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All Aboard an Eco-Heritage Cruise on the St. Johns River


All aboard an Eco-Heritage Cruise on the St. Johns River

Board a two-day Eco-Heritage Cruise for a scenic trip up the St. Johns River stopping at state parks, preserves and springs while observing wildlife and learning from experts who advocate for the waterway

Whenever we play outdoors, we become absorbed in the experience. In doing so we are more likely to appreciate nature as though we are inseparable. That’s how attachments to our outdoor memories are formed when we are children, and that is exactly what the St. Johns Riverkeeper has in mind as it hosts its Eco-Heritage Boat Trips.

St. Johns River

The St. Johns Riverkeeper, a non-profit advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the St. Johns River, routinely schedules river cruises to educate and connect people to this significant natural resource. An immersive two-day cruise is a unique and engaging way to discover one of Florida’s most enchanting waterways. On two consecutive days guests board a 45-seat pontoon boat to listen and learn from experts, visit state parks, admire wildlife, picnic and dine at fish camps, as they experience the river first-hand.

St John’s River wildlife

Nature, bird and wildlife enthusiasts – including those with just a passing interest in the waterway, learn about the wonders of the 310-mile river while admiring its diverse marshes, lakes, springs, woodland forests and stunning wildlife.

The St. Johns River southernmost basin is shallow with indistinct shorelines 

The St. Johns River begins at St. John’s Marsh, west of Vero Beach, and it winds north emptying into the Atlantic Ocean east of Jacksonville. The river flows through three basins. The upper basin, southernmost in the case of this north-flowing river, is characterized by indistinct banks and marshes; the middle basin is distinguished by lakes; and as the river widens into the lower basin it is marked by a narrower river and estuaries, until it finally empties into the Atlantic.

18th century naturalist William Bartram traveled the St. Johns River, Palatka mural 

This is a black water river. Leaves from the overhanging forest drop and decompose, creating tannins that turn the water a dark tea color. This American Heritage River has a wealth of history and also offers a wide range of recreational and economic benefits including its significance as a key waterway. 

The St. Johns is the longest river in Florida, and home to a wide range of wildlife, from the Florida black bear to the bald eagle. Long ago the area was inhabited by the native Timucuans, who created an extensive civilization throughout north Florida and Georgia. Thriving on seafood, the Timucuans discarded oyster, clam and snail shells to create mounds, or middens, that today provide archeological insight into their lives from centuries ago.

Timucuans lived along the St. Johns River, artist Mickey Summers

The first Europeans to encounter the Timucuan tribe were the French in 1562, followed by the Spanish, and later the British, who used the river as a water highway. In the 1800s the St. Johns River was used to transport troops during the Seminole Indian and Civil Wars as gunboats patrolled the river.

Steamboats transported passengers from 1830-1920s, State Archives of Florida 

From 1830 through 1920 paddle wheel steamboats transported passengers and supplies between Sanford and Jacksonville, becoming one of Florida’s first tourist attractions. Steamboats gave way to steam trains and Florida’s railroad era began, bringing throngs of visitors and increased commercial activity. The next era was influenced by business speculators recklessly attempting to drain the river basin while depositing wastewater and sewage.

Luckily today, and thanks to the St. Johns Riverkeeper, there is a growing awareness and increasing safeguards to educate the public of environmental impacts threatening the river. Formed in 1999, the St. Johns Riverkeeper protects the river and the watershed surrounding the basin by identifying key threats, advocating for laws and regulations, and educating the public.

St. Johns Riverkeeper boat

St. Johns Riverkeeper Eco Cruise

The St. Johns Riverkeeper varies its river cruise destinations each year, with the next cruise scheduled for October 7-8, 2016  between Astor and Jacksonville. The following trip highlights a previous excursion from Sanford to Palatka. Guests can expect a similar experience with interesting new destinations. 

Sanford to Blue Spring State Park

The St. Johns Riverkeeper adventure begins with the group meeting at Palatka’s Crystal Cove Marina, where guests are transported to Sanford’s Boat Tree Marina to board a pontoon boat.

St. Johns River

On board, the staff orients the group as to what to expect on the trip as the canopied open-air boat begins its journey upriver. Sanford resident and author Bill Belleville is the introductory speaker and an expert on the St. Johns River. Belleville has spent countless hours on the river and details his experiences discovering the wonders of the waterway as a writer and filmmaker. 

