UNF Wildlife Sanctuary

Originally published May 2010:

For all the time I had spent on the UNF campus as a student, I feel rather ashamed that I never once took the opportunity to explore the nature trails I had heard about until now.  Having imagined a rather shallow collection of nature walks frequented by bored or curious students, I really didn’t find the motivation.  It took just a couple of hours on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon to see how wrong I was.  Just a mile or so from the St. John’s Town Center, this is a gem for anyone who needs a place to unwind outdoors.

The trail head is located next to the office where visitors can purchase daily parking passes – to your right as you enter the campus from the 9A exit.  Daily parking is $3, parking on the weekends or off-hours is free.  The nature trails are open 365 days a year, open from sunrise to sunset.  Three of the trails begin next to the parking lot at the Eco-Adventure Outfitters Center – hard to miss  next to the gardens and the storage area for canoes.

Red Maple Boardwalk (.25 miles)

The Red Maple Boardwalk begins behind the Outfitters Center, next to Lake Oneida.   At 1600 feet long, this trail is very accessible and follows the south side of the lake, marked by red arrows.  The boardwalk takes a detour into Buckhead Branch Swamp.  The first thing that struck us as we walked into the swamp was the noise from the birds surrounding us – it virtually drowned out the distant him from the 9A/JTB interchange.  Being a boardwalk, this trail is very easy to traverse, and only takes a few minutes to make it to the other end, where it yields to the Blueberry Trail.

Blueberry Trail (1.5 miles)

The Blueberry Trail circles the banks of Lake Oneida and joins the Golden Rod Trail for about half its length.  This trail mainly consists of a raised boardwalk on the south and north sides of the lake, and a raised, flat trail along the backside that includes stations for circuit training.  Through the trees, you get to enjoy wide views of the lake and the island in the middle, accessible by a wooden bridge.  Surprisingly, the water is quite clear.  Peering over the bridge, we must have seen hundreds of small fish and a couple dozen turtles, of several varieties.  Continuing on the end of the bridge, the island opens to a clearing dotted with picnic tables and benches – a perfect place to sit in solitude and chill.  Fishing is permitted here, provided you practice catch and release.

Goldenrod Trail (2.8 miles)

Our circuit of the lake completed, we walked past the outfitter center to the trail head for the longest of the trails.  The Goldenrod Trail sees the most variety in habitats.  Starting from the parking lot, it immediately descends into a fern-filled wetland area which rises to flatwoods after a few hundred yards.  The trail connects the beginning and end of the Big Cypress Loop trail.  Unfortunately, daylight did not afford us the time to explore this trail, but it definitely deserves a return trip.  The path is relatively straight and comfortable to walk, and continues southwest past some interesting signs which seem to indicate that cyclists will be attacked by dark, spiky monsters.  See for yourself in the gallery.  The trail then turns north after splitting from the Gopher Tortoise Ridge trail.

Gopher Tortoise Ridge

This trail turns north and follows edge of the preserve as it borders 9A.  You can see the lake from the 9A/JTB interchange.  This trail follows the opposite side of it.  The trail widens and follows the gopher tortoise nests that seem to line the edge of the lake.  It was on the edge of the lake that we realized we need to tread just a little more carefully – turning back, what appeared to be a Pygmy Rattlesnake crossed our path.  These little guys are not afraid of anything, apparently – he coiled up immediately and stared us down, no matter what direction we walked.  They’re small, but be respectful – they ARE venomous.  Passing the lake, the controlled burn areas are clear, as are the fire breaks that have been dug.  The trail hangs a right once it reaches the towncenter exit at 9A, and rejoins the Goldenrod Trail back to Lake Oneida.

The trails on the UNF campus far exceeded my expectations.  I’ll be back soon to visit the segments that we didn’t have time to explore.  Close to everything, it’s a place that manages to feel far away.  Find more information on the UNF website here.

Part 2 (From May 2010 as well):

So we returned to UNF Tuesday evening to finish what we had started this past weekend.  The sun was setting, but the weather had cooled off, and conditions were perfect for an evening walk.  After paying the $3 parking fee (a notable downside to these trails), we struck out on the Goldenrod Trail as it departs from Lot 100.  This time, we headed down the Big Cypress Loop trail – much narrower and apparently less used.

Being off the main circuit of trails, we didn’t run into any runners here, but did pass several hikers.  The forest becomes much more dense here as the palmeadows grow in number.  The highlight of this trail is the ‘Big Cypress’ a notably large cypress tree that’s been dated to 500 years old.  It’s actually 2 trees that have merged into one – the exact reason it hadn’t been logged with the rest of the old growth forest in the area.  I find it amazing to think it’s been there since Ponce de Leon first set foot in Florida.

The trail continues on, back toward the Goldenrod Trail.  At this point on the trail, a large owl silently flew overheard and watched us pass.  The picture I’ve posted here is about as clear of a photo as I could get from a distance.  It looked to be a Great Horned Owl as best as I could tell.  We turned left on the Goldenrod and completed the loop at the corner of the nature preserve.

The loop at this part of the trail also appears to be less traveled, and has been built above the soft, swampy soil in this area.  At the furthest point of the loop, there is a short path to the UNF Golfplex, which opens to one of the greens.  Turning back to the trail, the sounds of JTB are evident and the trail seems to follow right next to the highway.  It turns away and back towards Lake Oneida.

By the time we returned, the sun was below the trees, and the smell of the gardens hung in the air – another beautiful evening to be outside.