In a city seemingly plagued by the question “what is there to do here?”, a large venue is often neglected: The Great Outdoors.
Concerts, new restaurants, pop-up doughnut shops, these are all stirring the pot of Jacksonville entertainment and will continue to expand, but our area parks will always remain.
Now if there’s anything I know about the citizens of Jax, it’s that we love tailgating, barbecuing, and hanging out at the beach… so why not devote a weekend to all three?
In this article you’ll learn about some of the best campsites in the area, some “Camping 101”, and how to make it a fun weekend for the whole family – accompanied by tips and tricks from families who love to camp!
LITTLE TALBOT ISLAND STATE PARK
Just about a half hour northeast of city center, you’ll find a relatively untouched oasis in the barrier islands.
Little Talbot features 5 miles of beach to explore in addition to nature trails and secluded salt marshes. Many people particularly enjoy the photographable drift wood “sculptures” scattered along the shore.
The Brown family takes every opportunity they can to get outdoors and have an adventure, and Little Talbot is a favorite spot of theirs. Marshall, Elizabeth (“Ed”), Isla Oak (age 4), and Stokes (age 3) prefer to live a mostly unplugged lifestyle communing with nature, which is where they feel the presence of God most strongly.
“Our family thrives on being connected to nature, so we make a conscious effort to get outdoors as often as possible,” says Elizabeth. “Speaking for Marshall and I, we feel most connected to God when we are surrounded by His creation, so spending time outdoors is crucial to nurturing our spiritual selves.”
“We hope that by exposing our children, we are instilling an appreciation for natural beauty in all forms and fostering a deep love for the wild, a love that Marshall and I share.”
KATHRYN ABBEY HANNA PARK
For the budding woods-person, Hanna Park has created the most consumer-friendly option for Duval County.
Hanna has amenities on amenities on amenities…picnic pavilions, snack stations, a full-service camp store, and get this: a Splash Park for the kids. Don’t forget to make use of the kayak and bike rentals on-site.
Hanna Park is a diverse ecosystem; take a wrong turn on their many trails, you could end up at the beach, the lake, or large fields.
For only $5 per car, Hanna really is an easy solution to the summer boredom blues.
ANASTASIA STATE PARK
Though it’s the furthest from Jacksonville’s city center, Anastasia State Park near St. Augustine is well worth the ~45 minute drive.
The deeply nestled campsites in this park will blow you away – as will the fact that there are 139 to choose from. Each site is fully canopied by beautiful trees offering tons of shade, and a similarly shady nature trail leads you through to the ancient sand dunes. It’s hard to beat St. Augustine’s beaches, and you can even see the lighthouse from your spot in the sand. A camp store near the shore has your back with basic supplies, which is clutch when you realize you’ve forgotten your marshmallow skewers!
Some helpful tips for future campers. Answers from Zoë (ZR) and Elizabeth (EB).
1. What would you never want to leave home without when camping?
EB: Bug spray. We’ve done it and (in Florida) mosquitoes can really hinder an adventure.
ZR: Personally, I would never want to be without firewood. Most campgrounds will have some on-site to purchase, but it can be a real bummer if they don’t. It’s true what they say: fire purifies. I think we all know how addictive the crack of the flames and the lingering smell of smoke can be.
2. What is your favorite outdoor activity to do as a family?
EB: Kayaking to a great hiking or beach spot. It gives the four of us a fun journey to our ultimate destination!
ZR: I love to hike! Getting some time on the trails is one of the best parts of camping, especially if we’ve got [our dog] Gibbs with us. [My boyfriend] Chris’ favorite part is gathering around the fire and telling stories.
3. It’s time to cook…What campfire recipe would you recommend to anyone who asks?
EB: We are all about simplicity when it comes to camp cooking. Veggies wrapped in tin foil, and no surprise, s’mores are the big hit with kids!
ZR: Being mostly vegetarian, I especially turn to pastas and tin-foil veggie packs. We always bring a short stock-pot to boil water, and whatever jarred sauce we’re feeling that week. Chris particularly loves our cheesy campfire potatoes. 🙂
4. What tips would you have for someone who may be new to camping or the outdoors?
EB: Keep it simple, but be prepared. I promise they can go hand in hand. Pack as light as possible without leaving behind any essentials like plenty of water, easy snacks (we have a packaged by God rule…bananas, apples, oranges, etc.) If you’re camping with kids, you’ll be surprised at how little they need to have a blast. Leave the toys behind. Sticks, rocks, and dirt abound!
ZR: I would say make sure you’re organized before you go. Coordinate separate reusable grocery bags for dry goods, campfire materials, games, etc. so that you’re not left scrabbling around for bug spray (ALWAYS. BRING. BUGSPRAY.) when you need it most.
5. What are some “campground etiquette” items a novice camper should be aware of?
EB: Well, we have a 4 and 3 year old, so we probably shouldn’t be giving out etiquette advice. But, our biggest rule is always to leave no trace, leave it better. We were recently at Little Talbot for the day and made a point to pick up a few pieces of trash we found on our hike. It is a good teachable moment for the kids to understand how easily one small piece of plastic can interfere with nature.
ZR: Time and again we are shocked by the number of people who will drop trash on the ground (really?!) and just walk away. We always make a point to be respectful of nature. Respect in general is just huge- help out around the campsite, keep a positive energy, and be aware of your neighbors.
6. In your opinion, what are some items a novice camper should be sure to bring?
EB: Water, sleeping pad (!!), bug spray, sunscreen, easy snacks, small first aid kit, change of clothes.
ZR: If you’re unfamiliar with camping I would get some starter logs and a propane torch for campfires, a lounge chair, and an air mattress. Most campsites will have electricity and running water! If you’ve never slept on the ground before and aren’t sure if you’d get your z’s, start slow (and soft). Chris adds “make sure they bring a machete!”… but maybe have some self-reflection on if that’s really a good idea for you (ha).
CAMPING RESERVATION RESOURCES
Anastasia Island: Register through www.floridastateparks.org
Little Talbot: Register through www.floridastateparks.org
Zoë Regas is a lifetime resident of Jacksonville and a recent transplant into the Springfield community. Always looking to find new ways to experience Jacksonville, she can frequently be found in our local restaurants and markets. Zoë works in the community at Family Support Services, which focuses on preserving families in the child welfare system by strengthening parenting skills and providing support. She loves to get outdoors with family and friends, and can usually be relied on to have a pack of gummy bears on hand.