May 6th, 2015 3:07 PM by Karyn Smith
by Laura Knight
Recently, on a whim to explore another amazing Florida state park, I found myself in Palatka. It’s charming. It’s quiet, but not boring. It has impressive hiking trails that you will not be able to do in flip-flops.
Visiting Palatka is a superb road trip.
Where is it?
Palatka is in north-central Florida between St. Augustine (slightly to the northeast) and Gainesville (to the west) on the bank of the St. Johns River. Day-trippers: from the West Volusia area your one-way drive is about an hour, from Orlando plan for two hours. If you’re coming from points south of Orlando, or looking to stay longer, turn this into an overnighter. For lodging options >> click here.
Palatka was once the domain of Timucua Indians. During Florida’s Spanish and British rule, the area was developed into a cattle and farming hub, dispersing the Native Americans who had thrived there. In 1821 Florida became a US territory and Palatka began an industrial development boom. From 1865 to 1895 it rivaled Jacksonville as a major port on the St. Johns River (think steamboats!).
Image sourced from the Putnam County Historical Society archives.
Then there was a gnarly fire … and trains became the next best thing.
In November 1884 a massive fire wiped out Palatka, but the city rebuilt and was better than ever, attracting notable residents like Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th US President) and Mary McLeod Bethune (founder of Bethune-Cookman University). In the 1890s the rise of the railroad toppled Palatka’s superior port status. You can read more about Palatka’s history from the Putnam County Historical Society.
Busy Lemon Street in the late 1800s. Image sourced from the Putnam County Historical Society archives.
These days Palatka boasts a large manufacturing industry (Georgia-Pacific Pulp and Paper is there among other industrial giants) and it’s primed to be an ecotourism hotspot.
What's there to do? A lot, actually.
Ravine Gardens State Park is what brought me here, but offbeat attractions and neighborhood-y festivals entice me to return. My Palatka (and Putnam County) must-dos are an ever-growing list. Check out a few highlights:
Ravine Gardens State Park
I've done intermediate-level hiking in Washington State, Maine, North Carolina and Tennessee. When I moved back home to Florida I retired my hiking boots. I'm happy to report that my boots have made a comeback on the trails at Ravine Gardens. This is a hiker's hike. During my trek, I spotted coconut palms, wild citrus and banana trees. Azaleas and butterflies were everywhere. Seriously, Google it. Amazing.
Hiking at Ravine Gardens State Park, Palatka, Fla. Images courtesy of Laura Knight.
Putnam County Historic Churches Driving Tour
Enjoy a self-guided driving tour that highlights the history and architecture of 13 churches that are more than 100 years old throughout Putnam County.
Rodman Reservoir (southern Putnam County) is recognized as one of the best bass fisheries in the nation and is ranked as a top 10 black bass fishing destination for 2015 by FWC. Trophy expeditions are available >> more info.
Conlee Mural Tour
Downtown Palatka has nearly two-dozen larger-than-life murals. Here’s a map >> mural tour. VisitConleeMurals.org for complete details.
Blue Crab Festival - Memorial Day weekend
Blue crab and a Van Halen tribute band - ‘nuff said. Oh, and it’s free!
On my way home I stopped at Angel’s Dining Car, it’s the oldest diner in Florida complete with fried goodies, milkshakes and a jukebox. For other options, check out this list of Palatka eateries from TripAdvisor users.
On your way home
Try taking a scenic route home. Heading south you can see a big stretch of the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway or the River of Lakes Heritage Corridor. Both have rolling hills, farmland, wildflowers and an antebellum house or two among many other treasures.
See you soon, Palatka!