Words and images by Cassidy Alexander
Palatka’s azalea-filled Ravine Gardens State Park is named for its main feature: two deep ravines that cut into the earth and overflow with foliage and wildlife.
It’s an ecosystem unto itself, different from what’s familiar to most Floridians and is characterized by narrow, twisting paths and steep steps that lead visitors up, down and in circles. Parts of the ravine are up to 120 feet deep, said Mark Giblin, park manager, and some of the banks are as steep as a 45-degree angle.
The park is made of two steephead ravines that are thousands of years old. Steephead ravines are formed from the water that flows along the bottom, Giblin said.
“It causes erosion and works its way up, as opposed to a sinkhole, which is just a big hole that forms. This is more the dirt, the sediment and all that has been washed away through the years.”
Located in a quiet residential neighborhood in Palatka, the park was created in the early 1930s and is one of nine New Deal-era parks in the state. In 1937, it was declared the country’s most outstanding park created by the Civil Works Administration.
Many plants, structures and features remain from that era, like the azaleas that the park is known for that were introduced during that time.
Ravine Gardens is filled to the brim with blooming azaleas each year between January and April, and those flowers are perhaps its most distinguishing feature, according to Giblin. Over 100,000 of the vibrant shrubs were planted shortly after the park was established, and over the years they transformed the ravine into what visitors see today.
The azaleas fill the ravine, spilling over into the winding paths and blurring together into a sea of fuchsia, pink and white. The flowers dot the tangled bushes and add stunning details to the wild landscape of the ravine.
“To see a sea of color around the banks of the ravine and around the top of the ravine, it’s by far my favorite time of year,” Giblin said. “It’s just an amazing site to see all the color blooming throughout the park.”
A 1.8-mile paved road encircles the ravine. It’s open to traffic on some days, but is also closed to cars every day an hour before sundown, as well as at various points throughout the week. During these times the road remains open for pedestrians, bicyclists and those in wheelchairs to take advantage of the path circling the garden.
Within the ravine there are trails that take visitors on winding paths — along the stream at the bottom, up and down the sides, and across suspension bridges in midair. The park also features fitness trails and benches for relaxing during hikes.
Aside from the obvious activity of walking through and around the ravine, this state park provides plenty of opportunities for larger gatherings and events. With a playground for children, spots for picnicking, exhibits in the Civic Center, and an amphitheater for other large events, Ravine Gardens has something for everyone.
Many amenities are also ADA-accessible, which Assistant Park Manager Justin Flinchum lists as a priority for the park.
“We’re trying to move toward that,” he said, “to better [accommodate] everybody.”
In the end, people come to Ravine Gardens State Park for different reasons. Some go for a nice place to hike or for a place to let their children explore. Others go to experience something bigger than them — something with a long history. It seems that any reason is a good reason to get to Ravine Gardens State Park.