Words by Su Ertekin-Taner
As the outdoor season climbs to its climax in these coming spring and summer months, nature too reaches its peak in Jacksonville. Birds flirt and taunt with their spectators, trees warm themselves in hot temperatures, and flowers bloom happily in rays of sunshine. For us at work and home, nature calls and these once-undiscovered, untraversed paths become frequented by outdoors adventurers. Walk, bike, explore and bask in the natural beauty of Jacksonville with these six Jax-centric parks, trails and gardens.
- Spanish Pond Trail
Begin your environmental adventure with the boardwalk-paved paths of Spanish Pond Trail at Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve. A lush canopy sprinkled with Spanish moss hangs over visitors’ heads preventing harsh sunlight from disturbing walkers or joggers. The pinnacle of the pond experience, however, are the observation decks that overlook the Spanish Pond itself and the tidal marshes. The sounds of ospreys, egrets and storks greet the ear while on the marsh as wildlife hides in every corner of the two-mile round-trip journey.
- UNF Eco Trails
Located on the University of North Florida’s campus, these trails are tucked away in an almost undiscoverable entryway deep in the campus. Nevertheless, these clandestine trails offer a diverse environmental experience due to the different paths which vary in length and level of experience. Goldenrod Trail, the longest trek, is heavily populated with the trail’s namesake flower, whie the Gopher Tortoise Ridge houses a land-dwelling tortoise population, and the Big Cyprus Trail is lined with cypress trees old and young. Bird watchers, joggers and walkers, UNF students, families, and even picnic enthusiasts frequent every trail engaging in the beauty of the surroundings.
- Hanna Park
This everything-in-one park rests on the edge of Atlantic Beach and uses its positioning to offer a tour-de-force of ecological activities. Surf along Jacksonville’s coast and take advantage of Hanna Park’s freshwater lake for fishing, kayaking and canoeing. Of course, Florida’s famous palm trees are always standing by the water greeting visitors. The park even boasts hiking and mountain biking trails of various lengths, as well as camping sites and cabins for overnight stays in the wilderness. While entrance to Hanna Park costs $5, this amount pays for an entire day’s adventure. Salute the sun as it rises in the park and bid farewell to the adventure as the day comes to a close.
- Jacksonville-Baldwin Rail Trail
The Jacksonville-Baldwin Rail Trail emerged as part of the national Rails to Trails program, which converted railroad lines into parks and/or trails. This ecological investment is now a wildlife and plant habitat with hawks, rabbits and other wildlife making their homes in this abundant space. Visitors can walk, hike, jog and bike along paved and unpaved paths spanning 14 miles with benches lining the expanse for tired exercisers. Like other trails mentioned, the Jacksonville-Baldwin Rail Traill is enveloped by a thriving tree canopy. Yet, sunlight still manages to peek through to glisten on the skin of passersby.
- Gardens at Trout River Plaza
A botanical exhibit at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, the Gardens at Trout River Plaza, a provides the perfect environmental exploration opportunity for visitors who don’t relish leaf and soil-ridden paths. The plaza displays nature in a museum-esque light, showcasing seasonal flowers spilling over the top of planters stationed above guests’ heads. Trout River Plaza overflows with embellishments of the botanical space: Visitors walk across mosaic tiles of beautiful patterns, and the centerpiece of the garden is a fountain with an anhinga bird statue. This plaza, in all its elegance, is home to weddings and other events.
- Ogier Gardens
Lastly, the Ogier Gardens, also located on the University of North Florida’s campus, contribute their beauty to the Jacksonville outdoors scene. Part of UNF’s environmental programming initiative, this hidden organic garden is tended by UNF students, and its products find themselves in the campus food pantry. The land features a diverse array of fruit trees, vegetable beds and crops depending on the season. Ogier Gardens also offers a distinct interactive experience as UNF allows visitors to spend the day volunteering in the garden; usually, visitors may keep the fruits of their labor, literally.