Skip the crowds and surprise your Valentine with a sunset this Tuesday at an off-the-beaten-path spot along the St. Johns River. The state’s longest river has many faces – quiet fishing nooks, magnificent sunrises and sunsets, and busy international port traffic at JaxPort. But unlike the Intracoastal Waterway in south Florida, there aren’t a lot of commercial places for visitors without boats to get up close and personal with the river. So check out our list of places to enjoy a beverage or a picnic or just a quiet moment this Valentine’s Day.
1. Huguenot Park, where the river meets the sea. This spit of land is the northern-most point where the north-flowing St. Johns River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. It has acres of wide, white sandy beaches surrounded by river and ocean. The park was closed due to damage from Hurricane Matthew, but the beaches have recently reopened, although the camping and shelters remain closed, according to a spokesperson. The park does close earlier than usual right now – 4 p.m., but the city-owned boat ramp, Alimacani, is right next to it and has a mini-beach for couples who want to stay for sunset. The spokesperson also said sunset can be viewed from the Ft. George Bridge. The park is at 10980 Heckscher Dr, Jacksonville, FL, 32226. (Note: the website has not been updated since the park reopened. It still says the park is closed.)
2. Ribault Monument, a hidden perch overlooking the river. The monument is on St. Johns Bluff (yes, flat Florida does have a few bluffs) and is the highest point in Duval County. You can see for ten miles, including the Atlantic Ocean five miles east. The site commemorates the French Huguenot settlement at Ft. Caroline, founded in 1564, half a century before the founding of Plymouth Colony. Last year a dive expedition uncovered a Spanish ship off the waters of Cape Canaveral, Florida, with a marble monument and cannons stolen from the fort by the Spanish in 1565. The monument, the oldest in the United States, is now at the Ribault site.
This quiet, wooded property is part of Fort Caroline National Memorial north of Arlington. There’s a small parking lot, and ten steps lead up to a viewing platform (there is also a ramp). Three properties make up the national park: Ribault Monument, the actual fort itself, and hiking trails across the street. A park spokesperson said the monument and fort close at 5 p.m. but the hiking trails are open 24 hours. He said the best sunset view is from the docks at the fort. Although the fort and monument close at 5 p.m., he said there is parking across the street at Spanish Pond, and visitors are welcome to walk around the wall to enter the fort property and watch the sunset. Ribault Monument is a quarter of a mile away at 12713 Ft. Caroline Rd., Jacksonville, FL 32225.
3. Take a sunset cruise on the St. Johns River Taxi. The 100-passenger boat will depart from the dock in front of Friendship Fountain on the Southbank (next to the Museum of Science and History) at 5:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day for a one hour cruise. There will be live music and guests may bring any food or beverages they want. Local singer Stephen Quinn, who just advanced another level in the television show “America’s Got Talent,” will perform a mix of dance songs and ballads.
The river taxi is now under local ownership after the previous operator didn’t renew its contract with the city. Frank and Heather Surface, owners of Lakeshore Dry Storage, took over the service, adding additional boats and new entertainment options, said Deb Fewell, operations manager.
The boat will head south towards Ortega Point for sunset, then turn and cruise back up the river with a view of the downtown lights. The cost is $20 per person and tickets may be reserved ahead of time at stjohnsrivertaxi.com.
4. Watch the sunset light up downtown Jacksonville from Baker Point. This pocket park is located at the base of the historic Ortega River Bridge with a sweeping view of the river and downtown. It’s a popular spot with photographers hoping to capture the orange, red and pink sunset reflecting off of the mirrored downtown office buildings. There is also up-close boat traffic coming in and out of the Ortega River into the St. Johns River. The park has a few benches, and across the street is a playground, small dock, walking paths and parking. There are sidewalks crossing the Ortega River Bridge for those who want to get a closer look as boats pass under, or who just want to take in the view from over the water. It’s located at 4045 San Juan Ave., Jacksonville, FL, 32210.
5. There’s a quiet residential street in Orange Park where you can walk for a mile directly along the river. River Road, not far south of the Buckman Bridge, is on a bluff overlooking the widest point of the St. Johns River, a three-mile stretch. There’s a retirement community and residential homes on one side of the road, but the road itself is directly on the river and shaded by old oak trees. You can walk the stretch or simply sit on the bluff and enjoy the view. Take Hwy 17 south to Kingsley Road and turn left. Near the intersection of Kingsley and River roads is a large median for parking. River Road runs north up to Wells Road.
6. Walter Jones Park in Mandarin offers a west-facing view on a wide expanse of the river. Walk through a canopy of magnolias and rare longleaf pines to reach the viewing platform where you’ll see a panoramic sunset reflecting off of miles of open river. The park is on Mandarin Road, which hugs the river roughly parallel to San Jose Rd. But unlike the busy, commercial San Jose, Mandarin Rd. is residential, quieter, and shaded by towering old growth hardwood trees. A drive here gives visitors a glimpse of what Florida looked like in antebellum days when Harriett Beecher Stowe wintered in her home and grove on the St. Johns. The famous author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” wrote “Palmetto Leaves” about her Florida home while living there. The park is open through sunset at 11964 Mandarin Rd., Jacksonville, FL 32224.
The weather forecast on Tuesday is for a high of 74 degrees. Sunset will be at 6:14 p.m. Drop us a note here or on Facebook and tell us your favorite spot.