Around and Near Jacksonville: Best Beaches on the First Coast, Mickler's Beach in Ponte Vedra, Sharks Teeth
Mickler's Beach in Ponte Vedra

Around and Near Jacksonville: The Best Beaches to Visit on the First Coast of Florida

The expression “Life’s a beach” looks at the bright side of things, putting a sunny spin on a phrase that when substituting its more vulgar counterpart means the exact opposite, or at the very least a female dog. “A day at the beach” also serves as a unit of measurement to describe a pleasurable situation, but in an idiomatic sense denotes less than desirable circumstances, as in ‘she was no day at the beach’.

What does a day at the beach mean to you? For some, it’s as simple and stretching out on a towel or lounge chair, turning the pages of a good book while basking in the sun’s glorious rays (safely, of course. Seriously, SPF is your friend). Others take the expression to heart and basically replicate a living room/kitchen combo complete with canopy, seating for 12, a cooler with enough rations to survive the summer and every make and model of sand toy to keep the little ones entertained.

In a city that’s surrounded by water, there are approximately 22 miles of beachfront ripe for surfing, swimming and sunning. There is more in the sands than just shells. Beachgoers flock to Mickler’s Landing in Ponte Vedra to stroll the sandy shores in search of shark’s teeth. Enjoy a stay-cation and camp under the stars at Hanna Park in Atlantic Beach. Witness the sculptural beauty of nature at Big Talbot Island where the skeletons of fallen trees have created an oceanfront landscape that must truly be seen to believed. Soak in the history of American Beach, and where pioneers charted their own course to be part of Florida’s storied past.

Hunting Sharks’ Teeth

Around and Near Jacksonville: Best Beaches on the First Coast, Mickler's Beach in Ponte Vedra, Sharks Teeth
Mickler’s Beach in Ponte Vedra

There are two kinds of people in this world; those who can find sharks’ teeth and those who cannot, which means looking for sharks teeth is either one of the most relaxing or frustrating activities one can do at the beach. At Mickler’s Landing, it’s like an Easter Egg hunt, but instead of brightly colored eggs, it’s little black triangles with serrated edges. While walking along the water’s edge, typically at low tide, look closely at the shell deposits pushed ashore by the tide. The trick is to spot the little specks of black among the broken shells to find fossilized sharks’ teeth.

Around and Near Jacksonville: Best Beaches on the First Coast, Mickler's Beach in Ponte Vedra, Sharks Teeth
Mickler’s Beach in Ponte Vedra

Like a good surf break, beaches ripe with sharks’ teeth are guarded by locals who don’t want to see their gold mine stripped clean by teeth-hungry tourists. One of the only public beach accesses in Ponte Vedra Beach, called Mickler’s Beach (pronounced MIKE-lers to the locals), located south to Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Research Reserve, is the best place to find the teeth. 

Fossilized teeth are actually thousands to millions of years old. Sharks lose thousands of teeth over time. When they drop to the ocean floor and are quickly covered by sand, they can be preserved through permineralization. Minerals found in the water seep through tiny pores in the tooth, taking it through the preservation process. They can also determine the color change of the fossil, which casts an orange tint if there is iron present. 

Around and Near Jacksonville: Best Beaches on the First Coast, Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve North in Ponte Vedra, Sharks Teeth
Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Research Reserve North Beach Access in Ponte Vedra

The beach at Guana is amazing with ancient 30-foot dunes and healthy sea oat systems holding the dunes together, with a diversity of plant life adapted to the salty air and low nutrient sands, gopher tortoises, and more. These beaches are home to sea turtle nesting from May through October each year.

The North Beach access of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Research Reserve, known to locals as the old Guana River State Park, is located on A1A South in South Ponte Vedra, just north of St. Augustine. It is about five miles south of Mickler’s Road. The fee per car is $3 and is payable on an honor system. 

The beach has a healthy line of crushed shells, and that is the best place to hunt for sharks’ teeth at low tide along the water’s edge. Just keep an eye out for the little black specks that are shaped like a triangle and pick them up for a closer look. The teeth can be hard to find, but they are there (or so I’ve heard). Just be patient. *sigh*

Camping under the Stars

Around and Near Jacksonville: Best Beaches on the First Coast, Camping Under the Stars, Photo by maximilien t scharner
It’s really nice to take a stay-cation once in a while to get away from the bustle of daily life. Camping in the glorious plush nature setting at Hanna Park is ideal. While there are a few cabins with a small, screened porch, and a single room with an AC, most of the action takes place outdoors. Set up camp with lawn chairs, a portable table for grilled dogs, burgers, potato salad or whatever outdoor menu you prefer.

Kathryn Abby Hanna Park in Atlantic Beach offers nearly two miles of miles of beach and a 60-acre freshwater lake perfect for fishing, kayaking, paddle boats, and canoes. Scenic trails for biking and hiking surround the lake and wind through a lush green forest. The lake area also includes a water playground with colorful fountains for the kids. The Poles, known as one of the area’s premier surfing spots, is located on site. Wooded campsites are available for primitive camping or book a cabin for a night or two.

