Entering a maritime forest, we found ourselves in a land thick with soaring oak trees, draped in Spanish moss, interspersed with Southern Magnolias and pignut hickories. Then the trees thinned and we came upon a fresh water marsh, once the source of water for a colonial British plantation. A black racer scooted across our path. To the left, a water lily grew in a small pond, filled with hundreds of other tiny white flowers. Suddenly a black and yellow butterfly flitted across my face.

Taking the “yellow trail” in the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve was proving to be an adventure.

The walkability and beauty along the trail make this a favorite spot for visitors who frequent the park, said my guide, long-time volunteer Tom Barry. From the trail head just beyond the Guana River dam, it’s an easy 30 minute stroll out.

The reserve, located between Ponte Vedra Beach and St. Augustine, encompasses about 73,000 acres of Atlantic Ocean beaches, coastal scrub, salt and fresh water marsh, maritime hammock and pine flat woods.

Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
Photography by Craig O'Neal
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Photography by Craig O'Neal

Visitors can explore the reserve by hiking or biking its 10 miles of trails, which are marked by color coded signs throughout the wilderness.

Volunteers lead free nature and cultural hikes along the yellow trail on the first and second Saturdays of every month. Visitors can explore it by themselves during daylight hours any day as well. They can also take the blue or orange trails back to the dam, where the parking lot is located. More animals and birds can be seen along those routes, Barry said. Purple and red trails take visitors to even more remote areas, where wild pigs and deer roam.

I like the yellow trail because it leads to Shell Bluff, where you can take in a beautiful view of the Intracoastal, which at that point is the Tolomato River. There is a picnic table there, an oyster shell strewn beach and an historic well that once provided water for a farm during the Spanish period in the late 1780s.

Archeologists studied the well in the 1980s, when Guana was a state park, Barry said. They believe it belonged to Juan Andreau, a Minorcan farmer who was given a Spanish land grant.

Autumn is a great time to walk the Guana trails, and a steady breeze blew across the Tolomato as I walked the beach covered by oyster shells, remnants of a Timucuan Indian culture that pre-dated Spanish and British settlers.

It was so quiet; I could hear the water lapping onto the beach, which is rimmed by forest. In my mind’s eye, I could picture Timucuans fishing or Spanish farmers drawing water from the well.

“It’s beautiful out here, a great place for a picnic,” Barry said.

I agree.