With travel opening again, let us start with hidden gems like Clay County, Florida. It sits south of Jacksonville and west of St. Augustine. The county’s hot springs were a popular vacation destination for northern visitors in the late 1800s. Today, the spring feeds a public swimming pool at Spring Park. Spring Park sits on St. Johns River where you can walk or fish on the pier. If you’re more of a landlubber, picnic or watch the wildlife from egrets to squirrels. Events include Food Truck Friday and Third Saturday Market in the Park.
Gold Head Branch State Park in Keystone Heights, one of Florida’s first state parks, developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s, is home to bald eagles, Sherman’s fox squirrels, red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises, and enough songbirds to offer a pleasant wake-up to visitors camping there, ranging from tents to RVs to cabins. It has something unusual in Florida, a ravine.
Camp Chowenwaw County Park is a newer park, also offering camping. For 70 years, it was a Girl Scout camp. The county bought it in 2006 and developed it. It’s on beautiful Black Creek so it’s perfect for fishing, kayak, or canoe access. It’s also set up for outdoor fun like hiking, volleyball court, picnic areas, seasonal pool, nature center, and playground. A museum tells the history.
Clay County has an abundance of parks. Black Creek Park and Trail, on the north side of Black Creek, is a wonderful place to hike or bike a wooded trail. Ronnie Van Zant Memorial Park on Lake Asbury honors its most famous county singer. In Middleburg, Master Sgt. John E. Hayes Memorial Park offers a boardwalk trail along Black Creek, a playground, and a dock for launching your boat, anything from kayaks to larger motor boats.
On Clay’s history side, Green Cove Springs Railroad Museum and Old Jail offer a glimpse of life in small town old Florida. There is a depot and old caboose. The museum was once the county courthouse. The Old Jail is authentic and would cure even a hardened criminal condemned to spend a night it its tiny cells.
The Military Museum, next to the St. Johns River, was the site of former Naval Air Station, Benjamin Lee Field. The museum displays exhibits ranging from WWI to Desert Storm. Outside there is a display of vehicles and tanks.
Dive deeper into Clay County’s war history at Camp Blanding Museum. A WWII barracks houses it. Before you enter, visit the outdoor Memorial Park. The most moving of the monuments there is a small Liberty Road Borne. After the war, France wanted to honor the American liberators. They installed 1146 markers, called Bornes, along the road the soldiers tramped. When increased traffic necessitated removal of four of the Bourns, France donated them to significant places in America. The fourth and final Borne, #35, went to the Camp Blanding Museum in honor of the soldiers who trained here.
Inside, watch the film explaining how the camp came to be. Then view the exhibits showing the history of the base. Besides training soldiers, it became a German prisoner of war camp and at one time housed 190 German civilian prisoners interred because of their nationality. During WWII, Camp Blanding was the fourth largest city in Florida.
For dining, there is something to suit every taste. You can skip the chains and fast-food joints. Clay County has a varied assortment of individual restaurants that can hold their own anywhere. This is just a few.
Dalton’s Sports Grill moved into a fantastic building decorated with old western murals and décor near Lake Asbury. It’s a family-style restaurant that serves typical American fare. My favorite is the Wind Basket, but the Gator Tails tempt me.
Ronnie’s still holds the top spot for wings. They’re across from Spring Park and offer a 2-for-1-wings-special on Tuesday.
Mackey’s Munchies is a family-owned Cajun restaurant in Orange Park. Chef Mackey is a Louisiana native, so he knows his stuff.
Salsas Cocina Mexicana & Cantina is in a new building. They offer authentic Mexican food. Grumpy’s has a location in the same building. (Middleburg is growing fast) They are the top of the line for breakfast and lunch.
In Keystone Heights, try Florida Cracker Kitchen and for seafood, Whitey’s Fish Camp in Fleming Island.
There are chain hotels near the new toll road, Hwy. 23, but to get the feel of real small-town Florida, stay at River Park Inn next to Spring Park.