Built in 1934 by CCC workers with 250,000 ornamental plants and 95,000 azaleas, Ravine Gardens was named the “Nation’s Outstanding Citizen Works Administration Project” when it opened. In 1970, it became a state park. A hike around the steephead ravine leads you along precipitous ravine slope trails that let you do a two-mile circuit with great views. For those less inclined to heights, you can walk down to the bottom of the ravine and follow gentle, broad pathways that follow the flow of a run formed from an artesian sulfur spring. Either way, it’s a great half day destination, especially during peak blooming of the azaleas in late February or early March.
Length: 2.1 miles with shorter options available
Lat-Long: 29.635600, -81.646211
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: moderate to rugged
Bug factor: low to moderate
Park near the community center (restrooms are inside) and stroll the terraces of formal gardens to enter the park. You’ll see an oddly-forked double-trunked cabbage palm and hear the splash of water in the fountain. A series of staircases takes you down the garden terraces to the start of the trail inside the ravine.
Ravine Gardens State Park sits in the middle of Palatka. All major roads have signs directing you to the park. From the intersection of SR 19 and SR 100, drive 1.4 miles east to Mosley Avenue. Turn right. Watch for the signs. Turn left on Silver Lake Road. From SR 19, you can also take SR 20 east for 1.7 miles to Mosley Avenue. Turn right, following Mosley Avenue 0.5 mile to the traffic light at Silver Lake Road. Turn left. The park entrance is 0.1 mile down Silver Lake Road, on the right.
Descend down a curving set of stairs, past a planting of sago palms and between two pillars. Turn right, walking down one more staircase to the trailhead for the Bamboo Springs Trail. Just for fun, cross the swinging bridge to start your hike counterclockwise along the Bamboo Springs Trail. Turn right after you cross the bridge. The trail clings to the hillside and passes staircases leading up – to the road circling the ravine – and down. As you walk through the azaleas, the trail drops down broad steps that take it halfway down the side of the ravine.
There are many paths you can take along the way, but keep focused on Bamboo Springs, where the trail drops down a staircase past sword ferns and azaleas to a set of piped artesian wells, bubbling to create a clear flowing stream pouring downhill under the young bald cypresses. The trail climbs back up the ravine slope from here and clings like a goat path as you get a great view of the wetlands around Bamboo Springs. It continues below the road and above the wetlands. Climbing up under live oaks and southern magnolia, you’re behind and below the visitor’s center. Head up to the suspension bridge where you started, and cross it again to begin your journey down the east end of the ravine.
It’s the part of the park I love the most, since there are wild and untamed niches of natural steephead amid the profusion of blooms. Sticking to the main footpath as it tempts you up or down at several intersections, you pass through tall azalea bushes and round a bend in the ravine to the landing of a second swinging bridge! Continue straight to follow the Azalea Trail. It’s a rugged footpath clambering up and down the ravine slope, and when you get to the far end of the ravine, it drops down through a riot of ferns—netted chain, sword, cinnamon, and the giant southern woods ferns that thrive in the dampness of a seepage slope. Each fern’s fronds are large enough to be a fern itself.
Climbing back up the slope, the trail gets more severely pitched downhill—watch your footing. Banana trees and coconut palms peep out of the more common undergrowth below. Cross the suspension bridge to enjoy the view of the pond below, and walk down the stairs at the other end to take in the cypresses and ponds. From this picnic spot, you have several choices to return to the parking area. You can walk up the road, you can walk up the wide limestone path on the bottom of the ravine, or you can seek out more sinuous trails that start at the far end of the pond and rise up to follow the contour of the ravine back to the formal gardens.