Not far from downtown Jacksonville, the secluded sandhills of Jennings State Forest provide a home for herds of deer, flocks of wild turkey, and the Florida black bear.
An unusually folded landscape creates bluffs and ravines along the waterways that drain through these uplands to reach Black Creek, which flows towards the St. Johns River.
With botanical diversity and some challenging terrain, this forest delights with an array of trails for hikers, paddlers, and equestrians, as well as backcountry campsites for solitude.
While much of the land was intensively logged in the past and home to a number of small logging communities, time and forest management have helped heal those wounds.
An extensive network of unpaved forest roads lead to hidden corners of the forest where hooded pitcher plants grow in seepage bogs and tupelo shade slow-moving creeks.
Five hiking trails and four equestrian-optimized loops mean plenty of exploration to enjoy just outside the Jacksonville metro.
Resources for exploring the area
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Length: 17 miles in 5 trails
Headquarters: 30.128412, -81.965062
Address: 1337 Long Horn Rd, Middleburg
Fees: $2 per person
Restroom: vault toilets at recreation areas
Land manager: Florida State Forests
Open sunrise to sunset. Leashed dogs welcome.
Seasonal small game hunting occurs. If you plan to hit the trails here, check ahead regards hunt dates.
This forest offers tent camping. Primitive campsites must be reserved in advance through Reserve America.
Follow SR 21 (Blanding Blvd) south from Interstate 275 through Orange Park for 7.7 miles. Turn at the traffic light onto Old Jennings Rd. Continue 4.1 miles to where it meets Live Oak Lane. The first trailhead is a half mile north, the Fire & Water Trailhead is 1.6 miles north, just past the subdivision.
To get to forest headquarters and the trails and put-ins on the west side of the forest, continue into Middleburg on Blanding Blvd. Turn right on CR 218 and drive 6.7 miles west. Turn right on Long Horn Rd and continue 1.5 miles north to where the pavement ends to enter the forest.
About the Forest
On our initial exploration of Jennings State Forest for 50 Hikes in North Florida, it felt like most of the trails were geared towards equestrian use.
Jennings remains a big destination for Jacksonville-area riders because of the substantial mileage possible on its trails. It is also popular with paddlers for a trip down the North Fork of Black Creek.
However, thanks to the efforts of local volunteers, an extensive hiking and trail running network now runs along the hilly west side of Black Creek, enabling long, scenic treks on trails where horses aren’t allowed.
Seasonal hunting is permitted here, so check on hunt dates for Jennings WMA before heading out to the forest for recreation.
Primitive camping for backpackers is permitted in several locations in the forest, including the backcountry campsite we visited along the North Fork Black Creek Trail.
Two drive-in primitive campsites are along the forest roads. The Hammock Campsite is situated in a shady hammock east of Yellow Water Creek, while the Bootlegger Campsite is on the west side.
Primitive camping costs $10 per night per site and must be reserved and paid for in advance.
For an easy introduction to the habitats of Jennings State Forest, the Fire & Water Trail provides a 1.7-mile interpretive loop at the north end of Live Oak Lane in Middleburg.
With a trailhead south of the Fire & Water Trail along the same road, the North Fork Black Creek Trail loops 4.9 miles. A primitive campsite sits close to Black Creek off a side trail.
Starting near park headquarters where Longhorn Rd turns to dirt, hikers can access a network of three trails: Dunn’s Farm, Crosscut, and Pioneer.
The Pioneer Trail parallels the west side of Black Creek, with access at three points: from the Indian Ford Recreation Area at its south end (rough road) and from a trailhead off Longhorn Rd near its middle.
Utilizing the Dunn’s Farm and Pioneer Trails, you can make a 3.5 mile loop from the main trailhead. The Crosscut Trail paired with the Pioneer Trail with a return along the Dunn’s Farm Trail nets more than double that in a loop.
Primitive camping is permitted in a marked zone near the creek.
A highlight of Jennings State Forest, this 3.5 mile loop traverses healthy longleaf pine habitat and showcases a series of cascades above the North Fork of Black Creek.
Along the North Fork of Black Creek, paddlers have multiple options for put-in, all of which are located at the end of forest roads that meet the creek.
The most northerly launch is at Powell Ford, at the end of Powell Ford Rd.
The Evans Loop interconnects with the hiking trails off Live Oak Lane and loops the northeast quadrant of the forest. The outer loop is 20 miles long, with shorter options of 9.1 and 16.8 miles.
In the northwest corner of the forest, Long Branch Recreation Area is a popular starting point for shorter loop rides. The two Long Branch Equestrian Trails are 4.3 and 12.2 miles.
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Protecting more than 20 square miles of forest northwest of Jacksonville, Cary State Forest has over 20 miles of marked trails for hiking, biking, and equestrian use
On a walk through Camp Milton Historic Preserve, discover Civil War stories through a grove of historic trees that have tales to tell beneath their leafy shade
In a deeply forested area on Black Creek north of Green Cove Springs, Camp Chowenwaw Park provides campers and hikers a unique destination, a former Girl Scout Camp with a rich history.