The St. Johns is also a nature tour, with interesting bird and animal life everywhere. Ospreys are common, bald eagles are frequent, manatees — and manatee zones — are everywhere, and it seems that alligators and turtles sun themselves on every bank. For added enjoyment, keep your binoculars handy along with a good field guide or two. Having a quality camera with telephoto lens will allow you to capture these moments forever. Keep in mind, whether you're photographing nature or just viewing, you'll get better results if you take all way off for a moment and drift by as silently as possible.
Cruising upstream — southward — through the estuary, there are marinas along both shores. Fleming Island is outside the inlet to Doctors Lake; Julington Creek and Mandarin Holiday are on the opposite side. Doctors Lake is a popular anchorage among those who can clear its 37-foot fixed bridge and get an anchor to hold in its soft bottom. There is better holding in the many coves and bends upriver.
Seven miles upstream from Doctors Lake, Black Creek offers a pretty side trip for boats that can clear its 20-foot bridges. A couple of miles farther up is Reynolds Park Yacht Center and Green Cove Springs Marina with a full-service and DIY marina, just below the 45-foot fixed bridge that sets the vertical clearance limit for the entire cruise.
Above Green Cove Springs the river runs wide and deep, winding gently for nearly thirty miles with only one small facility, Pacetti's, up Trout Creek inside Federal Point, along the way. Good depths prevail, averaging 8 to 12 feet almost to shore; the intermittent marked channel was dredged for commercial traffic on the aborted Cross-Florida Barge Canal.
About Mile 80 the river turns southward and begins to narrow, and a series of ranges leads past shoals and a spoil area, then under a powerline. Near Crystal Springs you'll find facilities at Crystal Cove Resort & Marina. After you pass here, the river widens again at Mile 83 and one of the jewels of the river cruise, Palatka.
In the days before the ICW, railroads and highways, the St. Johns was a major thoroughfare for moving goods and people from Jacksonville south. In the 1800s, steamboats also made the St. Johns River a popular winter destination for Northerners. By the 1860s, several steamers were making weekly round trips from Charleston and Savannah to Jacksonville, Palatka and other settlements.
In those days Palatka was a bustling river port and winter resort that unfortunately withered on the vine when river traffic declined. But the town remains well preserved, with beautiful Nineteenth Century buildings on red-brick streets and grand residential districts under huge live oaks.
The Quality Inn Riverfront at the foot of the bridge has docks. Above the bridge is a city dock (no transient dockage, but a park with ramps, pumpout, etc.) then Boathouse Marina. Palatka hosts a Blue Crab Festival every Memorial Day weekend.
South of Palatka the third phase begins as the river narrows and deepens and begins to twist and turn its way southward toward Sanford in what many believe is the most beautiful section of the river. Four miles upriver at San Mateo isGibson Dry Docks, a do-it-yourself yard.
Ten miles upriver from Palatka, the common mouth of Dunn’s and Murphy's Creeks offers a two-part side trip that qualifies as a major attraction: the creek turns sharply south from the river, and half a mile south of its mouth Murphy's Creek forks off to the west. It offers good depths for all of its four or five miles around Murphy Island and through some of the prettiest and least developed woodlands on the river, then opens back into the St. Johns above Buffalo Bluff.
Below its fork with Murphy's, Dunn's Creek continues southward, and is not as shallow as once thought. The Palatka Yacht Club and the Putnam County C of C checked out the depth with the St. Johns River Water Management District a few years back and found that the minimum depth in the creek and across the bar into Lake Crescent is six feet. Ten miles of good cruising and excellent bass fishing with the very lovely little town of Crescent City halfway down the west shore make the area well worth a visit.
Back on the main river at the mouth of Murphy's Creek, the river channel carefully skirts the huge sandbar extending north below Buffalo Bluff, through a busy railroad bridge, then southward to the Seven Sisters Islands, another of the beauty spots on the river. (Continue...)