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January 16, 2024

Clay County Story Sessions: Camp Blanding and a Bevy of Nearby Opportunities for Fun

Anyone who has ever stepped foot in Clay County, Florida, quickly discovers that its distinctly Southern roots wrap around every footprint, focal point, and fabled façade in the area. You may call Clay County’s visitors wonderers, or maybe they’re also just wanderers, but regardless of travel intent, it’s impossible to avoid becoming entangled in the culture, charm, and stories that make up some of the region’s mystique. One such place is Camp Blanding, a training site so significant in World War II that it helped shape modern U.S. history. Here, we’ll look at Camp Blanding’s own rich tradition in addition to other incredible Clay County experiences and further opportunities to patronize the area’s Veteran-owned businesses.

Unique History

A camp is born into greatness when it is constructed by the same people who built architectural wonders such as the Empire State Building. This is the case with Camp Blanding, one of the most unique military facilities in the entire country. The camp’s heralded history, unprecedented size, and the variety of training offerings available onsite have long set it apart from anywhere else. Still active today, Camp Blanding continues to serve as a year-round training facility for thousands of National Guardsmen, active Army members, and Reservists from all over the country.

Originally, the site was chosen in 1939 as a training facility for the Florida National Guard. It was named in honor of Lt. Gen. Albert H. Blanding, a distinguished soldier from Florida. In 1940, it was leased to the U.S. Army as an active duty training center, initially utilized by New England and Southern troops preparing for deployment overseas. Built in only 90 days, the camp swelled to span 170,000 acres due to eminent domain enforced by the government and multiple land leases with locals. In fact, Camp Blanding grew to be Florida’s fourth largest city due to the influx of wartime soldiers and remained that size until the end of those efforts in 1945. 

During World War II, Camp Blanding played a crucial role as an Infantry training camp, there were 9 Infantry Divisions and other non-division units that trained there.  Starting in mid-1943 Blanding became an Infantry Replacement Training Center training soldiers to be sent as replacements to existing infantry divisions. Women also served in the wartime effort at Camp Blanding, persevering through rigorous training while still wearing high heels. Perhaps combat boots didn’t come in female sizes at the time, making their efforts even more admirable. The camp also operated as an induction center for new draftees, a prisoner-of-war compound that held one thousand two hundred German soldiers, and a separation center. More than 800,000 soldiers were trained at Camp Blanding during the war, many of whom were as young as 16 and too young to legally enlist in a military branch. Somehow, they found a way to serve their country anyway.

Camp Blanding Military Museum-Aircraft
Camp Blanding Military Museum-Aircraft

Today, the Camp Blanding Museum tells the story of the camp’s history and role in World War II, with displays that include real uniforms, weapons, vehicles, and aircrafts, as well as monuments dedicated to the soldiers who trained here. The Memorial Park preserves the memory of the brave soldiers who fought for freedom, preserving artifacts of military history for current visitors and generations to come.

Nearby Pursuits

Beyond Camp Blanding, there are many other local places worth pursuing for adventure, nature immersion, or just a laid-back experience. You can start with the Camp Blanding Wildlife Management Area (WMA), a 56,000-acre preserve with hunting, fishing, hiking, and wildlife viewing. Covering roughly 1/3 of the base, Camp Blanding WMA’s scenic trails are a favorite among visitors to the area.

Nearby, the oldest lake in Florida beckons those who prefer a sport that allows for rest and relaxation. Kingsley Lake is a 2,000-acre marvel of clear water that happens to be perfectly round and peaceful. While serene and quiet, the lake contains an abundance of Bluegill, Calico Bass (Black Crappie), Channel Catfish, and Largemouth Bass that are silently calling you to catch them.

Some like to blow off steam by firing a few rounds, while others like to shoot for improved skill and precision. Whether it’s for fun or fervor, the 200-yard, 30-target-lane range at Clay County’s Outdoor Adventure Park provides a beautiful atmosphere and considerate accommodations to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for all.

You may not initially envision elevation changes or stunning bluffs when considering a quintessential Florida hike, but Jennings State Park’s unique Pioneer Trail provides some of the most unpredictable paths imaginable. Traverse hollows, discover waterfalls, and trek across tracks of varying difficulties while surrounded by stunning scenes of nature.

