Ravine Gardens State Park in Palatka, a quirk of Florida geology, unfolds like one of its touted blooms.
The modest sign on Twigg Street only hints at what lies beyond – a cool green oasis in hotter months and a floral showstopper in the winter and spring.
Ravine Gardens isn't a traditional plot. Its architect is erosion, which over eons collapsed a sandy bluff near the St. Johns River into something odd for the Sunshine State – a 120-foot-deep ravine.
Depression-era projects by the federal Works Progress Administration and the city of Palatka transformed the ravine into a naturalized public garden, with pathways, walls and steps, and the installation of thousands of native azaleas and other plants.
Today, Ravine Gardens, which dates to the mid-1930s, is a horticultural haven for both Palatka and Putnam County residents and the area's many visitors.
"The park gets a lot of use," said Emily Rodriguez, Ravine Gardens' park specialist. "It's not often that you see a natural garden this extensive."
Over 100,000 azaleas provide a riot for the eyes during the peak January-April bloom. Five of the park's 146 acres are formally landscaped, including terraces that lead down one slope to the ravine and its creek.
Fountains spout amid terraces. Limestone walls line flower beds and walkways. A rose garden rims the uppermost terrace, framing the largest water spout, the Azalea Fountain. Rodriguez sees many brides and grooms come and go from the upper terraces.
"We have weddings every other weekend," she said.
About two miles of trails crisscross the ravine, Rodriguez said, ranging from a smooth stroll on its floor to steeper climbs up and down its walls. Two suspension bridges span the chasm at separate locations, providing kid-friendly bouncing and creek views.
"I've seen otters down here," Rodriguez said, pointing east from one bridge toward the river. "The creek leads out to the St. Johns and they find their way up here."
The spring-fed creek averages a water temperature of 72 degrees year round and is passably drinkable, although "We don't recommend it," she said.
Embedded among Palatka homes and businesses, Ravine Gardens evokes its history in every detail. The circa-1935 administration building – pecky cypress-paneled and pine-floored – has been restored. An outdoor picnic and gathering pavilion adjacent to the uppermost terrace replicates the original 1935 concession stand.
The Court of States, another formal garden across from the original administration building, is outlined with rock-columned trellises and crowned with an obelisk monument to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the WPA founder.
Rodriguez said the flags of the first 48 states – Ravine Gardens was established prior to Alaska and Hawaii statehood – fly in the Court of States during festivals and events. The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
All year, expect a morning stampede of runners, walkers, cyclists and hikers.
"The parking lot will be full before the park is even open," Rodriguez said.
In late summer, Ravine Gardens is more about texture and layers, quietly green except for crape myrtles, roses and beds of bright marigolds and vinca. Giant queen palms muscle through live oak branches.
More compact, old-growth sago palms share hillsides with equally old and enormous azaleas.
The park's 1.8-mile paved loop is open to pedestrians and vehicular traffic until one hour before dusk. Restrooms, a playground, picnic areas and a designated fitness area for stretching can be found along the way.
At its height, the loop appears to whisk users through the treetops among massive live oaks, burnished gold-green magnolias, pines, chickasaw plums and southern red cedars.
At its lowest point, the loop dips to where the ravine empties at the city's old waterworks plant. Ponds here are thick with water lilies – and warning signs for alligators.
Fitness or not, all that exploration works up appetites, so head back to Palatka's historic downtown a few miles northeast of Ravine Gardens.
Angel's Diner, which claims to be the state's oldest (1932), is de rigueur for first-time Palatka visitors and diner aficionados.
Tiny and almost stubbornly retro in appearance, it's renowned for fresh hamburgers and onion rings, plus milkshakes and malts.
A few blocks west of Angel's off 4th Street, digest those calories while browsing Elsie Bell's Antique Mall. The 3,000-square-foot space houses quality vintage wares from 30 dealers in another old Palatka building – a former sanitarium-turned-funeral parlor that retains original stained-glass windows.
A case near Elsie Bell's entrance is stocked with old-fashioned candy varieties if Angel's milkshakes or malts didn't provide enough sugar.
Across 4th Street, on the Putnam County Courthouse grounds, the Maltby Live Oak shades everything around it. Named for former county agent Hubert Maltby, the tree is at least 125 years old, according to a granite marker that also claims a branch spread of 116 feet and a circumference of 13.5 feet.
Indeed, metal posts prop the Maltby's largest, most sprawling branches.
Nearby signs say, "Please don't climb on trees."
If You Go
Note: A complete list of Putnam County and Palatka restaurants, shops and galleries can be found at putnamcountychamber.com.
Ravine Gardens State Park
1600 Twig Street, Palatka
Directions: From U.S. Hwy. 17-State Road 100, turn south on Moseley Avenue then east on Twigg Street. Park entrance will be on your right.
209 Reid Street, Palatka
Directions: In downtown Palatka. Reid Street also is U.S. Hwy 17-State Road 100. Angel's is on the south side of Reid Street, between 2nd and 3rd Streets.
Elsie Bell's Antique Mall
111 North 4th Street, Palatka
Directions: In downtown Palatka. Turn south off Reid Street (also U.S. Hwy 17-State Road 100). Shop is on left, across from Putnam County Courthouse.
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