Ten acres isn’t a lot of land for a nature park, but in this urban setting along one of the busiest thoroughfares in Gainesville, it’s plenty for a quick, refreshing walk in the woods. Established in 2006 with help from residents in the adjacent Sugarfoot neighborhood, John Mahon Nature Park is an oasis of deep shade between medical complexes on land donated by a medical consortium. One side faces Newberry Road, but you can’t see the traffic for the trees. The name honors a local history professor and conservationist, born in 1912, who lived nearby.
Length: 0.5 miles
Fees / Permits: none
Good for: birding, wildflowers
Bug factor: moderate to high
Although the park is open dawn to dusk, you are admonished (by signs on the fence) not to park in this lot past 6 PM. A tall fence divides the lot and the park, but you can walk around it, and there is a gate through it. A sidewalk leads to the neighborhood behind the park, where you could park a car along the road. Dogs on leash and bicycles are permitted, but a bike rack is provided at the trailhead.
Drive east from Interstate 75 on Newberry Road past the Oaks Mall and continue towards the University of Florida. The park’s address is 4300 Block W Newberry Road. A park sign on Newberry Road directs you to the south but doesn’t make it obvious where you should park your car. There are four designated parking spaces set aside in the back corner of the LifeSouth blood bank’s parking lot.
Start your walk by visiting the kiosk at the park entrance for an overview of the natural communities and trail map. The trail starts adjacent to the picnic tables and, past a sign that says “Nature Sanctuary,” starts a slow descent through pines to an upland mixed forest with water oak, hickory, and sweetgum forming part of the canopy. Smilax and virginia creeper send tendrils across the forest floor, with poison ivy intermingled in the greenery. Brilliant red trumpet honeysuckle dangles in clusters from vines draping down from the oaks.
The footpath swings out into a sunny corridor flanked by a wall of tall trees providing a screen against the traffic you can hear rushing past along Newberry Road. Stepping back into the shade again, you reach a fork in the trail as the habitat shifts to a hydric hammock with dozens of bluestem palms rising from the dark earth. An interpretive sign explains the palms and their habitat. The forest is dense and deeply shaded as you come up to a bench with a plaque honoring Susan Wright, who helped make this park a reality. Thick grapevines, some as thick as a tree trunk, dangle down from the high canopy of oaks. Traffic noise increases as you climb uphill, where you can see a parking area through the vegetation on the right – the other medical complex that flanks this preserve – and a side trail leads to it at 0.2 mile. Continue past it and stay on the main trail.
Pay attention to the forest floor around you, as the deep shade offers less-common wildflowers – including sundial lupine, green dragon, and trillium – a place to thrive. The landscape slopes off towards the left, rolling down into a lower elevation where water collects beneath the tall oak trees. Clusters of violets rise from the damp forest floor. Fungi swarms over rotting logs. As you turn your back on the traffic sounds of Newberry Road, the trail descends into deeper shade, where the sun barely dapples the footpath in midday.
Beyond the next interpretive sign – which was missing on our visit – is a large Southern magnolia. Past the next bench, the trail continues to descend, passing a devil’s walking-stick with its unique geometric pattern of leaves. Birdsong increases throughout the forest canopy as the trail rounds a curve to the left and keeps dropping downhill. You see a few houses on the right beyond the screen of forest.
The trail makes a right past an unusual musclewood with a trunk bent at a sharp right angle. Soon after, you see bluestem palms up ahead, and you’re at the end of this short but pretty loop trail. Continue straight ahead, following the trail on its gradual ascent through the upland mixed forest as it curves to the right and climbs back up to the trailhead, completing this half-mile hike.