Protecting 125 acres of watershed along Sweetwater Branch, Sweetwater Preserve is broken into two distinct parts by this waterway flowing out of downtown Gainesville.
On its west side, a trailhead off Williston Rd – just north of Sweetwater Wetlands Park – provides mountain bikers singletrack in the deeply shaded forest along the creek.
On its east side, it’s a different world. A 1.2-mile loop trail inside the preserve enables hikers to explore eight different habitats along the forested bluffs above Paynes Prairie.
Our focus here is on the hiking trail, which can only be accessed off the Depot Park Connector bike path north of the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail terminus at Boulware Springs.
Length: 2 mile loop and round-trip
Trailhead: 29.621507, -82.308472
Address: 3400 SE 15th St, Gainesville
Fees / Permits: free
Restroom: at Boulware Springs Park
Land Manager: Alachua County
Open daylight hours. Leashed dogs permitted. Bicycles are discouraged on this loop. There is a bike rack at the trailhead.
From I-75 at Williston Rd at the south end of Gainesville, drive east on Williston Rd (SR 331), crossing US 441 after 4.3 miles. Continue around the curve past the western entrance to the preserve and the traffic light. Turn right onto SE 4th St, which curves slightly to become SE 21st Ave.
Turn right on SE 15th St and continue a half mile to the park entrance. The first entrance leads to the parking lot nearest the trail; the second, to the parking lot near the historic waterworks and restrooms.
The Sweetwater Preserve trailhead is 0.4 mile from where you park your car. Start by the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail sign and turn right.
While you’ll need to stay out of the way of cyclists whizzing past from downtown, it’s a nicely shaded walk on the canopied bike path.
An eye-catching feature at the Sweetwater Preserve trailhead is the bike rack. It’s painted in such a way to help you tell the difference between a king snake and a coral snake.
An interpretive sign explains the meaning and the difference between the two snakes. Big benches made of camphor trees and mounted on chert flank the kiosk.
The loop through Sweetwater Preserve starts just past the kiosk, walking you beneath mature sand live oaks in sandhill habitat. Keep right at the fork.
Within a few moments, you encounter mossy ground, the earth covered in puffs of deer moss. The furrows indicate this area was once farmed.
At the next fork, keep right to make a counterclockwise loop around the preserve. The trail leads through the sandhills behind the historic Pine Grove Cemetery. Avoid veering off on a road in that direction.
Turning away from the cemetery after 0.7 mile, the trail enters a hardwood hammock and heads down a gradual slope lined in cabbage palms. Passing an interpretive sign about decomposers, the trail descends.
Step over the saw palmetto trunks – we call them “gatorbacks” – in the trail and cross a bridge over an ephemeral stream draining a baygall, a cluster of trees like loblolly bay that prefer to have their feet wet.
The hickory and sweetgum towering overhead above a low canopy of sparkleberry say you’re in a bluff forest. Look for grape-laden grapevines in summer. The trail descends again, and the sky opens up to the left.
Past another interpretive sign, you can see the creek again, meandering off to the right through the mixed deciduous forest. The trail keeps descending, leading you under a swamp chestnut oak.
Off to the left, through the dense foliage, you can catch a glimpse of a large sinkhole. You’ll get close to further along the trail.
After a mile, turn right at the “Creek” sign. This spur trail leads to Sweetwater Branch, where you’ll find a bench and an interpretive sign.
Here, Sweetwater Branch is a clear, sand-bottomed stream, beautiful to behold. Looks are deceiving. It was an important water source when Gainesville was young. Its headwaters are near Main Street and NE 28th.
However, it is polluted from stormwater runoff and contains treated sewage effluent. That’s the reason that Sweetwater Wetlands Park was built, to filter these waters before they reach Paynes Prairie.
The alligators you see at La Chua sometimes find their way up here, too. So resist the temptation to wade in the creek, and enjoy the view.
Return back up the spur trail to the intersection. Proceed straight ahead to continue around the loop.
The trail ascends, looping around and above the sinkhole. The fence line to the right is the property boundary with Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.
At “The Pond” sign, turn left and walk down the slope. A bench sits in the shade along it, looking over a willow marsh cradled by the sinkhole.
Return back up the spur trail to follow the main trail uphill. It continues to parallel the state park fence, passing through a thicket of yaupon holly. These tiny trees have sharply pointed leaves.
By 1.4 miles, the trail veers away from the fenceline and into a younger forest. Eventually, the deeply shaded corridor has Spanish moss draped overhead.
Lines of logs delineating the footpath appear as you return to the beginning of the loop. Continue straight ahead through the sandhills to reach the kiosk at the preserve entrance.
Turn right on the paved bike path to walk down the shaded corridor to Boulware Springs Park. Turn left at the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail trailhead and follow the path back to where your car is parked, wrapping a 2-mile hike.
Our slideshow of hiking Sweetwater Preserve
Boulware Springs Park
Explore historic Boulware Springs, a short walk towards the front of the park from the trailhead.
More places to hike near Sweetwater Preserve
One of North Florida’s oldest bike paths, the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail provides a mostly shaded rural ride
There are a handful of places that stand out as excellent locations for wildlife watching in Florida, but the best place to see alligators is in the home of the Gators, Gainesville
Under the dense canopy of a hardwood forest, the Prairie Creek Boardwalk provides a unique perspective on the creek that links Paynes Prairie and Newnans Lake.
In the deep shade of the floodplain of Prairie Creek near Gainesville, Prairie Creek Preserve is a beauty spot provided to the public by the Alachua Conservation Trust
Official Map (PDF) Official Website