We have cruised the Intra-coastal Waterway (ICW) between the Chesapeake Bay and Florida for years. Yet, not once, did we turn west into the Saint Johns River, until recently. We seldom even heard mention of the river. I tell you now that, in 34 trips on the ICW, we have visited every town and anchored in every conceivable spot along the way. Nothing compares to the Saint Johns River and Palatka. From here you enter the heart of Florida’s history and intricate ecology. This is the Real Florida you have heard about, Spanish moss, live oaks, and black bears.
If you are a cruiser, after entering the river take a day to stop in Jacksonville, where there is plenty of room at the free floating docks with restaurants and shops alongside. You are now perfectly positioned for a day’s run south to the jewel of the river, the historical town of Palatka, a small city with an impressive waterfront. From the palatkadowntown.com web site, “Palatka was established as a trading post in 1821 and is today the county seat of Putnam County, Florida. The name comes from the Timucuan Indian word Pilotakata, meaning “crossing.”
Nineteenth century Palatka was a bustling town. Before railroads, Palatka rivaled Jacksonville as the major port on the river. Seven steamboat lines operated out of Palatka and as many as 40 steamboats would be waiting for dock space to discharge their passengers and cargo. In its heyday Palatka boasted eight first class hotels. After the Civil War, Palatka became a major tourist Mecca for northerners escaping the winters. Steamers ran up the Ocklawaha River to Eustis, Leesburg, and Silver Springs and on the Saint Johns to Sanford.
Palatka’s boater and cruiser friendly waterfront has a new city marina with plenty of floating docks and the first 48 hours are free. Or, with no pesky mooring fields, drop your anchor and enjoy the river breeze and a spectacular view. Either way, go ashore for a walking tour of this historic and picturesque city. Look around and you can also find fine restaurants with docking facilities.
The waterfront is a scenic and people-friendly park with a water fountain, monuments, picnic area, boat ramp, paved walkways, and lots of parking. For entertainment, the park boasts the new Saint Johns River Center with interactive educational displays relevant to the river and local ecology. The downtown is immediate to the waterfront with restaurants and gift shops all within easy walking distance. While exploring, take a detour to view the many murals around town and the historical buildings being restored to their former elegance. Of further interest is the Ravine Garden State Park and, at either end of the memorial bridge, stand world renowned sculptures of WWI doughboys in action. Just a hop, skip, and a jump away is the Ocala National Forest, the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife trail, the Florida National Scenic Trail, many other state and national preserves and parks, and numerous natural springs,. If you are not a boater and just want to get away for a weekend there are several options for overnight stays including a new hotel going up adjacent to the park.
Events are held in the downtown or along the waterfront almost weekly. Antique and collectable auto shows, music on the street, and various festivals. Not to mention, this is bass country. Some of the nation’s premier bass tournaments are held on the Palatka waterfront.After a stay in Palatka, do not turn back. The very best part of the river is south to Lake Monroe and the city of Sanford. As the St Johns River winds south it is chock full of hidden anchorages and abundant wildlife. The bird watching is spectacular with year round birds, wintering birds, and migratory birds. Find a secluded anchorage and enjoy watching the wild life.
But, please, don’t tell anyone what you found. Let’s keep this secret paradise to ourselves.