Since 1970, Morningside Nature Center has been Gainesville’s flagship nature park, protecting the largest stand of longleaf pine savanna remaining within city limits. This 268 acre preserve has an extensive network of hiking trails, enabling you to enjoy walks of anywhere from a half mile to six miles. But its biggest draw is open September through April: the Living History Farm, ten acres of historic buildings, livestock, and costumed interpreters recreating Florida’s pioneer days in the 1870s.
Length: 4.6 mile loop
Trailhead: 29.655789, -82.276888
Bug factor: low to moderate
Land Manager: City of Gainesville
Park hours 8-6 daily, living history farm 9-4:30 Tue-Sat. Dogs are not permitted in the park. Restrooms are at the environmental education center and picnic areas.
From I-75 exit 382, drive east on SE Williston Rd (SR 331) for 5.5 miles, crossing US 441. When you reach East University Avenue (SR 20/26), turn right. Keep left where the highways diverge to stay on SR 26. Drive 2.2 miles east to the entrance for Morningside Nature Center on the left. Follow the park road into the interior of the preserve to a visitor parking area on the left
Start your hike by reviewing the kiosk at the west side of the parking area. Walk west out of the parking area and follow the paved path to the environmental education center, where a map of the trail system is posted. It’s an extensive trail system with many options for long and short loops. This hike follows one of the longer routes, keeping close to the Perimeter Trail for a large portion of the hike, but you can opt to shorten or change it based on what you see on the map. While the center is normally busy with local school groups during the week, you can stop in the foyer to use the restrooms and pick up a map before heading out on the trail.
Leaving through the front door of the environmental education center, turn right and start down the trail. You quickly reach the “Cypress Dome Boardwalk” sign; turn right. An old wooden sign below is a reminder of the original boardwalk that has since been replaced by this broad boardwalk snaking between the cypress trees. Marsh ferns sprout from the forest floor, which may be dry or wet, depending on recent rains. Benches are inset at numerous spots along the boardwalk, providing places to watch lizards race across the railings.
The boardwalk makes a sharp right and gradually ends, guiding you into a small clearing with a kiosk and a chickee, an interpretive area for educators to share the clash of cultures – Spanish explorers invading this land, the land of the Timucua, in the 1500s. After reviewing the kiosk about the Potano, walk past the chickee and away from the environmental center into the pine flatwoods on a nice broad path between taller, older longleaf pines.
At 0.4 you reach a T intersection with the Gallberry Trail, which is blazed with yellow triangles. Turn left. Yellow-eyed grass blooms in the footpath, and the shiny blueberries sparkle with white blooms in early spring. Even though this preserve is inside the city limits of Gainesville, they are able to manage the forest with prescribed burns. As you hike the trails, you’ll notice the smoky scars up the trunks of the pines and, occasionally, a recently burned area where little is left in the understory. The use of prescribed burns helps keep the understory clear so the trees can thrive. Where the understory has not been burned, a tremendous amount of gallberry chokes the understory beneath the tall longleaf pines. Some of the saw palmetto are old enough to stand atop lengthy root systems that act like trunks.
The Gallberry Trail meets the Perimeter Trail at a T intersection. Turn right to follow the blue blazes. The footpath turns to gravel in a low spot, enabling water to flow out of a bayhead and yet keep the trail dry. Sweetgum and red maple surround the trail. Terrible thistle blooms atop tall stalks. Keep alert for a trail going off to the right amid a mound of grapevines at a half-hidden post with double yellow diamonds. Turn right to follow this path, the Blueberry Trail. This is a boggy place, where the footpath is slightly squishy, and bog wildflowers, like small butterwort, star-rush and wild bachelor’s button, thrive. The trail makes a sharp left and climbs up into a drier landscape. Bluestem palm yields to saw palmetto under the pines. Longleaf pines tower overhead.
You can see why this is called the Blueberry Trail, as it is lined with shiny blueberry bushes. The understory is very open; you can see a great distance in every direction, providing the illusion of not being in a city. You begin to see young longleaf pines in the understory, and pass a tall tree with a bit of metal still stuck in it from the days of turpentine tapping. Cardinals and towhees call out, their songs echoing between the pines. The trail gently meanders through this vast pine flatwoods, a nicely groomed footpath where you won’t lose your way. Draped over a young oak, the fragrant blooms of a yellow jasmine attracts a tiger swallowtail.
At 1.2 miles the trail reaches a T intersection with the blue blazed North Perimeter Trail. Turn right to continue on the outer loop. A thicket of saw palmetto and gallberry crowds against a line of posts on the old fenceline. The trail continues onto a boardwalk through a cypress dome, with a view of the marsh in the center of the dome. Like small wooden pyramids, cypress knees poke out of the dark, tannic water. Leaving the boardwalk and passing a bench, the trail comes up to a junction with Sandhill Road at 1.3 miles. Continue straight ahead to stay on the North Perimeter Trail. Gaining a little elevation, the habitat shifts to sandhills, with sand live oaks and turkey oaks overhead and nurseries of young longleaf pine clustered together in the open understory.
As the trail makes a curve to stay within the property boundary, it enters an oak forest within the sandhills. Given the grassy forest floor, this part of the trail is spectacular in fall when the wildflowers are blooming. It isn’t until you reach a spot where saw palmetto grows more thickly that you see a little bit of deer moss growing on the white sand. The trail is paralleled by an old road on the left. Here and there, you can see bird boxes scattered throughout the woods, noticeable as the sun shines on them because they have metal shields to prevent predators from climbing up to disturb them.
