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One of Florida's most interesting lakes is Guana Lake. Located between Jacksonville and St Augustine in Florida's North Region, the lake is actually located on one of the barrier islands of America's First Coast. A narrow spit of dunes separates Guana Lake from the Atlantic. Originally part of the free-flowing Guana River, the river was dammed in 1957 to create wildlife habitat. About 2,400 acres of water and wetlands are impounded, with fresh water predominantly at the north end of the lake and salt water at the south. The Guana River flows into the Tolomato River downstream - a part of the Intercoastal Waterway - so the lake gains salt water with the tide. Many local fishermen claim Guano Lake offers some of the best saltwater fishing in the area.
Always a unique wildlife habitat, the creation of the lake with the building of the dam created an excellent salt-marsh wetland for the benefit of both birds and reptiles. The maximum depth of the lake is six feet, and averages four feet - ideal habitat for marsh dwellers. Boats are limited to 10 hp. Flat-bottom john boats, canoes and kayaks are ideal for exploring the shoreline and shallows. Airboats and jet skis are prohibited. The preferred fish sought on Guana Lake are sea trout, redfish and black drum, but flounder, catfish, small sharks, sting rays, jacks, croaker, ladyfish, and bluefish are also found in the lake. Guana Lake is also famous for blue crabbing and shrimping, particularly around the dam area. Several public boat launch sites are maintained. The lake is surrounded by the Guana River State Park. The lakeshore provides excellent bird-watching opportunities and eco-tours by kayak are arranged by local groups.
South of the dam, the Guana River Marsh Aquatic Preserve also contains uplands and beaches. Approximately 9,500 acres are managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and an additional 2,600 acres are managed by CAMA (Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas). A new Environmental Education Center has recently opened near the dam. The 21,000 square-foot center includes interpretive exhibits, aquariums, classrooms, teaching and working laboratories, an auditorium and an outdoor amphitheater overlooking the Guana River Aquatic Preserve. Outdoor recreational activities include a picnic pavilion, 10 miles of hiking trails and three beach access points. The upland areas offer great opportunities for hiking, bicycling, horseback riding and birding. This diverse preserve provides habitat for a wide variety of resident and migratory wildlife. Bird rookeries, including a sizable breeding population of the endangered wood stork, are found within the preserve. The beach areas provide breeding and nesting habitat for sea turtles and ground-nesting shorebirds such as the threatened least tern. Also found in the preserve are found archaeological and historic sites such as early native American middens, burial grounds, and artifacts of aboriginal and Spanish colonial origin. A 1592 account by a Spanish historian has led present day historians to believe that the Guana River was the site of Ponce de Leon's first landing in Florida.
Just south of the Preserve, South Ponte Vedra Beach is a popular resort community. Vacation rentals are common here as vacationers enjoy a week or two of seacoast and sand with the lovely Guana Lake lagoon less than a mile to the east. Mostly upscale single-family homes, some condos are being built in the area. Hotels and bed-and-breakfasts provide alternate vacation lodgings. Campgrounds are numerous in the area but reservations are recommended near busy holidays. Real estate is often available, often with lovely beach views.
Only 30 miles to the south America's Oldest City, St Augustine provides history, entertainment and cultural events. Anastacia State Park, site of the original settlement provides hunting, fishing, camping, biking and four miles of beach for beachcombing. Here the visitor can rent kayaks, canoes and sailboards. Nearby, Fort Mose Historic State Park offers a lesson in African-American history that few have ever heard. The fort, no longer in existence, was the site of a town created by the Spanish for escaped slaves from the British Carolinas prior to 1750. Historic re-enactors bring the story to life.
Only half an hour from Guana Lake, the city of St. Augustine offers many visual reminders of the city's Spanish heritage. The Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum and the Dow Museum of Historic Houses both preserve original buildings from the 1700s. Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth is preserved near the town, although there is no sign of its youth-giving properties. The Original Ripley's Believe It or Not! is located in St Augustine, near Potter's Wax Museum. And the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park will delight visitors with its many displays of birds and animals, including plenty of Florida's trademark alligators. A full service municipal marina provides services for sail craft arriving by water.
North of Guana Lake along Coastal A1A highway, the scenery is magnificent. Before the traveler gets to Jacksonville, Fort George Island Cultural State Park highlights 5,000 years of human habitation in the area. Many areas along the beach provide access for beach-combing and kayaking. Golf courses are plentiful along the coast, as are opportunities for wildlife viewing and exploring. Quaint small towns dot the highways and one-of-a-kind eating establishments are located around every bend. Geared to tourism, the people are friendly and helpful and all needed services are easily found. So, what are you waiting for? America's First Coast awaits your visit.
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