Three years before the Spanish colony at St. Augustine took root, French Huguenots landed at nearby St. Johns Bluff.
They claimed Florida for France, naming the river “The River of May,” as they landed on May 1, 1562.
More than 200 colonists established a settlement near the bluff. They built Fort Caroline for their protection, establishing the first European colony in Florida.
What few glimpses into Florida’s early colonial history we have come from Jacques Le Moyne, an artist who joined the colony two years after its founding.
Le Moyne’s descriptions of Florida’s natural wonders and Timucua culture are an irreplaceable record of early Florida.
He was one of the fortunate ones who survived the slaughter of the colony a year later by troops led by the founder of St. Augustine, Don Pedro Menéndez de Aviles.
Charged by King Philip II of Spain to eliminate the French colony, Menéndez left his newly-formed settlement of St. Augustine with five hundred soldiers.
They spent the night camped next to a marshy pond before tricking their way inside the ramparts of Fort Caroline at dawn and killing most of its inhabitants.
As an artist, Le Moyne was spared. He and fifty others, mostly women and children, sailed home to France, leaving the New World behind and the wilds of Florida a memory.
Resources for exploring the area
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Length: 1.3 mile loop
Address: 12713 Fort Caroline Rd, Jacksonville
Restroom: At the visitor center
Land manager: National Park Service
The Visitor Center is open 9 AM to 5PM Wed-Sun, closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.
From Interstate 295 East (SR 9A) use the Southside Connector exit to follow Fort Caroline Rd 4.3 miles east. It turns left at Mt. Pleasant Rd. Continue 0.3 mile. The Fort Caroline entrance is on the left, across from Spanish Pond.
If it’s open, stop in the visitor center for an overview of the French colony and an understanding of the Timucua before you start the hike.
Leaving the west side of the Visitor Center, start the French Memorial Trail, which parallels the river. Keep right at the fork and follow the “Fort” sign.
Live oaks shade the trail, which swings around to a view of the St. Johns River. At the next junction, veer left.
Walk by an interpretive exhibit of a Timucuan village with a hut, a garden, and a midden.
Le Moyne recorded a wealth of information about the now-vanished Timucuan culture through his detailed sketches.
After a small rise is a trail junction at 0.2 mile. Straight ahead is a replica of Fort Caroline, its original location lost to the shifting river sands over the centuries.
Explore the fort before you start the nature trail. The replica is based on the paintings of Jacques Le Moyne: a small earthen fort, edged on its sides by wooden walls.
Leaving the fort, turn right to start the Nature Trail. Pay close attention to the interpretive markers.
Witch hazel is common throughout the understory, a plant not usually found along Florida trails but present in coastal hammocks in this corner of the state.
Passing a bench, turn left and head uphill under a shady canopy of oaks. Peeking through the trees on the right, you can see patches of salt marsh scattered through the forest.
At a half mile cross the salt marsh on a bridge before walking through a tall stand of twisted rusty lyonia, also known as “crooked wood” to folks who work in forestry in Florida.
At the gate, a “Nature Trail” sign points left and uphill, past a bench on the right.
Drops steeply downhill, winding through a hardwood hammock and another bench.
The surrounding habitat transitions to pine forest with an understory of saw palmetto.
Reach a bench at a mile at a “Nature Trail” sign. Turn left. Descend through a low area filled with ferns.
At the T intersection, turn left at the signs, then right to walk towards the visitor center on a forest road.
Returning to the visitor center complex along this largely shaded route, complete this 1.3 mile hike.
Learn more about Timucuan Preserve
See our photos of Fort Caroline National Monument
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Interpreting the Spanish attack on nearby Fort Caroline from an encampment on this pond, Spanish Pond connects via the Spanish Pond Trail to the Theodore Roosevelt Area.
On a high bluff above the St. Johns River, a memorial pays tribute to the French expedition led by Jean Ribault that claimed Florida for France in 1562, three years before St. Augustine was founded.
Hike 3.1 miles looping around an ancient midden fronting the St. Johns River on this scenic hike honoring the conservation legacy of Willie Brown, who preserved his coastal forest for us to enjoy.