On the wide and deep lower reaches of the St. Johns River, Green Cove Springs is a charming historical city surrounded by natural beauty. I love how the city’s downtown mingles with the riverbank, where the namesake spring rises.
This hydrological feature has attracted people for more than 170 years, and even today is a source of joy in summer. At 77 °F the spring feeds a public pool in Spring Park, which is also the location for a community get-together on the first Friday of the month.
Another aspect to Green Cove Springs’ past is military heritage. This was the site of Lee Field, where pilots for the iconic Grumman F6F Hellcat prepared for WWII. This story is told at a military museum, while the Clay County Fairgrounds have a hopping calendar of events all year.
1. The Military Museum of North Florida
On the grounds of a former World War II-era naval air station, the Military Museum of North Florida honors the servicemen and women who’ve served the country during times of peace and war.
The museum includes a fascinating array of exhibits that touch on nearly every war and conflict in the country’s history. Items on display include weapons, uniforms, and vehicles including a tank.
What gripped me most of all was the history of the site. This was the primary training base for the F6F Hellcat fighter in WWII. This aircraft achieved 5000+ shoot-downs in WWII, and among the pilots trained here were Joe Kennedy, the brother of JFK.
2. Spring Park
My favorite of all of the parks around the city, Spring Park has a dreamy location on the riverfront.
The big draw is a spring-fed pool that’s replenished with a continuous stream of natural cool water. To my mind, there’s no better spot to relax on a sweltering summer’s day.
The views across the river are stunning, especially if you make it up early to see the sunrise, and head to the end of the pier. Other awesome features at Spring Park are a new playground, a splash pad, and lots of picnic areas.
Last but not least, try to be here for Food Truck Friday, taking place in the evening of the first Friday of the month, March to November.
3. Walnut Street, Green Cove Springs
Green Cove Springs’ main street runs diagonally through the city, touching the St. Johns River at Spring Park and the city pier. Exactly when I was in town, Walnut Street was the focus of a multimillion-dollar renovation.
Some of the work included widening the sidewalks, paving the street with real bricks, and improving the landscaping and lighting.
So chances are that when you come to Green Cove Springs you’ll find a blossoming central artery. Behind the lovely old storefronts here are a gallery, a music shop, clothing boutiques, and a clutch of restaurants.
The finest building is surely the Clay Theatre (1919), given its Art Deco facade in the 1930s. When I went to press this was rented out for private events like weddings.
4. Bayard Conservation Area
Follow SR 16 past the military museum and you’ll come to the parking area and trailhead for a large expanse of nature. Contiguous with the WMA of the same name, the Bayard Conservation Area gives access to some 10,000 acres.
This varies between floodplain hardwood forest near the riverbank and white pine flatwoods and sandhill habitats on higher ground.
Area 1, the northern section by SR 16 has a pair of campsites. One is along the riverbank, among cypress trees, while the other is further up, in the pine flatwoods.
A few of the other things you can do at Bayard Conservation Area are hiking on miles of trails, horseback riding, bicycling, fishing from the riverbank, and observing wildlife.
I spent little more than an hour on the trail, and saw gopher tortoises, deer, and ibises by the water.
5. Clay County Agricultural Fair
The Clay County Fairgrounds are on the western margins of the city and host a slew of events.
I’ll talk about a few in this list, but the star has to be the Clay County Agricultural Fair, traditionally held across 11 days in early April.
As the name tells you this event has rural culture at its soul. That means a lot of FFA and 4-H activities, including livestock shows in numerous categories.
Also in the mix are awesome midway attractions, big-time concerts, wacky contests, and tons of delectable fair food. Each day the fair has a different theme, including a family day, and a senior/inclusive day.
6. Camp Chowenwaw Park
At the confluence of Black Creek and the St. Johns River there’s a blissful 150-acre park at a former Girl Scout camp.
Clay County acquired this property in 2006, ending a 70 year stint as a camp, going back to 1933. With trails weaving past magnificent pines and magnolias and along a boardwalk, it’s a lovely place for a walk.
Amenities are plentiful, and include camping sites (check out the treehouse), a kayak launch, a seasonal public pool, volleyball, picnic areas, a playground, a nature center and museum.
When I was in town the museum had just been remodeled, and there was an absorbing exhibit charting the history of this property going back thousands of years.
