Old Florida On The Saint John River
The first thing most people think about when you mention the Sunshine State is fantastic beaches, but there’s a lot more in Florida to explore. Between Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico beaches is almost five thousand square miles of wilderness in Florida from the Everglades in the south to the Okefenokee Swamp in the north. The center of the state is laced by a number of rivers fed by some of the countries largest natural springs. The largest river in Florida is the St. John that flows from Lake Apopka north of Orlando into the Atlantic near Jacksonville. As it meanders north through the state it passes near the city of DeLand and around an island operated as a state park named Hontoon Island.
Hontoon State Park is managed mostly as a natural habitat and is kept much the same as it probably was thousands of years ago when Paleo-Indians, referred to as the Mayaca, had a village on the north end of the island. What remains is a large mound of shells or midden with research indicating that they lived along the river for well over 12,000 years before Spanish explorers encountered them in the late 16th century. They were a tribe of hunter-fisher-gatherers, living on the river which allowed them to have plentiful access to fish, freshwater snails and other marine creatures as a source of food. Artifacts and remnants of the Mayaca can still be found on the island including fragments of pottery and wood carvings.
To get to the island leave your car in the parks lot on the mainland and take the free ferry over to the park Visitors Center (operating from near Sunup to Sundown). There you can hike over eight miles of hiking and biking trails through a mostly wild pine and palmetto scrub land ringed by the rivers and bald cypress swamps. There is no charge to spend the day on the island and there are cabins and campsites that can be rented for longer stays.
Near the Visitors Center is a nice picnic area and playground as well as canoe and kayak rentals, a few boat slips and a small store.
Cabins and Camp Sites
The island park also has a camping area with four-person ($30) and six person ($35) cabins with electricity, ceiling fans and an outside fresh water faucet and fire pit. There are also camping sites and a shower and restroom building.
If you are interested in exploring the island or paddling around the river and roughing it isn’t your style there is a river resort right next to the parks parking lot named Hontoon Landing Resort & Marina. Rates are reasonable, it has a pool, deli, and boat slips to rent as well as rental pontoon boats for a day on the river.
If you are going to hike the island it is recommended that you carry drinking water, especially in summer, and a cell phone for emergencies. Until the Winter temperatures kill off the mosquitoes it’s a good idea to carry bug spray. There are also three types of poisonous snakes as well as brown bear on the island. Not a serious concern but be aware.
- Visitors Center, Store, Docks and Picnic Area
- Park Parking Lot
- Cabins & Camp Sites
- Shell Mound
- Hontoon Landing Resort And Marina