Around and Near Jacksonville: Best Beaches on the First Coast, Hanna Park, Camping Under the Stars, Photo by Tom Schifanella
Hanna Park, Photo by Tom Schifanella

The trails are always an adventure, and surfing at the poles is one of the best spots around. Huguenot Park is on the north side of the inlet, and the Mayport Poles is on the south side of this inlet. Expect a heavily localized crowd on the weekends, when the waves get over waist high.

This beautiful spot is a delightful retreat right in your own backyard. Surrounded by lush tropical vegetation, huge live oaks and towering palm trees, all of the 300 campsites have fire pits and tables. The gates campground offers full service, so there is plenty of room for RVs, although most campers utilize small vehicles as the roads are narrow. A camp store is located on site for supplies and rentals, and the beach is a stone’s throw away.

Hanna Park is also the perfect destination for a stargazing. NEFAS host regular stargazing events. Volunteers bring their personal stargazing equipment and offer guided instruction on viewing objects in the night sky safely. It’s a great way to ponder the sheer vastness of the night sky and identify celestial bodies on a clear night. Staring into the heavens offers a unique way to get some real-life perspective, and makes you question the existence of life outside our solar system. 

Get My Drift

Boneyard Beach, Big Talbot, Around and Near Jacksonville: Best Beaches on the First Coast
Boneyard Beach

I once had a dream about Big Talbot Island, known as Boneyard Beach. In the dream, I am on a game show hosted by Beetlejuice, and I choose what’s behind door number three. Imagine opening a door designed by Tim Burton, when what exists before you tilts toward the surreal and challenges the laws of reality, but in a really cool way.

Boneyard Beach is one of those places that kind of has to be seen to be believed with endless vistas of driftwood skeletons bleached white by the sun. Starkly beautiful with its creamy smooth beaches of firm sand, “Boneyard Beach” is a fascinating place and a photographer’s dream. The sun-bleached remains of trees eroded from the soil by the tide are the real stars of this beach. The limbs take on otherworldly poses. Some are quite elegant, while others are twisted and surreal. 

For those adventure seekers, it entails climbing down natural cliffs to reach the beach. There is more parking, picnic areas, a lookout point and restroom facilities. The trail takes about 15 minutes to walk to the beach area. Or you can park a distance away where walkways lead the way to a long walk along the beach. It has the easiest access to the beach. No matter what path you take, it’s worth the trip.

It’s best to visit Boneyard Beach before high tide, when the black rock formations are visible through the sand. Once the tide comes in, the driftwood trees take on a more sinister quality, like tentacles breaking through the surface of the waves. The experience is sure to leave you in awe of the force of water, and will make you feel very small standing beside the enormous driftwood statues. The driftwood must be undisturbed, so guests are prohibited from taking home a souvenir but bring a camera to capture the majesty of the wooden giants and leave them for future generations to behold.

The American Dream

American Beach, Amelia Island, Around and Near Jacksonville: Best Beaches on the First Coast
American Beach

American Beach represented a new kind of American Dream. It was an African American resort community established in 1935 in bold defiance of segregation. Encompassing 216 acres, American Beach was known as “The Negro Ocean Playground” and a place where African Americans could enjoy “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.”  

It was the concept of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, who was one of the original founders of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company in 1901. Lewis had little formal education, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a world traveler, visionary investor, philanthropist, and Florida’s first African American millionaire. 

When American Beach was first mapped out, the streets were named for the founders and their families. As the numbers of visitors grew, businesses sprang up providing food, lodging and entertainment. Performers who appeared at American Beach during its heyday include Duke Ellington and other popular musicians of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

American Beach,Nana Dune System, Amelia Island, Around and Near Jacksonville: Best Beaches on the First Coast
American Beach

“The changes that came with integration signaled the demise of that idyllic moment in time.” -MaVynee Oshun Betsch

MaVynee Oshun Betsch was known as “The Beach Lady: as one of the most recognizable and passionate preservationists of the legacy of American Beach. Betsch was the great-grand daughter of A. L. Lewis and an internationally respected environmental activist best remembered for her work to preserve the great sand dune NaNa as a protected and revered landmark on American Beach. 

Initially a summer vacation community that attracted primarily visitors from the South, American Beach is presently home to many full-time residents and visitors from all over the world. While development reduced the footprint to half its original size, The American Beach Museum offers a visual tour through its history.

The museum exhibits artifacts, photographs and video documentation as a testament to those efforts including a tribute to Betsch’s legacy and includes her legendary seven-foot long lock of natural hair, embellished with talismans of her favorite causes. She fiercely fought to preserve the legacy of American Beach, a tradition continued by property owners, preservationists and historians as they carry out her mission to nurture the heritage and the land.

About Liza Mitchell