Feel free to trade in the walking stick for two wheels and enjoy cycling across Clay County’s best bike trails. Such an option exists at Gold Head Branch State Park, one of Florida’s oldest State Parks and home to a three-mile paved park road. Intrigue awaits along the route as you come across the scenic ravine, a 1.5-mile area sure to inspire many more replicated rides to come. Riders who wish to test their limits can take on the Palatka-to-Lake Butler State Trail. This paved, 47-mile corridor is still under construction but allows a firsthand ride through some of the country’s most breathtaking natural beauty.

After the adventures or exercises are over, slow things down with an opportunity to sample some spirits. Middleburg’s Black Creek Distilleries, a first in Clay County, is a small craft distillery specializing in rum. Pop’s Block and Tackle white rum is a local favorite, created with the care of a chemist and the love of a local legend.

A cold brew mood means a visit to Orange Park’s Cultured Collective, a friendly neighborhood brewery and taproom where the local community converges. Imaginative beer and seltzers adorn the menu, and there’s usually a food truck outside to help make a palatable pairing. Enjoy an old Florida vibe here, where everyone has a good laugh or an original story to share.

Veteran-Owned Eateries

While visiting the Camp Blanding area, you may feel inclined to patronize local eating establishments run by current and former service members. Supporting these businesses not only recognizes and honors the sacrifices of Veterans, but it also contributes to job creation, economic growth, and community development while providing opportunities for those with unique skill sets acquired through military service. Consider these culinary finds and the good folks who have created great places to dine.

Beginning with breakfast, the Fleming Island location of Parlor Donuts brings delightful indulgences to any morning meal or mid-day dining experience. Veteran-owned, this favorite franchise has all of your sweet, savory, or caffeine-related needs covered during your Camp Blanding excursion. The barista brings a variety of coffee and tea, while the food menu varies between delicious layered donuts and hearty sandwiches, tacos, and toast.

For a fresh, superior sub with quality ingredients and seemingly endless customizations, stop by Big Daddy’s Sub Shop in Orange Park. A charming local treasure, Big Daddy’s Sub Shop provides generous portions at a great price. People drive from all over Clay County to try the cheesesteaks, Cubans, and other aptly named sandwich creations, in addition to their salads, wraps, and Big Daddy dogs.

Sometimes, it’s best to sample iconic American standards, and Papa’s Pizza and Ice Cream Shoppe has a bevy of the best classic cuisine. Come to Keystone Heights and try their Italian staples such as pizza and calzones before perusing an ice cream menu with over 20 different distinct flavors. Sports fans know that Papa’s pulls out all the stops for the big game, so order some Chicago-style dogs and shop the wing specials while you unwind.

Papa's Pizza and Ice Cream
Papa’s Pizza and Ice Cream

A Veteran-owned gem, Valentina’s Italian Bistro brings the best in traditional, Southern-style Italian dining to Orange Park. Here, you’ll discover elevated, authentic dishes that are both thoughtful and made from scratch. Many ingredients are imported directly from Italy, while fresh finds are sourced locally to support other local businesses. Tastefully decorated and welcoming, Valentina’s is family-friendly yet also ideal for special occasions.

Another must-try, Veteran-owned favorite for when a hearty craving hits is Mackey’s Munchies, a next-level NOLA-inspired eatery serving up jambalaya, po-boys, and beignets. Everything at Mackey’s is made with love, and you can’t go wrong with a big bowl of their everything-but-the-kitchen-sink signature Gumbo Jumbo.

For nonstaurant vibes and a caffeinated zing, 9 Bars Coffee is an epic al fresco option serving up espresso drinks, teas, frappes, and smoothies. This beloved beverage truck has everything from spicy mint mocha lattes to a frozen red velvet frappes with a variety of cortados and cappuccinos in between. Whether it’s a decadent sip or a big boost of energy you seek, 9 Bars has something sure to fuel you up for your next adventure.

Come See Clay County Today

Clay County lore brings locals and visitors together—and new stories are made along the way every day. And we want to see your story! Post pictures of your own Clay County experience to your social pages with #myclaystory and share your passions for this special place.

Looking to visit? For a unique retreat that includes some of Florida’s best locales and legends, click here to secure accommodations and plan a visit to Clay County today.

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