7. St. Johns River Paddling Trail
Florida’s longest and most celebrated river, and one of the state’s great recreation attractions, flows right past the city.
Paddling is a great way to experience the wide open waters of the lower basin. Right by Green Cove Springs, there’s a wide choice of launches on the river.
As well as offering paddlers views of the area that others just won’t see, you’ll pass captivating historical and archaeological sites worth checking out.
The city is next to Leg 18 of the river’s paddling trail, with 20 being the river’s mouth on the Atlantic. It’s not uncommon to see deer, bobcats, a wealth of wading birds, and even iconic Florida critters like manatees and gators.
8. Vintage Market Days of Jacksonville
This traveling event takes place three times a year in separate communities. In early December Vintage Market Days comes to the Clay County Fairgrounds.
For me, it’s a perfect opportunity to do some Christmas shopping. There’s a trove of cute things, all with a vintage twist.
This might be antiques, jewelry, clothing, seasonal decorations, upcycled finds, plants, outdoor furnishings, Christmas treats, and all manner of other handmade treasures.
The market takes place over three days, and is rounded off with food trucks and live music.
9. Riverfront Park, St Johns
One of the most rewarding short trips you can make from Green Cove Springs is crossing the river to this waterfront park in St Johns.
I simply was not prepared for the view that greeted me at Riverfront Park. Edged by a mature stand of live oaks, dripping with Spanish moss, there’s a pair of fishing piers, pushing out some distance into the river.
At sunset the vistas back towards Green Cove Springs need to be seen to be believed. This is a smallish passive park, and additional features include a canoe/kayak launch, restrooms, and about a mile of paved trails.
10. The Clay County Historical and Railroad Museum
On the west side of downtown, you’ll happen upon a peculiar collection of historical monuments on a campus with pines, palms and live oaks.
A perfect repository for the county history, this museum features a late 19th-century railroad depot, the 1890 courthouse, and the 1896 county jail.
You can come to investigate this place on Sunday afternoons, admiring a music room, an astounding assortment of railroad artifacts, antique dolls, a preserved country store, and the old cellblock. The latter, in commission until the 1970s, was as creepy to me as it was fascinating.
11. Amazing Grace Family Farms
Not far west of Green Cove Springs, out towards Camp Blanding, there’s a wholesome family-run farm that opens for seasonal events.
Of course, the highlight is fall, when there’s a small world of family fun. I’m talking a crop maze, pumpkins, a rural playground, a tractor train, farm animals, a jump pad, duck races, a corn crib, and all kinds of other activities.
Many of these experiences return in spring for sunflower season. At this time you can head out into the fields for bucolic photo ops and to pick your own sunflowers.
12. Northeast Florida Scottish Games & Festival
Now, plaid kilts may not be traditional Florida wear for most of the year. But every February, the Clay County Fairgrounds are filled with Scottish garb, delicacies, whisky, unique tournaments, and bagpipes.
The Festival is a perennial favorite for those of Scottish descent, and everyone else of course. As the name implies, the event features a variety of traditional heavy athletic events, and there are always plenty of activities for little ones too.
You might see Galloway cattle, Clydesdale horses, plenty of traditional tartan, and a lot of impressive feats of strength.
13. Magnolia Point Golf Club
It’s something to cherish when you find a truly natural course in Florida. That is just what you get at Magnolia Point Golf Club, embedded in a 1,000 acre reserve.
Splendid live oaks, magnolias and pines border greens and fairways, while wildlife sightings are not unusual. I also appreciated how each of these 18 holes feels secluded, with no sign of parallel fairways or greens.
Like most courses in Florida, this track is affected by extreme weather conditions. For my part, I came through in spring and found everything in great condition.
14. North Florida Railway Museum
At the Reynolds Industrial Park near the military museum, this attraction is dedicated to the area’s rich railroad heritage.
The North Florida Railway Museum opened in 1989, and caught my eye with its small fleet of boxcars, a locomotive, and a variety of other cars including a Pullman Sleeper. In varying states of restoration, these served the likes of the Atlantic Coast Line and Florida East Coast Railway.
When I passed by the museum was temporarily closed for reparation work. Normally, you can get in touch and arrange a walking tour, with lots of enlightening snippets.