The St. Johns Eco-Heritage Cruise

Binoculars swing into position as guests spot osprey nests, and Bill shares facts about their monogamous mating life. In the distance, an Anhinga, known as the “snakebird” because of its long, snake-like neck, is perched spreading its outstretched wings to dry. Fish species are identified and discussed (there are more than 180 species in the St. Johns.) Cypress trees are clearly evident along the riverbank and Belleville discusses cypress knees, the exposed roots that keep the tree anchored while drawing in oxygen and nitrogen.

The Wekiva River flows into the St. Johns River

Continuing up river, Belleville points out an unmarked tributary that connects the St. Johns to the Wekiva River, one of the main tributaries. The Wekiva is a designated Wild and Scenic River fed by more than 35 springs, with a 300 square mile basin and 110 miles of protected land.

Blue Spring State Park

Blue Spring State Park

The first river stop is Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, home to a first magnitude spring and the largest refuge for manatees along the St. Johns River. From November through March, the refreshing 72-degree water of Blue Spring is welcome warmth for the West Indian Manatee seeking respite from the cooler St. Johns River.

Blue Spring State Park boardwalk

Boardwalks provide ideal platforms for admiring the gentle giants. Interpretive displays along the walk provide history and education regarding area wildlife and ecological marvels.

Hontoon Island State Park cabin

Hontoon Island State Park

The group resumes the journey up another beautiful section of the river lined with river vegetation and purple flowered hyacinths. Duckweed, Spatterdock and Pickerelweed are pointed out by the captain who engages passengers with local native knowledge and tales of growing up in the area. Alligators are spotted sunning on the riverbank, and White Ibises prance along the water’s edge.

Hontoon Island State Park hammock

The next stop is Deland’s Hontoon Island State Park, accessible by boat off the St. Johns River (the park provides free boat shuttle from its parking lot). Guests can choose to explore the island or enjoy a ranger-led tour. On the tour, the ranger details the park’s history ranging from the indigenous tribe to the pioneers who once lived here. But a hike on your own around this island provides a special treat indeed. Pristine “real” Florida reigns surrounded by hammocks filled with sprawling old oak trees, pines, cabbage palms, and breathtaking authentic beauty. If you wish to stay longer, cabins are available for overnight trips.

Trip to Astor

Leaving the park, the scenic river reveals a rookery blanketing the trees, this one a nesting spot for a full colony of threatened Wood Storks.

The 1878 Palmettos Mansion, Ft Gates, State Archives of Florida

Continuing up river to the historic town of Astor, Victorian homes and fishing cottages dot the landscape, one in particular, called the Palmettos, is a Gothic Mansion built in 1878 elevated high on a midden.

Ft. Gates Ferry, on the St. Johns River 

Upstream is the legendary Ft. Gates Ferry, the oldest river ferry service still operating in Florida. Situated in an old fish camp, it has operated since the 1850s, ferrying cars and passengers from the east to the Ocala National Forest on the west side of the St. Johns. It consists of a barge pushed by a tugboat.

Ocala National Forest along the St. Johns River

The next stop is the town of Astor (halfway between Orlando and Jacksonville), a popular river town surrounded by the Ocala National Forest that attracts fishermen, hunters and boaters. Anglers vie for largemouth bass, striped bass and catfish. Astor’s Castaways (on SR 40) provides over night lodging and dining at the Blackwater Inn.

Astor’s Castaways provides lodging on the St. Johns River

From Astor to Lake George

The next day, guests rise and shine for coffee, then board the boat for some early morning birding. The scenery becomes thickly forested and Bald Eagles swoop overhead clutching fish in giant talons.


Lisa Rinaman, head of the St. Johns Riverkeeper organization, is the morning speaker. She expertly shares information about the Riverkeeper and its mission. Rinaman also highlights nearby springs of the Ocala National Forest noting in particular Silver Glen and Salt Springs that empty into Lake George.

Silver Glen Springs flow into the St. Johns River

As the boat crosses the 14-mile distance, south to north, guests are reminded that Lake George is the second largest freshwater lake in Florida (Okeechobee is the largest). Rinaman discusses its high salinity (for freshwater) and how that creates prime conditions for a blue crab population. She reminds passengers about the importance of the springs, its tributaries and its threats. She illustrates the St. John’s interconnected watershed and the important issues facing the River’s future.

