A strip of dense slope forest along Hogtown Creek with old-growth trees and rare wildflowers along Appalachian-style ravines, Gainesville’s first linear park was a gift from a college professor, Alfred A. Ring, and opened in 1990.
Length: 1.5 mile round-trip
Trailhead: 29.674283, -82.347019
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Land Manager: City of Gainesville
Leashed pets welcome. There is a restroom, picnic shelter, and playground adjoining a small formal garden.
From the corner of University Avenue and US 441, drive north on US 441 to Glen Springs Rd (NW 23rd Ave). Follow it to the entrance for Alfred A. Ring Park on the left, entered through the Elks Lodge parking lot.
Leaving the parking area, you descend towards a broad iron bridge that stretches across Hogtown Creek, a gateway into this popular nature park. From there, it’s a climb into the upland forest on a nice, broad natural footpath. Skinny loblolly pines tower overhead. You come to an interpretive sign, “Discover the habitats of Ring Park,” that gives a nice introduction to what you’re about to see. At the top of the hill, you reach a trail junction in front of the restrooms, playground and picnic pavilion. Turn right to walk uphill through the forest, where you’ll notice dogwood blooming in late winter. You reach the north entrance to the park at a kiosk, which has a nice map of the trail system. Come back along the same path to the playground, and turn right to walk through this hub of activity, where moms gather with their tots. On the other side, the trail enters the pretty Emily S. Ring wildflower garden, with native plants – including silver-tinged saw palmetto – accompanied by colorful azalea and camellia. A bench is in front of a goldfish pond.
The trail descends out of the cultivated wildflower garden into the upland forest. In spring, the hillside is carpeted with smooth Solomon’s seal, a wildflower identified with the southern Appalachians. Were it not for the bluestem palms along the slope, you’d think you were hiking in the Appalachians on the steep descent to the creek. Passing a trail junction, continue straight ahead and downhill into the slope forest, where massive Southern magnolias cast broad pools of shade.
At a half mile, the trail reaches a T intersection with a trail paralleling the creek. Turn right to follow this route downstream. A bench overlooks a pretty horseshoe curve in the creek, just before you start walking down a broad boardwalk. As the waters of Hogtown Creek ebb and flow – based on not just rainfall but stormwater pushed into it from surrounding subdivisions – it casts up sandy beaches along the natural curves of the stream. Along the boardwalk, you see one of the giant stormwater pipes peeking out of a deeply eroded side channel feeding the creek. The valley created by erosion over time sustains a lush slope forest. Needle palms glisten along the water’s edge, and red buckeye thrives in the deep shade cast by enormous specimens of Florida maple, sweetgum, bluff oak, and loblolly pines. Substantial boardwalks provide overlooks of the many lazy bends of the creek.
The trail comes up to a fenceline with a well-established neighborhood in the forest up the slope to the right, and jogs left along another boardwalk. The creek basin is a deeply folded landscape, with terrain and views reminding me of our hikes in the mountains of North Carolina. The large shaggy-barked tree you pass is a swamp chestnut oak, with enormous leaves. It thrives in places where limestone outcrops close to the surface, as it does here in Gainesville, where the karst geology means that Hogtown Creek doesn’t end its journey into a lake or river – it simply vanishes into a big sinkhole at the south end of the city at a preserve called Split Rock Conservation Area.
At the next boardwalk, you’ll pass a loblolly pine of impressive stature. Watch for poison ivy, which curls around tree trunks and sneaks up to the edges of the well-groomed footpath. Look up, too, to see how the tall, thin loblolly pines curve skyward through the forest canopy, including another one at the next interpretive sign, “Sounds from Above,” about the songbirds you’ve been hearing, including the ever-present Carolina wren.
Passing another bench at a scenic spot where the creek makes a curve, the trail continues to the next boardwalk. As the creek continues its sinuous path through the forest, the footpath connects a string of boardwalks. The next one is flanked by one of the largest sweetgum trees I’ve ever seen. Squirrels scramble through the stands of tall, thin loblolly pines and play balance beam over the clear waters of Hogtown Creek as they dash across fallen logs.
As you start to hear traffic, you’re nearing the southern entrance to Alfred Ring Park. Passing an interpretive marker on “Seepage Streams,” which describes how Hogtown Creek is naturally fed by shallow groundwater percolating through the sand, you reach the turnaround point for this walk at the pedestrian entrance off NW 16th Avenue, at 0.8 mile.
Walk back the way you came, following Hogtown Creek upstream, and you’ll find you see more wildflowers and scenic spots along the creek from the perspective of having the ravine off to your right. By 1.2 miles, you reach the trail junction with the bench where you started this trek along the ravine. Continue straight, with a sign alerting you this is the direction to the observation deck and parking area. The next boardwalk is flanked by tall loblolly pines. As the trail works its way through a flatter floodplain, you can see a water-filled sink to the right and obvious side channels carved when the creek is in flood stage.
“From Forest to Faucet: A stream’s journey through the heart of Gainesville” is the special feature on the interpretive sign at the observation deck, which you reach just after the next trail junction. The creek is off to the right, more slender and steeply sided, with a tiny cascade pouring in from a tributary. As you exit the observation deck, turn right and start the gentle climb. You encounter a strange habitat transition along this part of the trail, with bracken fern – which likes dry places – growing closer to the creek, and then netted chain – which likes dampness – growing farther up the slope. You enter a lush slope forest dense with Southern magnolia, where an interpretive sign explains some of the rarer plants that can be spotted here, like the cranefly orchid and Florida spinypod, as well as basswood and wild azalea.
At the trail junction, turn right. Towering over the forest on the left is one of the largest Southern magnolias either of us have ever seen, with a trunk that rises at least 50 to 60 feet before the first branches reach out above the canopy. It’s not the only oversized Southern magnolias here; you walk between a row of them as the trail slowly rises up to meet the trail junction adjoining the restrooms.
Turn right to exit. As you descend down to the bridge, you’re more aware of the sheer size of the trees of this forest, especially the Southern magnolias nearest the creek. Crossing the bridge, continue to the parking area to finish this 1.5 mile hike.