The City of Gainesville’s very first nature park, Bivens Arm opened in 1981. The name refers to the marshy “arm” that protrudes from Paynes Prairie along which the park is situated. One of the big surprises in this urban forest, hemmed in by highways and apartments, are the immense pine trees you encounter along the walk, a series of loops that lets you wander up to 1.5 miles on natural footpaths.
Length: 1.5 miles
Type: loop and balloon
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate to high
Restroom: at the trailhead
Open 9-5 daily, gate closes automatically so be sure to depart the parking area before 5 PM. A playground adjoins the restrooms and trailhead, and the marshside pavilion is a nice place for a picnic. Keep alert for alligators, as they sometimes do leave the marsh to find a sunny spot along the trails.
From I-75 Williston exit, follow SR 331 east, crossing US 441. Make a right at the fork to join Main Street. The park entrance is on your left under the trees. Gates are closed and locked before 9 AM and after 5 PM.
From the parking area, wander onto the trail system, which starts at a kiosk. Just beyond is the junction of a boardwalk and a paved path going off to the right. A warning sign: “Do not feed the alligators” on the far side of the pavilion as you walk out to the willow marsh. This is not a quiet place, as there are roads surrounding the park in almost every direction, but there is a lot of birdsong in the trees above and out in the willow marsh. Water trickles through the landscape in small streams from Colobaugh Pond and Tumblin Creek, working its way from drainage ditches all over this part of Gainesville – including the University of Florida campus – to make its way to Bivens Arm, an extension of the vast Paynes Prairie.
After a wander through the Gary R. Junior Pavilion, which adjoins the willow marsh of Bivens Arm, start down the boardwalk, which crosses East Tumblin Creek. The boardwalk follows the edge of the marsh through an oak and pine forest. At boardwalk’s end, you come to a trail junction with another caution sign about the alligators, since here they can wander up onto the footpath. Turn left at this junction and go down the ramp to follow the footpath along the edge of the marsh. Resurrection fern grows at the base of an oak tree. Southern magnolia and large sand live oaks dominate this stretch of forest, and the footpath is very rooty underfoot. Poison ivy is prevalent in the understory, and smilax vines form huge heaps. Magnolia leaves crunch underfoot as you walk.
An extraordinarily twisted loblolly pine is along the trail at a quarter mile, hanging out over the marsh near where an old trail has been closed off. Straight ahead is the Gator Gap Loop Trail. Cinnamon fern shows up in the damp places between the footpath and the marsh; American holly arches over the trail. A short side path leads to a collection of cypress knees poking out of the edge of the swamp. Back on the main trail, you walk under an arched limb that drops straight down and into the ground on the other side of the trail. You just can’t get away from the traffic noise at this end of the park – it is persistent – but the setting is quite beautiful.
Coming to a trail junction after 0.4 mile, turn left and cross a boardwalk across a sluggish creek. Turn right to start the next loop. The trail drops into the floodplain a little, with large live oaks off to your left, and a willow marsh with red maples off to the right. A bench is set in the perfect spot to look at a dogwood in bloom, and there is a very large loblolly pine near it, as well as a grapefruit tree. The oak canopy is particularly beautiful to the left, with draperies of Spanish moss glistening in the sunlight.
Passing another enormous pine, the trail curves to the left, leading you into the heart of the oak hammock and creating a return loop. Here, you see a tremendous amount of bracken fern and big oak trees all around, their arching limbs as thick as tree trunks. Beyond several more oversized pines, the trail reaches a T intersection. To the right is a path out to the highway; turn left to complete the loop, returning back to the boardwalk and trail junction. Continue straight ahead. Passing the base of another large slash pine, the trail turns to the right, now following the ragged edge of a willow marsh on the left, another portion of Bivens Arm. At 0.7 mile, a bench faces the wetland under the shade of large live oaks. Red maples define the edge of the marsh.
Large live oaks arch overhead, shading the footpath. The understory on the right is choked with vines. The trail winds its way through an area dappled with sunlight, where several large trees have fallen, and passes a side trail on the left to an apartment complex. Meandering through denser forest, it comes to a trail junction with the boardwalk that led you into the trail system. Turn left. The next trail junction comes up quickly, and is within sight of a small bridge. Turn left. You’ll pass a marker that says “Kirkwood Addition.” This is the newest part of the park and farthest from the traffic noise.
Smooth Solomon’s seal grows in the understory of this upland area near East Tumblin Creek. Zebra longwing butterflies flit through the forest between the big oaks, alighting on red buckeye growing near a stand of yaupon holly. You reach the fork in the trail, the bottom of the loop, after 1.2 miles. Keep left. Devil’s walking stick grows along the footpath’s edge, which enters a forest with more towering loblolly pines. Southern magnolia fills the middle canopy. At the next fork, keep to the right, passing a bench near a short cabbage palm. Sugarberry and elm add to the mix of trees in this upland forest beneath the tall loblolly pines. The trail begins a downward trend, losing elevation as it heads back towards the creek. Reaching the end of the loop, turn left.
At the junction of trails, turn left to take the bridge over Little Tumblin Creek, which leads to a paved sidewalk. Passing a gigantic American holly next to the picnic pavilion, the path turns right and leads you under the arch of a live oak limb back to the parking area, completing this 1.5 mile hike.