By Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D.
February 23, 2022
I’m not someone who enjoys driving—if I was a rich person I’d have a paid driver. But as long as I have Bucko who is willing to drive country roads, and my friend Betty Duckworth who happily drives anywhere, I’m all set. So, when Betty asked if I wanted to go on a day trip with her to Palatka, I couldn’t pass this opportunity up.
Although Ravine Gardens State Park in Palatka was our talked about destination, as usual, Betty had more sights in mind for us too. As a former real estate agent in Jacksonville, Betty has a mental map of all areas in the city and has no problem with city or highway driving, so we took the long way to Palatka through some interesting neighborhoods I had never seen before. Take Springfield, for instance. Betty drove us around streets with restored late 19th and early 20th century homes, lovely parks, and, believe it or not a “haunted house for sale.” This old former church had this sign in front of it, and I couldn’t resist calling the posted phone number. Oh well, the seller told me he put the sign up for Halloween and never took it down, so much for ghosts….
Another stop on our way south on highway 17 was the Jaxma Orchid Greenhouse, Inc. in Green Cove Springs. This 110,000 square foot greenhouse contains a myriad of orchids that they sell commercially to buyers all over the United States. Although visitors are only permitted in the warehouse section where the orchids are packed for distribution, we were able to take a quick peek into the greenhouse where the number and variety of orchids mesmerized us. We weren’t in the market for orchids but there were plenty of them in the warehouse for sale, if we wanted one. It was another great stop on the way.
But finally, we got to Ravine Gardens. Now, in late February and early March it is normally prime time for the azaleas to be blooming in the park, its primary attraction. This year, though, the unusual weather has disrupted the plants’ routine, and the azaleas are blooming sporadically, and not all at once. No matter, even if only 30% of the bushes were in bloom it was pretty enough. A road circles the park, giving an on-top view of the ravine and a close look at the old brick retention wall constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930’s when many of the azaleas were also planted. There are also great hiking trails down into the ravine, along the spring-fed Whitewater Branch creek. Although the azaleas are fading soon, the formal and informal gardens are a good place to visit year-round.
In Palatka there are also about twenty large murals painted on the facades of old buildings in the downtown area. It’s worth a visit there to just see the murals, along with the accompanying map and text on the website: http://www.conleemurals.org/. The murals all depict aspects of the culture and history of Palatka with detailed depictions of scenes from the civil war, the establishment of the railroad, cattle drives, Annie Oakley’s visit, and many other events that involved Palatka over time. We passed a few on the way to our lunch destination, the C.P. Deli, and were too hungry by then to spend much time looking, but I’m sure someday we will be back.
To cap off this multi-faceted day trip we drove (I mean Betty drove) on the other side of the river, along highway 13. This road follows the east riverbank and afforded many clear views of the river, with parks scattered between groups of riverside homes, which offer access for one and all.
If you are interested in taking this day trip yourself head south on highway 17—with a pass through some Jacksonville neighborhoods if you wish—and through Green Cove Springs and on south to Palatka. Google the Ravine Gardens State Park, or use your GPS to find it, as it is tucked back into a neighborhood in the city. There are plenty of other lunch places around, but you can’t go wrong with the C.P. Deli. Or, maybe you want an old-fashioned diner, with curbside service—then Angels Dining Car is the place for you. And for your return, the route along highway 13 is a nice change of scenery too.
Whatever you do, have fun, and be flexible. Our Florida back roads have lots to see if you just slow down and look. And let someone else do the driving!
Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]