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With Jacksonville being the largest city in the continental United States at 840 square miles it has the largest urban park system in the US with over 100,000 acres in preservation. It's no wonder Jacksonville Florida has plenty of trail systems! From hosting the end of the St. Johns River as it flows north into the Atlantic Ocean, one of the only two North American Rivers flowing north (no, not because Georgia sucks you Gator fans), to beach front conservation areas, to wiregrass waving sandhill natural communities maintained by prescribed fire, Jacksonville has a plethora of beautiful ecological natural communities to explore. Experience the natural wonders of Northeast Florida as you wander these 10 best Jacksonville hikes.
1. Julington Durbin Preserve - Families will LOVE this urban park that is total wilderness. Owned by the City of Jax and St. Johns River Water Management District, they share management responsibility. It boasts wildflowers, sandhill natural community-rare in Florida, and lots of wildlife. It is maintained by prescribed fire so be sure to find the black areas that grow back within the week. It is there you will find wildflowers that only bloom with fire/smoke, like the rare purple Bartram's ixia. Enjoy many miles of hiking trails that are stroller friendly. The red trail has access to Durbin Creek, which leads to the St. Johns River. Free entry.
Julington Durbin Preserve Wiregrass, Bartam's Ixia after a prescribed burn, rat snake, and fungus. Photo cred: www.fun4firstcoastkids.com
2. Castaway Island Preserve - It sounds like there are pirates living here, but don't worry-there are only fiddler crabs and raccoons wandering around. This preserve is an urban park, yet preserves coastal habitat along the Intracoastal Waterway! It has spartina and juncus marsh with random palmetto trees interspersed, tidal mud flats, and coastal hammock. Walk out onto the dock and look for footprints in the mud and fish taking refuge near the pillars. A sidewalk hiking path has painted animal prints that lead to boardwalk overlooks along the intracoastal. Free entry.
Boardwalk to dock at Castaway Island Preserve. Photo cred: Jacksonville.com
3. Jacksonville Arboretum and Gardens - Enjoy nature trails through shaded ravines created by underwater seepages, rare rosemary scrub habitat, and even view waterfalls dubbed The Cascades! A stroller friendly path around the pond with hundreds of labeled plants, a path to view the champion loblolly bay tree make this a must do hike! The twig art is now gone, but the trails are a rare glimpse into inner city Jacksonville nature before development! Free entry.
Twig art at Jacksonville Arboretum. Photo cred: www.fun4firstcoastkids.com
4. Timucuan Ecologic and Historic Preserve - This national park has shaded, hilly hiking trails on the bluffs of the St. Johns River. Traverse spartina marsh mud flats, cross wooden bridges, explore a mock up of historic Ft. Caroline and enjoy wide open views of the St. Johns River. Stop at the education center for explanation of the native american and Spanish influence here. Be sure to get your National Park Passport stamped and get your worksheet for the Junior Ranger program. Don't worry if you hear muskets fire-you never know what historical reenactment you'll stumble upon at this natural site! Free entry.
Fort Caroline mock up at Timucuan Ecologic and Historic preserve. Photo cred: www.fun4firstcoastkids.com
5. Little Talbot Island State Park and Big Talbot Island State Park - One of the few remaining undeveloped barrier islands in Florida, you can enjoy hiking in coastal strand habitat as well as hiking to find shells and sharks teeth at the beach at Little Talbot Island. Visit The Bluffs or visit boneyard beach at Big Talbot Island State Park with salt stricken downed trees. Either park, you'll enjoy the scenic vistas of these undeveloped sea islands! Entry $4/vehicle.
6. Kathryn Abbey Hannah Park - With beaches, a lake, trails, and a campground, paddle boating and a splash park, this park has tons of adventure on the north east side of Jacksonville!
7. Gourd Island Conservation Area - Hike this back country conservation area owned by St. Johns River Water Management District and enjoy mesic flatwoods with slash pine, sandhills, and wetlands. The interior high and dry sandhill natural community, maintained by prescribed fire, is an island shaped like a gourd! Free entry.
Hiking through the flatwoods at Gourd Island Conservation Area. Photo cred: www.fun4firstcoastkids.com
8. Cary State Forest - This state forest boasts cypress domes, wet flatwoods, wildlife and lots of trees! Enjoy hiking miles and miles of natural forestland in Florida's second state forest on the westside of Jax!
9. Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve - This undisturbed beach has no homes and the ancient dunes are 30 ft tall! Enjoy hiking the xeric hammock on the intercoastal side with a long shaded hike sneaking views of the Tolomato River as well as a hike on a shelly beach that is rarely busy. Parking fee.
Ancient 30 foot dunes at GTM NERR
10. Hugenot Park - This beautiful beach front park has majestic views and loads of wildlife! Watch for least terns and shorebirds nesting during winter as their plummage can blend in with the sandy beach colors.
Royal terns at Hugenot Park. Photo cred: AudubonFloridaNews.org
Be sure to check the websites before you go to check for prescribed burning or maintenance causing trail closures. Bring your maps as smart phones may not work on some of the rural areas. Bring hats and sunscreen all times of the year as Florida is sunny 90% of the year! Utilize bug spray as needed. Tuck your pants into your socks to prevent ticks and check for ticks afterwards.
About the Author:
Terri is a Florida Certified Prescribed burner with around 100 prescribed burns and wildfires under her belt and almost a decade of experience managing Florida's forests. She is the author of, "100 Backcountry Hikes: A Guide to Hiking Florida's Water Management District Lands," due out March, 2017.