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Tour of the St. Johns River
A great blue heron wades along the shore of the St. Johns River.
As the sun rises over the sawgrass marshes that mark the starting point of the St. Johns River, it slices through the mist that defines mornings in central Florida. The rain that fell here overnight may evaporate in the afternoon or it may wind its way along the length of the 310 miles of the St. Johns River and flow into the Atlantic Ocean.
Downstream, the St. Johns will declare itself a mighty river, but here in Indian River and Brevard counties, there are few defined banks and boundaries. Waterfowl, wading birds, river otters and shore birds inhabit the maze of tributaries and sloughs.
As the river flows north and continues to collect water from marshes and springs, it forms countless lakes on its path. First comes Lake Hell ‘n’ Blazes, then Sawgrass Lake, Lake Washington, Lake Winder and Lake Poinsett. The river flows into Orange, Volusia and Seminole counties, forming Ruth Lake, Puzzle Lake and Lake Harney.
The St. Johns River in Brevard County.
The flow of the St. Johns River is strengthened south of Lake Harney by the confluence of the Econolockatchee River in Seminole County. After Lake Harney, the St. Johns begins a transformation. Banks become better defined and a recognizable river is formed that flows north of Sanford into lakes Jesup and Monroe.
These banks mark the beginning of the river’s middle basin. This area has historically been prized for its bass fishing, and boasts a diverse bird population that includes egrets, ibis and great blue herons, ospreys, turkeys, cranes and a sizeable population of bald eagles. Deer and a large number of alligators reside in protected areas here along the river’s banks.
North of Lake Monroe, the winding waterway consolidates and continues, straddling the county lines of Lake and Volusia counties. South of Lake Beresford, the river meets Blue Springs State Park, the ancient home of the Timucuan Indians and one of the modern-day homes of some of Florida’s manatees. The banks of the river still display artifacts and mounds of discarded snail shells left by the Indians centuries ago.
An aerial image of the river north of Lake George.
Beyond Blue Springs, the river enters a region of Florida famed for its resemblance to the Florida of legend. As the river runs through the Ocala National Forest and feeds into the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, it feeds wet prairies, ponds and lakes. The Ocala National Forest is a landmark of Florida, being the most heavily visited of the state’s three national forests.
Regardless of its popularity, this part of the river offers a sense of solitude that is not easily paralleled. The land is lined with towering palms, large live oaks and scrubby sand pines. Behind the tree line, bobcats, panthers and black bears roam. The contiguous landscape goes on unspoiled for miles in every direction.
Here the river creates Lake George, the largest lake on the St. Johns River. Though it is large — 12 miles long and six miles wide — the lake is remarkably shallow, averaging only about 10 feet throughout. The water of Lake George is also variably brackish, or high in salt content. This is because the river flows so slowly it is influenced by the tide from the Atlantic Ocean for hundreds of miles upstream. In years when little rain has fallen, sharks have been seen in the river as far south as Lake George.
The Memorial Bridge between Palatka and East Palatka.
Past Lake George, the St. Johns River goes through yet another transformation. It exits Volusia County and enters Putnam County, running along the Marion County line for a few miles. In Putnam County, the St. Johns River widens where it meets the Ocklawaha River, the largest tributary that meets the St. Johns. Here, the river enters its lower basin.
Significant wildlife species found here include alligator, gopher tortoise, eastern indigo snake, spotted turtle, Florida black bear, little blue and tri-colored heron, snowy egret, southeastern kestrel and limpkin. In the St. Johns River, manatee and snail bullhead can be seen as the river continues its half-completed journey north.
The St. Johns River offers a wide variety of recreational activities.
Several miles downstream, the St. Johns River runs through the city of Palatka. Originally named Pilotaikita, a Seminole word for “boat crossing,” the area has been used for hundreds of years as a transportation hub on the river.
North of Palatka, a much more expansive river continues. As the river straddles the St. Johns County line, leaving Putnam County for Clay County, it widens considerably, averaging up to two miles across.
The river crosses out of St. Johns County and then Clay County, entering Duval County and the heart of Jacksonville.
In Jacksonville, the river turns sharply to the east toward the Atlantic Ocean, only a few miles away. Here, the river is always a mix of fresh and salt water, making the St. Johns River more an estuary than a freshwater body.
Otters can be found throughout the length of
An estuary is a place where freshwater meets salt water, and is home to an extraordinary diversity of life. The beauty and diversity of this region is punctuated by sandy barrier islands, inlets and a combination of sounds, rivers and extensive coastal marshes.
As it leaves Jacksonville and runs along the spot Fort Caroline stood long ago, the St. Johns River meets the Intracoastal Waterway, forming an expanse of marshes with fluctuating depths. Due to the fact the mouth of the river was often shallow, jetties were built here at the end of the 19th century, allowing Jacksonville to become a viable ocean-going port. Jetties are pier-like structures that project into a body of water to influence the current or tide or to protect a shoreline from storms or erosion. Improvements through the 20th century have prevented erosion along the river. After passing Mayport, the longest river contained in the state of Florida ends its journey where it spills into the Atlantic Ocean.
Updated on 2-22-2013