, fresh water from a well, and by living off the natural resources provided by the land until his death in 1970. His final wish was for the grounds to remain undeveloped so that it would be an inspiration to others.
A quick walk from the Browne Cabin and you’ll discover a lone gravestone for Sgt. John Nathan Spearing. Spearing was a Confederate soldier stationed at Fort Caroline who fell in love with the land and bought 500 acres that is now known as Theodore Roosevelt Preserve. Spearing eventually built a manor on the land where his family lived until it was destroyed by fire in 1914.
In 1879, Spearing died and left the estate to his pregnant widow, Margaret. Spearing wanted to be buried on the St. John’s Bluff house site so his body was taken to the bluff at Indian Trail where a funeral was held. Because it was such a long ride from the manor into Jacksonville, Margaret decided to move and left the land in the care of the Browne family.
Over the years, Willie Browne had maintained the gravesite, clearing it of brush and trees. In 1962, Spearing’s great granddaughter had a marker placed at his grave thanks to help from the Daughters of the Confederacy. The marker was removed by vandals in 1987 leaving the original location of the headstone unascertainable. The headstone now sits near the spot Willie Browne loved to sit and watch the river. And looking at the view, you can easily see why Willie loved to sit in that spot.
Continue walking along the trail and you’ll come to an observation deck overlooking the St. Johns River. From here you can see the shipyards as well as acres of marshland. The marshes support a dynamic ecosystem and provide habitat for a diverse population of wildlife. Birds, fish, crustaceans, reptiles, and more live amongst the foliage of the salt marsh.
The trail winds back around, uphill and down, providing a moderately challenging hike. As you walk, you can catch a glimpse of the changing landscape peeking through the brush. Small fiddler crabs litter the trails and scurry to avoid being stepped on. I picked one up and watched as it crawled along the back of my hand, fending off my finger with its tiny claws.
And almost as quickly as we began, we were back at the parking lot sweaty, out of breath, and exhilarated from some time spent amongst nature. A quick glance at my watch revealed we’d walked almost three miles and burned 300 calories. Now that is a work out I can get on board with. (Even if I didn’t get a diamond at the peak of the hike.)
While the trails are open daily from sunrise to sunset, the fort is open only during visiting hours. Next time we visit, we are going to make sure we get there in time to check out the fort. More information on Fort Caroline and Spanish Ponds is available on the National Park Service website.