The Ocklawaha River is the St. Johns largest tributary

Next, comes a stark view of the largest tributary to the St. John’s, the Ocklawaha River. This river is clearly on the organization’s agenda. The goal is to free the normal hydrology of the river by removing the Rodman Dam, an environmental deterrent that was built as part of the Cross Florida Barge Canal. The original goal for the canal, first envisioned when shipping on vessels was the primary way of moving cargo, was to create a waterway across Florida connecting the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. The project was abandoned but the incomplete canals and dams have become an ecological impediment to the natural water flow and well-being of the environment and the St. Johns River.

Lake George to Welaka, Andersen Pub & Grill

Another scenic stretch of the river unfolds from Lake George to Welaka, and participants lose count of the number of Osprey nests along the riverbank.

Anderson’s Lodge and Grill is on the St. Johns River 

Lunch is served at Andersen’s Lodge and Grill on the river, and guests enjoy fried local shrimp. Locals insist this area is home to some of the best fishing holes on the entire river.

Storytellers Wayne & Jane Sims

William Bartram & Constance Fennimore Woolson

In route to the next stop, costumed storytellers and humorists Wayne and Jane Sims (aka William Bartram & Constance Fennimore Woolson) join the voyage and regale the audience with tales of Florida’s frontier through two interesting characters: William Bartram, an 18th century naturalist, scholar and author of Florida’s flora and fauna who extensively traveled through the southeast including travels on the St. John’s River, and Constance Fennimore Woolson, a 19th century author and travel writer who visited the St. Johns and Ocklawaha Rivers on a steamboat. Both share their stories of visits to Florida, with observations of its wildness and terrain covered by Spanish moss, bellowing alligators, orange trees, snakes, deer, turkey buzzards, the sound of cypress knees rubbing together and even fierce mosquitoes.

Murphy Island

Murphy Creek Conservation Area & Dunns Creek

Dunns Creek

The boat makes a final stop at the Murphy Creek Conservation area that includes a visit to Murphy Island, a hiking spot with shady hardwood hammocks and towering oaks. Wild orange trees, gopher tortoises, turkeys, deer, bobcats, and foxes are all part of the experience. A ride through Dunns Creek filled with wildlife and outstanding birding completes the scenic tour.

Palatka’s Crystal Cove Marina

As the boat returns to the Crystal Cove Marina in Palatka participants reminisce about the amazing journey of beauty and discovery on the St. Johns River. Seeing its connectivity first-hand through wetlands, forests, springs, lakes, and an ocean – and how it sustains plant, fish and wildlife. It reminds them of the importance of environmental stewardship and specifically reveals the St Johns as a complete ecosystem worth preserving.

Palatka’s Bronson-Mulland House

Back to Palatka

Palatka is referred to both as the “bass capitol of the world,” and as “River City” as it is situated on the St. Johns. The town is filled with historic homes and churches from the 1800s to the 1900s including the Bronson-Mulholland House, a plantation home that was inhabited during the Civil War era and into the 20th century.

Palatka downtown mural

And don’t miss the collection of murals located in the downtown depicting the city’s history. The newly refurbished river front park is a source of pride. For dining, try Corky Bells for local seafood and Angel’s, Florida’s oldest diner.

Ravine Gardens State Park

Ravine Gardens State Park

A trip to Palatka must include Ravine Gardens State Park, one of nine New Deal-era Florida parks and part of the economic recovery in 1934. A combination of formal and natural gardens connected with stone pathways and suspension bridges, the park is known for its azaleas, dogwoods and camellias that bloom January through April. There is also a wealth of live oaks, longleaf pines, and hardwood forest.

Ravine Gardens State Park

Threats to the St. Johns River and Florida

  • Over usage of Florida’s Aquifier: 50% of our drinking water goes to our lawns, requiring protection of water resources and increased conservation
  • Nutrient Pollution: Elevated bacteria levels
  • Increased surface water withdrawals
  • Sedimentation: Construction site runoff creates more pollution (when it rains pesticides and fertilizers flow into the river)

William Bartram Trail, Palatka

What can you do to help the St. John’s River?

  • Join an Eco-Heritage Cruise
  • Become a member of the St. John’s Riverkeeper
  • Stay informed
  • Volunteer and become an advocate with the Riverkeeper

This article is dedicated to my friend Phil Eshbach, who initially introduced me to the wonders of the St. John’s River.

To receive Authentic Florida’s free ENEWs, featuring travel and living updates, delivered weekly, sign up on the home page Authentic Florida, voted Blog of the Year and Best Travel Blog at the Orlando Sunshine Awards. 

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St. Johns Riverkeeper Eco-Heritage Cruise



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