Protecting 509 acres in an otherwise crowded urban area, a large swath of floodplain forest and pine flatwoods along the Ortega River – a tributary of the St. Johns River – Tillie K. Fowler Regional Park sits right along US 17 across from the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. While the Nature Center and its trails are the focal point of this park, the Island Hiking Trail is a rough gem that charts a course for adventure through the northern third of the preserve. It takes a bit of wayfinding savvy, thanks to numerous unmarked cross-trails and firebreaks, as well as some smarts about habitats to avoid wading, as you circle the edge of an island surrounded by the swamps of the Ortega River floodplain. But the beauty of the forest – and a surprise patch of scrub in the midst of the wetlands – make it quite worthwhile.
This hike is listed in “Hikers Guide to the Sunshine State” as “Westside Regional Park” – the park was renamed since publication.
Length: 1.9 miles (longer or shorter loops possible)
Lat-Long: 30.237783, -81.699003
Type: loop system
Fees / Permits: Free
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: At the nature center
Open 5 AM – 7 PM daily (until 9 PM during daylight savings hours). Please use your typical precautions for personal safety while visiting an urban park.
Tillie K Fowler Regional Park
Tillie K Fowler Regional Park is along US 17 just 2.8 miles north of I-295 at Orange Park. At the traffic light, turn west to enter the park at the circular drive. Continue along the park road for nearly a mile, passing several side trails and a picnic area on your left. There is a loop in the road near the end at the nature center. Park your car on the left. The trailhead is on the right at the picnic area, starting as a paved trail at the red sign.
Blazed with dark orange marks on the trees, the Island Trail follows the paved path through the piney woods picnic area. You quickly come up to a long bridge over a drainage area. Redbud, sweetgum, and red maple show their colors, standing tall over soggy spots in the little valley beneath the bridge. As you leave the boardwalk, blazes beckon you forward on a natural footpath of pine duff and leaves. The adventure begins.
Watch for blazes and orange flagging tape as you walk. The footpath is broad and easy to follow, but don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security. It’s a maze in here! You reach the first trail junction very quickly. Keep left to stay on the outer perimeter of the trail for a counterclockwise hike along the loop. This path, which looks much less traveled, scrambles down an undulating landscape through pine straw and pinecones down a small bluff into a low-lying area. Beware of stumps and knobs and roots that may trip you up, hiding under the soft pine duff. The forest is very pretty, an interface between hardwoods and floodplain, where both yaupon holly and wax myrtle stand along the footpath.
After a quarter mile, you encounter a particularly large and majestic pine tree, a slash pine rising tall from a clump of saw palmetto at its base. Orange blazes guide you forward. At 0.3 mile, an unblazed but well-defined trail comes in from the left at a spot with chunks of concrete strewn next to an old metal barrel. Continue straight ahead, where you see another enormous pine that has large branches down low in the understory. Reaching a junction with a blue blazed trail, turn left to follow the orange blazes. There’s a short stretch where both blue and orange blazes are painted on top of each other and it’s a little confusing, since the blue vanishes into the understory. Stay with the orange blazes.
The trail makes a quick left. You come to a T intersection with a broad ummarked trail to the right. Turn left, staying with the blazes. The landscape undulates under the pines, and the understory is much thicker, filled with saw palmetto. You zigzag around loblolly bay and sweetbay magnolia, highbush blueberry and dahoon holly, signaling the edge of the floodpain. Here and there, southern magnolias rise from the pine duff. Crossing an old road around 0.4 mile, there is a big puddle of water to skirt due to a hole from a rootball collecting water from a marsh just a little higher in elevation, off to the right. There’s a reason this is called the Island Trail, and the marsh helps mark the delineation where you are headed out onto the island in the Ortega River floodplain – simply a large patch of higher ground surrounded by wetlands, mostly wet forests. Indeed, you see wet pools in the forest and mucky spots in the trail.
At a half mile, I lost the blazes. Maybe you won’t, maybe you will. I’m sure they went somewhere. You come to a junction where the broad trail goes straight ahead into a large body of dark, uninviting water. The narrow trail goes off to the left. Head left down the straightway into the floodplain forest, where fungi clings to fallen logs. The sloppy, gunky muck of the footpath is courtesy of the overflowing wetlands surrounding you. The trail begins to curve away from the wetlands and up into the slash pines, the understory thick with saw palmetto. The air is filled with birdsong.
