A splashy show takes center stage the next few weekends in Palatka when a state park bursts with sprays of orange, pink, red, fuchsia and white azalea blooms.
Ravine Gardens State Park may be one of the most colorful parks in Florida in late-winter months when thousands of azalea bushes flower.
The effect is made even more spectacular by the fact that the shrubs cover the sides of a pair of deep ravines that make up the park.
The park’s floral outburst is celebrated each year with a one-day festival held on the park’s grounds. Besides the blooms, arts and craft vendors, musicians, a plant sale and ranger-led hikes are always planned.
This year the 21st Annual Azalea Days is being held today at the Palatka park from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. So hop into your car and take the short jaunt south to behold the state’s most impressive floral shows.
But Ravine Gardens State Park is more than just azaleas and is always worth your time.
origins during the Great Depression
The park was born during the Depression when President Franklin Roosevelt was desperately seeking ways to help the millions of people who had lost their jobs.
From his search came the Works Progress Administration, and from that New Deal came today’s Ravine Gardens.
The Putnam County park was chosen as one of nine parks in Florida to receive help from those employed by the WPA, and the formerly unemployed WPA workers descended on Palatka to make it a showcase.
They built immense limestone fences and walls. Hundreds of steps were built descending into the park’s deep ravines.
Fountains and terraces dot the landscape.
A Court of States comprised stone walkways bordered by giant pillars. Here flew the flags of the 48 states that were part of the nation when the park was established.
But most impressive were the 100,000 azaleas the WPA workers planted in the park’s soil.
They joined the native dogwood, crepe myrtles, ferns and other flora to create a magnificent public garden.
Because of its landscaped beauty, in 1937 the park was named “the Nation’s Outstanding CWA Project.” The CWA was Roosevelt’s short-lived predecessor to the WPA.
More recently, in 1999, Ravine Gardens was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was also pinpointed as a National Landmark for Outstanding Landscape Architecture by the American Society of Landscape Architects.
A walk through Ravine Gardens today allows visitors to see the craftsmanship for which WPA workers were known.
It also gives people a chance to view a unique geologic feature of Putnam County where a small tributary of the St. Johns River, Whitewater Branch, has eroded a pair of 120-foot-deep ravines.
Through these ravines and up their steep sides wind some two miles of trails.
A swinging bridge crosses high above the creek at one point.
Numerous platforms allow visitors to gaze down into the ravine, their heads nearly level with the tops of the giant trees growing from the ravine bottom.
Playgrounds and picnic tables are scattered throughout the park.
Rentable spaces, including meeting rooms and an auditorium, are located within a refurbished Administration Building built from pecky cypress.
For visitors who don’t feel up to the climbs that go with a descent to the bottom of the ravine, a 1.8-mile roadway cuts a leisurely path around the perimeter of the park.
The steep sides of the ravine and plenty of pull-offs provide an opportunity for people to enjoy the park in so many ways.
So take some time this weekend — or really any time — to experience one of the Florida’s treasures.
It is a floral showstopper and a horticultural oasis.