A success story in reclaiming an industrial site, the beauty of the Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens belies its past.
This 120 acres of woodlands within earshot of Interstate 275 is now a lush urban forest, but it was a titanium mine between 1944 and 1961, which may be why the terrain is so rugged.
Centered on Lake Ray in the middle, where planted gardens are located, interpretive trails extend into an unexpectedly diverse array of habitats.
In this one carefully managed preserve, you’ll see a rosemary scrub, a pitcher plant bog, the edge of the estuary along the St. Johns, alluvial streams, and the National Champion loblolly bay tree.
Along all of the trails, plants, trees, and entire habitats are neatly identified by both interpretive signage and simple tags.
Small brown signs provide information on the length and difficulty of each trail.
There is confirmation signage along the trails and at each intersection, and sometimes logs or branches lining the footpath where you might stray off it.
The signage makes it very clear where you should and shouldn’t go.
While the land is city-owned, the Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens is managed by a nonprofit whose volunteers care for the preserve.
It’s obvious a lot of effort and passion for natural habitats goes into keeping this a beauty
The nonprofit also engages cultural interaction with the landscape, offering art classes, gardening workshops, and more.
Resources for exploring the area around the Jacksonville Arboretum
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Length: 3.8 mile loop
Trailhead: 30.3462, -81.5395
Address: 1445 Millcoe Road, Jacksonville
Fees: Free, but suggested $3 donation if you are able
Restroom: Adjoining the handicapped parking
Land manager: Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens
Open 8 AM to 5 PM. Bicycles are not allowed. A bike rack adjoins a water fountain and water bottle filling station at the entrance. A picnic area is provided along the Lake Loop Trail.
The arboretum has several venues that make a nice place for an outdoor wedding, including a stone pavilion on the pond. Call them for details.
A portion of the Lake Loop Trail is accessible, but most trails are natural surface and some are steeply sloped. There are many benches along the trail system. An additional accessible South Loop is under construction.
From Interstate 295 exit 47 just east of Arlington and 4.4 miles north of Beach Blvd (US 90), exit east on Monument Rd and get in the left lane immediately to make the left onto Millcoe Rd. The road leads you up to a self-storage place and the Arboretum parking area is hidden behind that, a quarter mile from Monument Rd.
The route we describe and show on the map is one of many possible along the named trail network that radiates across the arboretum.
All hikes start from the trailhead, where a large kiosk has a map of the preserve and often has maps you can take with you. It helps to have one.
The Lake Loop Trail is the first trail you encounter, and the one you need to do at a bare minimum to get a feel for the arboretum.
It’s a quarter-mile loop where cultivated gardens and thematic groupings of trees showcase the many uses of plants.
At the picnic area, turn off the Lake Loop onto the Live Oak Trail. It winds through upland habitats heavy on laurel oak and live oak.
Along it are restoration areas for longleaf pine sandhill and turkey oak barren, as well as wet pine flatwoods and flatwood swale.
Pines tower overhead with saw palmetto and cinnamon fern at their bases.
Interpretive signs pointed out less easy-to-recognize understory plants like coastal doghobble.
Around one bend, a clearing where a tree had fallen had a chainsaw art turtle occupying the large oak stump. The trail loses elevation soon after.
The habitats shifts and becomes more scrubby like a xeric hammock with a dense understory. Mats of sphagnum moss outline the footpath.
Meeting a connector to Rosemary Ridge after 0.4 mile, turn left. This one mile loop has an outstanding spectrum of habitat diversity along it.
Cross a bridge over a tributary feeding Jones Creek. Turn left at the bottom of the Sand Ridge Trail loop. The trail threads its way uphill through the tightly-knit xeric hammock.
Passing the Deer Moss Trail and Rosemary Trail intersections, continue around Rosemary Ridge to where the trail opens up into a depression marsh, an unexpected find at 0.7 mile.
We poked down a couple of side trails that led off the ridge and downhill, but each one ended: the first at a sign, the next at a waterway.
At the northernmost point in the loop, still in the xeric hammock, you pick up the scent of a salt marsh.
The trail surprises again with a side trail down to the edge of an estuary, with a bench overlooking the view.
Soon after this side trail there is a gate into Rosemary Ridge at 1 mile. Please do not bring dogs in here and stay on the path.
The footpath guides you through the rosemary bald, a habitat that has vanished throughout Florida due to development on high ground in coastal areas.
Florida rosemary defines this desert-like scrub.
Leaving the scrub habitat atop the ridge, use the Deer Moss Trail to return to the east side of the Sand Ridge Trail.
Where they meet, another overlook with a bench faces out into the Jones Creek estuary, here with a sawgrass marsh along its rim.
Descending through the xeric hammock, the trail reaches the end of its loop.
Turn left and return to the junction with the Live Oak Loop. Make a left to head towards the Lake Loop.
