Hontoon Island: Take a Break and Explore “Real” Florida

Hontoon Island State Park—all 1,650 acres of it—lies in the middle of the beautiful St. Johns River, which flows from the teeming marshes west of Vero Beach to where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville.  The St. Johns has been designated an American Heritage River.  It is Florida’s longest river.

Hontoon Island is accessible only by private boat (dock space, including overnight dockage, is available on a first come, first serve basis) or the park’s all-electric ferry, which passengers pick up at the landing at  2309 River Ridge Road (off State Road 44) in DeLand.  The ferry operates from 8:00 a.m. until one hour before sunset.

Although snails were the main dish for the Timucuan Indians, Hontoon Island’s first inhabitants, today’s visitors may want to bring their own picnic or pick up snacks and drinks at the Island Store (where Hontoon Island gear and merchandise also is available).  There are plenty of picnic tables—twenty, at last count—as well as a playground and swings.

Besides picnicking, Hontoon Island visitors can do some bank fishing—as long as they plan ahead.  Live bait is not sold on the island, and visitors need to bring a Florida freshwater fishing license with them (if they are 16 years old or older).  Largemouth bass, bluegill, shell cracker, speckled perch, pickerel, panfish and Channel cats may be among the catch.

A visitor’s center provides an overview of the island’s geology and history, the Timucuan culture, and examples of Timucuan totem art.

It’s easy to get around the island—literally.  There are three ways to explore Hontoon Island.

First, visitors can walk the self-guided three-mile Hammock Hiking Nature Trail.  The trailhead is at the Ranger Station.  The trail follows the Hontoon Dead River and continues southwest to the island’s best example of a shell midden (made with all those snails’ shells the Timucuan had for meals).  The walk takes approximately 2.5 hours at a leisurely pace.

The second way to explore Hontoon Island is by bringing your own bicycle.  The island has five miles of service roads (hard-packed dirt) that take riders through its “old Florida” scenery, which varies with the elevation.  Pines, such as longleaf, characterize the higher, flat elevations and ease down into sabal palm, live oak and some palmetto, while the coastline and tributaries are lined with palm and oak hammocks, swampy cypress, and marshes.

Finally, visitors can “get around” the island by renting a canoe or kayak at the Visitor’s Center.   The St. Johns River seems to go on forever in all directions and the fact that it’s usually not busy with boat traffic makes this trip especially idyllic.  There’s lots to explore and the sub-tropical wildness makes it easy to feel like an explorer!

Primitive cabins and tent sites are available and may be reserved in advance.  Otherwise, visitors should remember the last ferry leaves one hour before sunset.

Put a little “old Florida” in your Florida vacation with a visit to charming Hontoon Island.