Elite Lakes: A Travel Guide to the St. Johns River

The shallow, serpentine waters of the St. Johns River beat a northbound flow across the Sunshine State for more than 300 miles. They’re depths and shores provide habitat for otters, ibis, manatees, alligators—and, of course—the river’s legendary largemouth bass. In the days before B.A.S.S. was even a twinkle in Ray Scott’s Mississippi motel room, the St. Johns was already a haven for bass anglers, plying its waters with wooden lures and live bait.

Today; however, the St. Johns most often welcomes a different kind of angler: the modern, sophisticated bass hound equipped with an arsenal of soft plastics and an electronic command center on the bow. Recent Bassmaster Elite Series winners here include John Crews  in 2022 and Rick Clunn in 2018 and 2016, the latter of which has only reinforced the fishery’s mythical status among bass fishing fans.

But away from the water, the St. Johns offers a playground of inland, old Florida charm that can feel a world away from the hustle and bustle of Orlando and the jam-packed beaches of the coast.

Elite Series events on the St. Johns are typically run out of the city of Palatka, located about 50 minutes from St. Augustine on the coast and an hour from Gainesville in the center of the state. The town of about 11,000 residents dates back to Spanish colonists settling on Seminole land in the 1650s, though its modern incarnation began to take shape in the 1850s thanks to steamboat traffic on the very river that still lures tourists to the area today.

Getting your grub on

Travelers can visit Florida’s oldest diner at Angel’s Diner, a classic burger-and-fries joint located in a vintage railroad dining car. More sophisticated takes on classic American cuisine can be snuffed out at Steamboat Willie’s Gastropub, where fried mushrooms and pickle spears share a menu alongside “boat wings,” loaded nachos and “dirty boat fries.”

Anglers looking for dockside dining can tie-up at Corky Bell’s Seafood for fresh Florida coastal faire at Gator Landing. Elsewhere, Velchoff’s Corner offers cajun-inspired plates and fresh oysters inside of a historic, downtown freight building.

Swing by Azalea City Brewing Company for a swig of 7 Sisters Lager or a taste of the city’s Palatka Haze Hazy IPA. Nearby food trucks provide a rotating array of flavors and growlers are available to-go for the campsite. Uncork & Unwind Craft Beer and Wine Lounge serves up regular live music within walking distance of the riverfront.

Cabins, campsites and comfortable confines

Palatka’s hospitality industry is well aware of the popularity of bass fishing, and a variety of standard, national chain hotels have set up shop near the waterfront in order to cash in on the evergreen craze. Hampton Inn Palatka sits on the water, with Best Western and Holiday Inn Express not far away.

Travelers searching for more unique digs can settle in to a historic, Queen Anne mansion at the Grand Gables Inn, Bed & Breakfast just two blocks from Riverfront Park. Crystal Cove Resort offers standard hotel rooms as well as boat-charging hookups, an on-site marina and riverfront swimming pool.

Road warriors living van and RV-life can settle in to a slot at St. John’s Campground, which features 30 amp and 50 amp campsites just across the river from downtown Palatka.

More family fun

Stroll along the riverfront at the St. Johns River Center, a dedicated hub featuring green space, docks and exhibits just steps from the weigh-in area of the Bassmaster Elite Series. Pair the visit with a walking tour of Palatka’s vibrant, old Florida murals.

Hike on narrow boardwalks above the forest floor at Rice Creek Conservation Area, just three miles west of Palatka. The trails here are lined by azaleas, ferns, cypress knees and dancing bromeliads. Explore terraced gardens lining ancient, 120-foot deep ravines on a 2.2-mile loop trail at Ravine Gardens State Park. This relic of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration houses some 250,000 ornamental plants and nearly 100,000 azaleas perfect for a half day of adventure off of the water.

Of note, North America’s oldest city of European origin, St. Augustine, sits less than an hour from Palatka. Bookend a trip to the St. Johns with an evening ghost tour of the town, founded by the Spanish in 1565. Ghost City Tours walks visitors through the captivating history of the St. Augustine Lighthouse and the Castillo de San Marcos that doubles as a portal to reimagining the history of the United States.