This connector trail descends through switchbacks before emerging onto the much broader Lake Loop at 1.5 miles.
Turn left to continue, but meander to the right first to look around.
Bamboo outlines some of the garden pathways in this area where plantings and natural habitats meld.
There are several places to look out over the lake, both from overlooks on the bluffs and at lake level.
After a walk through the gardens, continue clockwise on the Lake Loop to find the boardwalk on the left. It leads down to another treasure in this preserve.
The boardwalk ends adjoining a very large tree with a double trunk rising from its base. When last measured six years ago, this trunk was a little over 12 feet in diameter.
The tree has a crown spread of 58 feet, and stood 117 feet tall, making it the National Champion of loblolly bay (Gordonia lasianthus) trees.
You may be familiar with these trees sprouting small white flowers dotting their shiny green leaves in late spring and early summer. They tend to be an indicator of swamp forests, particularly the ones called bayheads.
Return back to the Lake Loop and turn left. A pavilion sits along the lakeshore, provide a nice view across Lake Ray.
On the opposite side of it, a path leads through a stand of identified trees, including a weeping bald cypress and yellow anise.
Turn left at the T to start the Jones Creek Trail, a loop around Jones Creek. Parts of it are in the floodplain, so sand may be washed up over the footpath.
A broad boardwalk into the bottomland forest along the creek leads to a narrow bridge at the base of a bald cypress.
The water of Jones Creek is stained with tannins, and flows quickly through the forest, showing its erosional power along the curves.
Ascending a bluff, the trail provides views down into the creek before crossing it again on another bridge in the bottomland forest at 2 miles.
A tributary riffles along the side of the trail behind a bench, and sometimes overflows onto the footpath.
After you pass a big rootball that looks like a giant squid splayed across the trail, watch for a sign for the Sugarberry Trail on the left. Turn left.
This short connector meets the Aralia Trail. Turn left. This hardwood hammock hosts many small pools of water, which in turn provide habitat for wildlife.
At the next opportunity for a left turn, take the narrow path. It’s a short but worthwhile side trail that culminates in a small loop along Jones Creek.
It’s here you’ll find the steepest part of its ravine, close enough to the edge of the preserve that you can hear traffic. But it’s also home to another surprise.
Peer over the cascade at 2.4 miles before continuing up the creek along the loop. A riot of ferns fills the understory.
On the return trip to the main Aralia Trail, the cinnamon ferns grow in large clusters. Look for false Solomon’s seal and other woodland wildflowers edging the footpath.
The Aralia Trail is named for Aralia spinosa, better known as Devil’s Walkingstick. These sharp-thorned trees dominate the understory along part of the loop.
As the canopy becomes surprisingly high, look down at the leaves underfoot. They now include Liriodendron tulipifera, or tulip poplar. It is not a common tree in Florida, but it certainly is in the Appalachians.
Finishing the Aralia Trail, walk back along the short Sugarberry Trail to rejoin the Jones Creek Loop. Turn left.
Pass the turnoff for the Upper Ravine Trail to visit the Lower Ravine Trail first. It’s a turnoff on the left after the next bridge.
Cinnamon ferns and sweetleaf cluster around wetland ponds that form in the bottom of this ravine. Look for red maple and sweetgum along the edges as well.
Crystalline feeder streams next to shimmying fronds of sprouting bluestem palms provide a clue that springs are feeding the waterways which in turn feed Jones Creek.
It’s another surprise of this preserve when the trail leads you to a pitcher plant bog. Star-rush and dahoon holly edge the bog.
As the trail begins its loop back towards the Jones Creek Trail, it is paralleled by a clear, shallow, sand bottomed stream.
By 3 miles, you finish the Lower Ravine Trail. Turn right and walk back past the start of that loop, and make a right onto the Upper Ravine Trail.
True to its name, it climbs, providing nice views down into the steephead you just walked through. Sunlight sparkles on the dark water between the trees.
It’s a steep climb, with multiple places you can look into the forest below.
Eventually it levels out, passing an identified Darlington Oak and rounding the upper ravine.
When you enter an open area ringed by cabbage palms, it’s like stepping into a different world.
The hike ends as the trail slips out of the palms to the parking area at 3.8 miles.
See our video of the Jacksonville Arboretum
See our photos of the Jacksonville Arboretum
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
At the site of the original French settlement in Florida, explore the rich natural and cultural history of the region at the Timucuan Preserve visitor center, Fort Caroline, and its interpretive nature trail.
The Theodore Roosevelt Area of Timucuan Preserve provides one of the best hikes in the Jacksonville area, combining rugged terrain with cultural history and scenic views.
Discover a different perspective on Atlantic Beach on this island preserve in the middle of the San Pablo River estuary east of downtown Jacksonville