Soon after the trail starts to parallel a line of fence posts along the old fenceline, you see evidence of fall blooms. At 1.7 miles the trail reaches a Y intersection with the Gallberry Trail in a place called the Restoration Area. The grasses – which appear to be splitbeard bluestem and broomsedge – have a wheat-colored hue, with young longleaf pines growing among them. Stay to the left to continue along the Perimeter Trail. The fenceline is edged with wax myrtle and blackjack oak. To the right are the beautiful longleaf pines, accented by the colorful grasses beneath them. And then you reach the fence. It was a necessary addition around the Living History Farm, to secure the historic buildings and to keep deer out of the gardens, but it does detract from the beauty of the trail. Passing a gate into the fenced complex, you walk along in the shade until you reach the next Y intersection at 2 miles. Here, the trail to the right follows the fenceline over to the parking area where you started. Stay to the left to continue along the Perimeter Trail.
As the Perimeter Trail curves to the right, you’ll notice it’s doing so to avoid a bayhead swamp to your left. You can see scattered loblolly bay among the oaks and one oddly shaped pine with a wiggly trunk. The trail makes a sharp right turn and then comes to a T intersection where there is an old house on the right. The blue blazes lead you to the left. Beyond a dead pine with a catface and a metal insert for turpentine tapping, the trail makes another sharp right and passes a sign that says “End Trail Maintenance” before it continues down a long straightaway under the pines. Walking past a roped-off gate, you see picnic tables up ahead. You’ve reached the picnic area not far from the parking area, and it has restrooms and a water fountain. At 2.2 miles, you’re not quite halfway through the hike.
Leaving the picnic area, the trail isn’t obvious but it follows the edge of the parking area to the south. The blue blazes make a sharp left down the Ecotone Trail, leading into the sandhills, where you’ll see more catfaced pines. Traffic noise picks up as you’re headed for the fenceline along the park’s perimeter with SR 26. The trail makes a sharp right and burrows through a thicket of gallberry under the pines. Young longleaf pine gather in clusters. With the proximity to the highway, this section of the trail is a counterpoint to the quiet immersion in longleaf pine habitat you enjoyed earlier in the hike, in the northern part of the preserve. At 2.5 miles, the Power Line Trail joins in from the right. As the trail curves to the right, there is a patch of poison ivy. The Ecotone Trail reaches the park road. Double blazes point you to the left. Walk down the road a short distance to find the entrance to the Flatwoods Loop Trail: before you get to the park gate, look for the blue blaze on the right-hand side.
Quickly narrowing down to a tight but nicely groomed corridor, the trail is in pine flatwoods, looping you around the perimeter of a bayhead. Sprinkled across the footpath, yellow jasmine blossoms stand out against the pine needles and the netted chain fern along the trail’s edge. The trail map shows Moccasin Creek nearby as the trail turns to the right, away from the traffic noise, and starts heading north. Smilax drapes over understory plants and pine needles dangle from everything, everywhere. As the trail gains a little elevation, you leave the bayhead behind. The pines are very tall and the wind rushes through them well overhead, where the pilated woodpeckers glide from tree to tree. The trail curves to the right past a bed of ferns beneath red maples to pass a bench. At 3.2 miles, you reach the junction with the Bird Blind Trail. Turn right.
Walking past large clumps of saw palmetto, you can see a transition up ahead into sandhill habitat. When you reach the four-way junction, turn right to walk down to the bird blind. The wooden structure is like a small shed you can peer out of while sitting on a bench with a bird identification handbook handy. Bird feeders attract songbirds, particularly titmice. After you’re done birding, walk back up the path, passing a bench, and continue straight ahead through the four-way intersection to continue along the Bird Blind Trail back to the nature center. This trail winds along the ecotone between the open flatwoods and flatwoods with a denser understory. Passing the entrance to the Cypress Dome Boardwalk, you’ve completed the full loop by 3.5 miles.
While it’s quicker to walk back past your car to get to the Living History Farm, the trail network will get you there on several paths that you haven’t walked on yet. Pass by the front of the nature center and its native plant garden and walk around the back side of the nature center; look for the pink blazes of the Persimmon Trail off to your right. Reaching a Y intersection, keep left. The trail leads you through the sandhills past more catfaced pines. You can see the parking lot off to your right. Passing a trail to the right, the path makes a left turn and you find a confirmation pink blaze almost looking like a lichen on the tree. At the T intersection, turn right, reaching the Gopher Trail at 3.8 miles. It, too, follows an ecotone between denser pine forest and sandhills.
At the next intersection, you see the perimeter fence of the farm compound again. You’ve reached Sandhill Road. Turn right. By 4 miles, you reach the entrance to the Living History Farm, where there is a bench on the right as you walk up to the gate. A sign warns that dogs are not permitted inside the farm complex. Open until 4 PM, it has several buildings – including a historic schoolhouse, farmhouse, and blacksmith shop – in a large clearing in the pine forest. An orange grove grows near the pioneer school, and a dairy cow grazes in the barnyard. On weekends, you’ll see the blacksmith and other “farm residents” bringing history to life.
After a wander through the farm, which takes about a quarter mile to walk around, exit the farm complex and walk down the broad path to the parking area. Returning to the kiosk, you’ve completed a 4.6-mile circuit of Morningside Nature Center.