The first thing you notice about the rusty tractor parked at the entrance of the long-abandoned citrus barn is that all four tires are half melted into the sandy ground. It has obviously been there a very long time, but that’s part of its charm. It sparks your curiosity and beckons you inside the long, rustic building—if you’re brave enough to dodge the cobwebs.

Once inside, when your eyes adjust to the gloom, you can see that it appears workers just up and left one day and never came back. Dusty work pants hang on a nail and an old metal bucket lies on an overturned bench. Slatted, wooden orange crates are scattered in a corner. Strands of Spanish moss dangle from a broken window. St. Johns County’s 55-acre Alpine Groves Park, which overlooks the St. Johns River, was once a thriving orange grove. Lucky for us, remnants of its past remain intact for visitors to explore.

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The park is free and includes expansive views of the river, a long fishing pier with covered picnic tables, old farm buildings, a children’s playground, wooded walking trails, a smattering of orange trees and a white 19th century farm house with a wide front porch. The park’s unique beauty and historic scenery is a draw for shutter bugs, and it has a reputation for being one of the First Coast’s most photogenic places for nature and portrait photography. Fortunately it is also quiet and uncrowded.

On a recent visit, I witnessed a family posing on the farmhouse porch as a professional photographer snapped away. They’d even brought a few props for the shoot, temporarily turning the quaint setting into their own private studio. Out at the end of the pier, a couple sat enjoying a picnic and the panoramic view of gentle waves rolling towards shore. A lone fisherman cast his line into the water nearby. Later, as I strolled through a canopy of oaks and huge magnolia trees along one of the trails, the only sounds I could hear were bird calls.

The park is open daily, from dawn until dusk. It has a canoe and kayak launch for those who bring their own equipment, and pavilions are available for rent. Developers once offered to buy the property and its quarter mile of riverfront set on 30-foot bluffs, but owners Ruth Harris Bennett and her husband Wally sold it to the Trust for Public Land 15 years ago. Ruth grew up there and wanted to preserve its legacy, so the Trust partnered with the county to turn it into a passive park which became open to the public. The county stabilized the buildings and is raising money to restore them, including the barn and the farm house.

In the meantime, I find them charming just the way they are, existing as if in a state of suspended animation. It’s like a historic photograph that you can step into and take a look around.

Visiting Alpine Groves

The park is located at  2060 State Rd. 13 in Switzerland, FL.

More information can be found at co.st-johns.fl.us/Recreation/Parks/AlpineGroves.