Words and images by Carly Wille
Contorted oak limbs stuck out like old bones scattered over the sandy beach. Their ashen trunks were lifeless and immobile, even with the persistent waves crashing onto the shore. With every thrust, the foaming water formed into stirring tide pools and blackened shelves of rock protruded from the sand. Like baked lava, the rocks appeared and fled with every advance of the ocean.
The beach, called Black Rock Beach, graces Big Talbot Island State Park, a barrier island 20 miles east of downtown. Big Talbot shares the northeast shore of Jacksonville with six other state parks that all vary in character as well as popularity.
Laurie Britt, Jacksonville native for more than 10 years, hikes the Black Rock trail on a dreary and frigid winter’s day. The forest is completely silent besides the snapping of twigs beneath her feet.
“It doesn’t matter if the weather is good or bad,” Britt said. “I try to come down here (Talbot Island) at least once a week.”
Big Talbot Island State Park is a hidden gem among the countless nature preserves scattered across Jacksonville.
Jones Cut trail, a 1.5-mile hiking and bike trail on the island, is a pathway surrounded by a lush and leafy canopy of divergent trees and shrubbery. Its walkway is narrower than any of the other trails on Big Talbot Island and offers visitors an authentic wildlife experience.
According to Park Ranger Gregory Tompkins, Big Talbot’s southern sister — Little Talbot — trumps Big Talbot in popularity. It’s only $5 per vehicle to gain access to Little Talbot’s faultless beach and over 35 campsites.
Here, worn slats of wood form a half-mile boardwalk leading to Little Talbot’s shore. Stretching for five miles of beige, the flat and desolate desert of beach offers a cool breeze and placid silence. From every direction, the calm Atlantic extends out in a turquoise plane that is cut short by the horizon.
“We have quite a few campers who will stay with us for weeks at a time. It’s not your ordinary campsite where you’re tent to tent with another group,” Tompkins said. “The Little Talbot camping area is more spread out. Plus, we offer affordable bike, kayak and tent rentals as well so I think our visitors really enjoy that.”
By day at Little Talbot, the sun baths the grainy, shell-filled sand in light and by night, darkness descends on the nearby forest where visitors retreat to set up camp. Both Tompkins and his fellow park ranger, Shunne Eberely, spoke highly of Little Talbot Island, although they both favor Black Rock Beach.
Black Rock Beach is found at the end of the northernmost trail on Big Talbot Island State Park. A half-mile hike leads to a beach unlike Little Talbot‘s.
Here, the sandy surface is smooth but uneven and every couple of steps is interrupted by pods of black rocks that look molten, or large dead oak trees that have since morphed into bleached driftwood.
If the unique shoreline isn’t enough, Eberely explains that when the tide is at its lowest on Black Rock Beach, visitors can continue even further east toward the ocean and picnic on Bird Island. When the ocean water recedes, a slender and sodden pathway is displayed. The sea surrounds visitors as they move forward toward Bird Island.
It’s a small island, only present during peak hours in the day. Almost completely barren, it provides visitors with temporary peace and seclusion from the main island.
Eberely said being on Bird Island feels as if you’re standing in the middle of the ocean.
For safety matters though, Tompkins added: “If you’re out on Bird Island, make sure you pay attention to the tides. You could get trapped out there and if you time it wrong, you’ll be swimming back to Black Rock Beach.”
Laurie Britt loves to wade in the tide pools of Black Rock Beach. She reaches down to uncover a small starfish, trapped until the return of the tide.
It’s late afternoon and the cool breeze has shifted to a cold wind. Britt looks out toward the fuchsia sky as the sun dips below the horizon. She closes her eyes for a moment, letting the gusts of salty air bite her cheeks.
“It’s an extremely peaceful place,” she said. “And the sunsets here are some of the best I’ve seen.”