Many footsteps have pressed into the sands of Anastasia Island, from the most ancient peoples who thrived on its bountiful shores to the Timucua who explored the coastline in their canoes, and the Spanish explorers who claimed this coast for Spain in 1565, establishing what is now the oldest continually occupied European settlement in America, St. Augustine. Anastasia State Park is a favorite for my family and many others, a destination for outdoor recreation along the beach, with a lengthy lagoon for windsurfing, miles of beaches for strolling, sandbars and shallows for swimming, and a campground tucked neatly under the canopy of windswept sand live oaks. Although there are three potential hikes in this park – including a beach walk and an exploration of the old Spanish quarries – The Ancient Dunes Trail is the official nature trail at the park. It starts at the back of the campground, and provides an up-close look at the native habitats that flourish on this windy shore.
Location: St. Augustine
Length: 0.7 mile
Lat-Long: 29.866475, -81.276222
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Bug factor: moderate to annoying
The trailhead is well-hidden. If you aren’t permitted to park there – or there aren’t enough spaces – use the beach parking and walk back to the trailhead entrance. Although mosquitoes can sometimes be a problem, it’s usually breezy enough to keep the bugs at bay.
From downtown St. Augustine, cross the Bridge of Lions to follow A1A south. Just past the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, the road curves; the park entrance is on the left. Once you’ve paid at the ranger station, continue down the park road towards the campground. Turn right where you see a “Nature Trail” sign, and drive into the campground. After you pass the camp store, continue straight. The road ends at a “No driving beyond this point” sign, with several parking spaces on the right for the trailhead of the Ancient Dunes Trail.
Starting at the trailhead, turn right to follow the loop counter-clockwise through the maritime hammock. This coastal habitat supports a variety of salt-tolerant species, including yaupon holly, with its dark serrated leaves and bright red berries. The Timucua once lived along this shore, and used the yaupon as the basis of their “black drink,” a purgative for religious ceremonies. The canopy overhead is tightly knit by the branches of the gnarled and windswept sand live oak and red bay trees that thrive here. A salt breeze riffles through the branches. The trail continues into an open area, where pine duff from slash pines carpets the footpath. Interpretive markers help point out plant life and potential for wildlife.
The trail becomes strenuous, thanks to the steep ups and downs through sandy bowls in the ancient dunes. It wanders along the edge of a dune filled with saw palmetto, then drops into it. At a T intersection, there is a sign pointing to various campsites at this end of the campground, off to the right. Turn left. The trail skirts around a very large sand live oaks. Inside it, you’ll see a deep hollow, where the glowing form of witches’ butter brightens the interior, the brain-like fungus as orange as a jack-o’-lantern.
More side trails lead off to individual campsites on the right as you continue down the trail beneath the June blooms of southern magnolias, which flourish in the damp spots of the hammock. After you pass a bench, the trail drops down another steep slope and turns to the left, leading to a staircase down the next dune. You’ve walked half a mile. Look for American beautyberry showing off pink flowers in summer as you climb up out of the dune, pass another bench, and walk down the next staircase. After 0.7 mile, you’re back at the trailhead.