You reach a junction with another unmarked trail. Skip it and stay with the broader path – still no blazes in sight – and in moments you come to a T intersection. Here are the missing blazes! They probably went through that nasty puddle you avoided earlier. Turn left, walking beneath the pines, following the orange blazes again. You reach the “Island Loop” sign at a 4-way junction at 0.7 miles. Follow the broad path straight ahead into scrub habitat, a delightful find on the high ground on the island. The crooked branches of rusty lyonia arch overhead, entangled with sand live oaks and water oaks. It’s a straight shot down this section of trail. The closer you draw to the Ortega River floodplain, you see the colorful leaves of the floodplain forest trees beyond the screen of scrub, and hear crickets and frogs in the distance.
The straightaway ends and the trail jogs to the right down another long, straight corridor with a very tall slash pine standing overhead. Walking through a gauntlet of blueberry bushes, you see a gopher tortoise burrow in the bright white sand of the footpath. Watch your step! Older holes are nearby. The trail leaves the scrub and again becomes a zigzagging pine duff path through the pines and oaks. It’s obvious now that you’re on an island, since there is a line of brightness off to the left through the trees, with cypress trees rising from the edge of the floodplain. Passing a slash pine with a split trunk, you start to hear traffic north of the preserve. There’s one small spot at 0.9 mile where you can peer out over the marsh, just barely, before the footpath leads you away from it again.
The trail curves to fit the north rim of the island, with the floodplain beyond defined by cypress rising behind the cabbage palms. In winter, the floodplain forest is almost devoid of leaves. Take the left fork as you reach the next junction, staying with the orange blazes that lead you along the island’s rim, where wax myrtle grows along small pools of water and the deadfall is smothered in lichens. The footpath zigzags back and forth between clumps of saw palmetto before transitioning back into the scrub forest. At 1.1 mile, you come to the end of the Island Loop. Straight ahead is an unmarked trail that you’re welcome to explore – keep your bearings! – but to exit, you must turn left.
Down this straightway into the pines, you pass the T junction where you came in from on the outbound journey. Continue forward, noting the copious fungi on the fallen logs. Another side trail is at the base of a large loblobby pine. Continue straight. The path widens to where it seems a Jeep could go down it, and indeed there are tire tracks along the trail. Ignore another side trail to your left and straight ahead you’ll see a boardwalk over a low spot – plus a broad trail cut to the right of it, perhaps for the Jeep? The marsh is off to your left, where a smattering of cedar grows near its edge.
Crossing the bouncy boardwalk at 1.3 mile, you pass another broad side trail to the right, this one an obvious firebreak. Don’t put the blinders on yet – keep alert for the next trail to the right. Here’s where the orange blazes leave the straight and narrow and go for another winding wander, first ascending a natural staircase of roots. Back beneath the pines, you come to a bench. The trail quickly jogs left and away from it. Passing another side trail to the right, you head the sounds of traffic increasing from the industrial corridor along US 17. If you’re like me, you identified those loud sounds as airboats, since you’re hiking along a marsh. But they’re not. It’s the helicopter training across the street at Jacksonville NAS.
The trail swings into a very broad depression, perhaps a canal or road in older times. Leaving the depression, it scrambles up a low mound into the forest, plunging into a wall of bamboo. It works its way along and through the bamboo to another bench at 1.5 miles. The next T intersection is the final major choice to make along the hike. I chose right. Left, it seems, will extend your trek a little more but bring you closer to the industrial noise. Turning right, you quickly emerge at that original unmarked intersection with the concrete and barrel. Turn left.
Scrambling up and over the undulations at the edge of the floodplain forest, you return to the small bluff where the loop began, at 1.8 miles. The orange blazes come in from the left. Turn right to cross the boardwalk and exit through the picnic area, completing a 1.9 mile hike.
0.0 Trailhead at picnic area
0.1 Cross bridge
0.1 Trail junction
0.3 Trail junction
0.4 T intersection
0.4 Cross old road
0.5 Trail junction
0.6 Trail junction
0.6 T intersection
0.7 “Island Loop” junction
0.9 marsh view
1.1 “Island Loop” junction
1.8 Trail junction
1.9 Trailhead at picnic area