Today’s a cruise up the Florida coast, destination Jacksonville to treat another roomful at REI to our How to Hike the Florida Trail workshop.
Deland calls themselves the “Athens of Florida.” US 17 cruises through the heart of downtown, where traffic can reach Athenian proportions. It’s a vibrant small city, the highway flanked with cafes and shops just south of the deeply shaded grounds of Stetson University.
Following SR 11 north through Volusia to Flagler, it’s a landscape of cultivated forests and quiet hammocks, town names like Seville echoing the deeper anchor of this region to Spain. Today’s destination is a Spanish land grant, just as the lands we drove through. Ancient live oaks knit a dense canopy over gardens first cultivated in the late 1930s.
Owen Young, the chairman of General Electric and Time’s “Man of the Year” in 1930, bought this plantation as a wedding gift for his bride. After his death, she passed the gift on to us. It opened as a Florida State Park in 1965, just in time to form childhood memories of the hammocks of Hammock for me.
My first walk under these majestic oaks is one of my earliest memories of natural Florida. For this was a favorite stop on our family road trips, a place to walk along the trails and marvel at mangroves, which we’d never seen farther north on this coast.
At Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, you feel the grandeur of what North Florida’s barrier islands once were all like. Salt breezes sculpt the oak limbs into windswept works of art. While the gardens are superb, the Bella Vista trail is a must for experiencing the natural habitats along the 1.6 mile loop.
On the ocean side of the park, the bigger surprise emerges for those unfamiliar with this coast. It’s a ribbon of coquina, an outcropping of the Anastasia limestone at the shoreline.
Wave-hewn tidal pools and fantastic shapes emerge from this beach of stone and orange sand. The stroke of a pen transferred this land between hands: from land grant to plantation to winter home, and finally to us, preserving Spanish shores for posterity.