A lone pelican sailed overhead, floating leisurely on an invisible current of air before splashing down into the Intracoastal Waterway to snag a fish.
There seemed to be plenty of fish under the glistening waves surrounding the Betty Steflik Memorial Preserve pier. I stood there and watched the pelican, as it dove into the waters again and again, scooping them up and gobbling them down. That morning, the salty bird and I had the place to ourselves for a little while.
That is until Judy McNitt, a Flagler Beach resident and park regular, came along.
“It’s beautiful out here, a little bit of paradise,” she told me with a smile. “You never know what you are going to see.” She pointed to the entrance of a creek that flowed from the waterway into the 217-acre salt marsh and coastal scrub preserve. “I’ve even seen a deer swimming from this side to the other,” she said. “They cross over.”
McNitt visits the park daily for exercise, and she gave me some good advice. Rather than spend my time strolling the preserve’s boardwalks, she suggested, ‘Get off the beaten path and get into the woods,” she said. “It circles the park. It’s a really relaxing walk.”
Nestled in a corner of the quaint and quiet beach town of Flagler Beach, the Betty Steflik Memorial Preserve is a free county park that offers visitors unique and expansive views of estuarine creeks and maritime hammocks. Its network of raised boardwalks takes you over black mangrove marshes and oyster shell-laced ponds, while the wandering wooded trails take you through a small forest of cedar trees.
The preserve is an ideal place to bird watch, fish and picnic. It is home to cardinals, wood storks, blue herons, snowy egrets, cormorants and night herons as well as pelicans. Mangroves provide a sanctuary for a variety of coastal wildlife. Broom grass, smooth cord grass and black needle rush grow throughout the marsh, which fiddler crabs and gopher tortoises call home.
Opened in 1995, the preserve was named in honor of Betty Steflik, a Flagler Beach City Commissioner who dedicated the last 25 years of her life to preserving Flagler County’s fragile coastline and wetlands. “Flagler Beach would have a totally different look today if it were not for her vision and commitment,” said Bob Mish, another Flagler environmentalist and city commissioner, after her death in 2004.
Thank you, Betty Steflik. The preserve is worth a visit, and afterward, you might want to head into Flagler Beach, a charming town about an hour’s drive from Jacksonville. A bit retro, lined with beachside shops and restaurants, it’s old Florida charm at its best. Unspoiled. Not over developed. Just like Betty wanted it.