At Cary State Forest, you have the opportunity for a highly accessible, close-up look at carnivorous pitcher plants in the wild. While the 3,413-acre forest has dozens of miles of multi-use trails and is popular with local equestrians, the 1.4-mile Cary Nature Trail is hiking only, a great short walk for kids and persons of limited mobility. It’s also part of the Florida State Forests Trailwalker program, allowing you to accrue credit towards your Trailwalker levels.
Length: 1.4 mile
Lat-Long: 30.399850, -81.926772
Fees / Permits: state forest entrance fee
Bug factor: moderate
A small tenting campsite with adjacent restrooms is available at the Environmental Education Center and is perfect for families with young children. Contact the forest in advance for a permit. Don’t forget to pick up a Trailwalker Program postcard to send in!
Cary State Forest is west of Jacksonville in Nassau County. From I-10 exit 343, Baldwin/Starke, head north on US 301 for 9 miles. After you pass the Bryceville fire station and a “Welcome to Cary State Forest” sign on the right. Keep alert for the first turnoff, Pavilion Road. Turn right and drive 0.4 mile to the trail kiosk and grassy parking area at its intersection with Fire Tower Road. After you park, pay your state forest usage fee, and pick up a trail map at the kiosk.
The trail starts just across Pavilion Road at the “Teaching Pavilion and Nature Trail” sign, following the powder blue blazes into the pine flatwoods. You quickly come up to a clearing with the S. Bryan Jennings Environmental Education Center, picnic tables, and restrooms. Cross the jeep track and walk under the power lines to reach the “Nature Trail” sign. Follow the path into the forest.
The trail is broad enough for three people to walk abreast, and well-graded. The habitat shifts, becoming damper, as loblolly bay and red maples fill the forest. Star-shaped marsh pinks display their pale pink blossoms. Orange wild bachelor’s button pokes up from the grassy forest floor.
The trail comes up to a boardwalk with the sign “Adam’s Wilderness Trail.” The boardwalk carries the trail through a cypress dome, zigzagging between the trees. Pond cypresses form the core of the dome, a cool, damp place where hundreds of cypress knees jut from the forest floor. Coated in a thick wrap of moss, one clump of cypress knees looks like a natural sculpture. A shaded bench gives you a place to sit and contemplate the cypress swamp.
At 0.5 mile, the boardwalk ends at a T intersection with a jeep trail. Turn left at the “Nature Trail” sign and follow the blue blazes down the road. The broad, open jeep track is in full sun, but where it crosses a swampy area, keep alert for hooded pitcher plants growing out of the seepage slope on the right side of the road.
When you come to the intersection of Hog Track Road and Moccasin Slough at 0.7 mile, the “Nature Trail” sign guides you to turn left. Follow this grassy strip through the forest, watching along the drainage areas on both sides for more hooded pitcher plants. They prefer the shade, thriving in spots where the sphagnum moss is especially thick and seepage is constant, even in dry seasons, especially along the edges of the cypresses domes. A side trail leads to a dome where a natural garden of pitcher plants await.
At the 1 mile mark, you reach a bench. In the distance, you can see an observation tower rising over the forest understory. When you reach a T intersection at 1.1 mile, the observation tower is off to your right. Walk over and climb up. It’s a steep ascent, the railings old and splintery, so take care on how you place your hands. At top, you face a grassy clearing carved out of the forest to attract deer. Turn around for a panoramic view of the pine flatwoods, with the trail leading off into the distance. Be especially careful descending the steep stairs.
Keep to the right, following the blue blazes. You’ll pass a trail coming in from the right, then walk down a corridor of slender pines into the camping area and past the bathhouse, across the jeep road and under the power lines. Keep alert, as the trail makes a right turn into the forest. Walking back through a different part of pine flatwoods, you emerge on Pavilion Road; turn left to return to the parking area.