Couples and families looking for a quiet beach without large, noisy crowds and commercial development don’t have far to go.
Just over the state line, Florida’s Fort Clinch State Park offers miles of white sandy beaches, and no crowds — unless one counts shore birds.
The 1,400-acre park and historic site is on the northern-most point of Amelia Island. Beach lovers can take Interstate 95 south to exit 373, just a few miles beyond the Florida welcome center, and then take Highway A1A east about 16 miles onto the island and Fernandina Beach. From there, brown park signs guide visitors to Atlantic Avenue and Fort Clinch.
Park admission is $6, and there’s a separate charge at the visitor’s center for admission to the fort itself or camping fees. The park is open every day from 8 a.m. to sunset.
Park Ranger Wesley Berninger said the park has more than 2 miles of beaches, with nearly half of those beaches facing the Atlantic Ocean. Even more beachfront real estate borders Cumberland Sound, the source of the St. Mary’s and Amelia rivers. Beach fans can enjoy sunbathing, leisurely walks on the beach, bird watching for gulls, pelicans and the rare purple sandpiper, as well as shark-tooth hunting and shelling.
Two restroom/shower facilities are available for beach-goers and fishermen. There’s also the park’s “Gateway Station to the Great Florida Birding Trail,” which includes pictures and facts about coastal birds and birds of prey. Signs warn visitors that coastal grasslands and dunes are off limits in order to protect the dunes from erosion and protect nesting shorebirds.
These grasslands have their own majestic beauty with tropical wildflowers, sea oats, dog fennel, cacti, palmettos, palm trees and myrtle.
Fishermen can try their luck at surf fishing or fishing from the 1/2-mile long fishing pier protected by a rocky jetty.
Berninger said non-residents staying at one of the park’s two full-service campgrounds or primitive campground can purchase a three- or seven-day saltwater fishing license online at www.myfwc.com/license or by calling 1-888-347-4356.
Berninger said the fort’s history goes back to 1847 and is named for Gen. Duncan L. Clinch, hero of the Seminole Wars. He said the fort was not completed when the Civil War began and was taken over by Confederates in 1861, and then retaken by the Union a year later. That’s when the walls of the fort were completed, Berninger said.
“The (lighter-color) bricks on the lower portion of the wall were pre-war bricks made from local clays in Florida and Georgia,” he said. “The red bricks on the upper portion were completed by the U.S. Navy with bricks that were shipped down from Philadelphia and Brooklyn.”
He laughed, saying they had to ship the bricks down from the North, as it would have been difficult to contract with a local supplier during the war.
Berninger said Fort Clinch holds re-enactments the first weekend of each month. The park also holds special observances for the Spanish-American War, Memorial Day and “History of the American Soldier” in November. That event includes uniforms, weapons and field equipment representing every conflict in which American soldiers have fought, Berninger said. He added that a Confederate Garrison weekend is observed twice a year.
Berninger said Florida did not play a significant role during the Civil War, providing more food and supplies than personnel. The Union was successful only in capturing major ports, he explained. One major battle, the Battle of Olustee, fought Feb. 20, 1864, near Lake City, Fla., was an embarrassing defeat for the Union. Afterward, Union forces withdrew to capture naval forts like Clinch for the remainder of the war.
In addition to the beach and the fort, Berninger noted the park has several miles of scenic hiking and biking trails that meander through moss-covered oaks and offer views of local wildlife, including alligators, raccoons, armadillos and white-tail deer. He suggested visitors watch the ocean and sound for dolphins and manatees while combing the beaches.
“We invite folks to come on down and see what we have to offer,” he said. “We’re always glad to have visitors.”