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Hontoon State Park: A Secluded Island in Central Florida!

May 11, 2009 By Doug in Miami: Travel News  | 2 Comments

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Recently, in the Miamibeach411.com forums, the topic came up about where Miamians like to vacation.  Among the choices were Orlando and Key West, or for those with something more extravagant in mind, Costa Rica or the Caribbean. 

Since many people living in South Florida are spoiled by having some of the finest beaches in America right in their own back yard, when contemplating an escape, their thoughts often drift to rivers and woodlands.  Fortunately, everything from hilly green pasturelands to unspoiled forests of oak, pine and palm can be experienced in abundance throughout the Sunshine State.  A scant four hours north of Miami, just beyond the Orlando area, you’ll find some of the greatest natural diversity Florida has to offer.  For those seeking a secluded camping experience in the company of deer, egrets and manatees, Hontoon Island State Park (2309 River Edge Road, DeLand, FL 32720, 386-736-5309) is one of the region’s top contenders.  It numbers among the nation’s gold medal winners for its rustic surroundings and Winnebago-free campsite—and the admission is also free!

WELCOME TO FANTASY ISLAND

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Each day, between 8 am and one hour before sunset, 365 days a year, a small complimentary electric ferry transports visitors across the lazy St. Johns River (Florida’s longest) to this magical island in the middle, a place refreshingly devoid of cars, highways and other trappings of civilization. 

Mr. Rourke and Tattoo might not be on hand to welcome you, but this 1648 acre park is the stuff of fantasy.  Beyond the immediate vicinity of the welcome center, island store and camping area, little seems to have changed since the snail-gathering Timicuan Indians made their home here some 2000 years ago—although since that time, the land has served as a pioneer homestead, a boat yard, a center for commercial fishing, and a cattle ranch—before becoming a state park in 1967.

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THE LAY OF THE LAND

The best way to explore the island is on foot.  A walking trail starts up along the sandy road between the welcome center and the campground, and takes you on a meandering 3 mile (round trip) journey through a subtropical jungle to a remote indian shell mound consisting of centuries of discarded snail shells. 

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The pathway leads through a variety of ecosystems: at higher elevations are the pine and palmetto forests, whereas a little lower, sabal (cabbage) palms and live oak trees are more prominent.  Near the river, ferns and cypress trees predominate.  Occasional placards point out interesting ecological facts along the way.  What is lichen? Who rakes the leaves?  How do dead things continue to nourish the environment?

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As you traverse this prehistoric wonderland, it’s common to see hawks, vultures, ospreys, egrets, woodpeckers, foraging armadillos, turtles, and the occasional deer.  Frolicking lizards and beetles inspire you to look at the minutia, reminders that nature can be just as compelling on the more microscopic levels.

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The waterway reminded me of the bayou country of South Louisiana, with a slightly more tropical twist.  One interesting sight was a cypress tree with two palmetto palms growing out of it.  Even the river itself is a bit unusual: the St. Johns, running from just southwest of Melbourne up to Jacksonville, is one of the few rivers in the northern hemisphere, other than the Nile, in which the water flows north!

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(above) What kind of tree is this? A Cypalmestress? A Cypretto?

CAMPING

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The park offers 6 cabins and 12 tent camping sites.  The accommodations are primitive, though each cabin has its own screened-in porch, ceiling fans, electric outlet and bunk beds, sleeping 1-6 people.  Outside, they feature picnic tables, ground grills and water.  A community restroom is located less than 30 yards away from each cabin.  No pets are allowed in the cabins or cabin areas, but are permissible in other areas, as long as they’re on leash.  Call the ranger station to verify rates; last I checked, they were quite reasonable, in the $30/night range.

The store at the Welcome Center sells basic snack items, though it’s recommended that you bring along your own food when camping.  Since the campground is located about 3/10 of a mile from the ferry landing, wheelbarrows are provided to help make it easier to tote the luggage.  Parking is free.

ACTIVITIES

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In addition to hiking to the shell mound, you may also want to bring along your bike to check out some of the other areas of the park.  Kayaks and canoes can be rented through the park office, while just across the river is a place to rent larger craft.

Fishing is another popular past-time at Hontoon Island.  Just make sure to bring along a Florida freshwater fishing pass (if you’re over 16) and your own bait if you have any designs on reeling in any of the plentiful largemouth bass, bluegills, and speckled perch. 

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(above) Docking is available for private watercraft.

A playground is located near the Welcome Center for the kiddies and the young-at-heart.

Signs warn park visitors against swimming, due to the thriving gator population.  If swimming’s your thing, you may want to visit one of the dozens of natural springs in the area.

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(above) My friend Dave, enjoying a soda on the return ferry, after a relaxing day on Hontoon Island.

DIRECTIONS

Hontoon Island State Park is located about 6 miles southwest of DeLand, off State Road 44.  About a mile west of DeLand, you’ll notice the first of a series of prominent signs telling you where to turn.  From Route 44, you’ll take County Road 4110 left to County Road 4125 (Hontoon Road), where you’ll make another left.  Continue on to River Ridge Road where you’ll make yet another left. 

The ride out from DeLand is a panoramic journey in itself, in which you’ll see woods, pastures, a little rural housing and some eye-catching canals which connect to the St. Johns River.  Here’s Google’s suggested route from Miami Beach.

For more pictures, visit this thread in the miamibeach411.com forum.

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Related Categories: Miami: Travel News,

Douglas Eames is a freelance writer, homespun philosopher and budget bon vivant who divides his time between Southern California and South Beach.

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2 Comments on

"Hontoon State Park: A Secluded Island in Central Florida!"

Maria de los Angeles says:

This seems like a wonderful place to relax.  I must check it out some day!

Posted on 05/12/2009 at 5:00 PM

Doug says:

I’d love to take you if you ever make it up this way, Maria!

Posted on 05/12/2009 at 5:17 PM

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