Two different faces, two different spaces: the 125-acre Sweetwater Preserve, acquired in 2006, is a unique natural land in the city of Gainesville. It provides a buffer and wildlife corridor on the northern rim of Paynes Prairie along a historically important waterway, part of a 50,000 acre conservation buffer between Gainesville and Hawthorne.
While Gainesville has all but forgotten the burbling stream inside the city by burying it under roadways, here in the bluff forests the waterway sparkles and creates an impassible, alligator-guarded ribbon between the two sides of the preserve.
The western half of the preserve, accessed from an obvious trailhead off Waldo Rd, is a popular destination for mountain bikers. Our hike takes place on the lesser-known eastern side of the preserve, its trailhead hidden away from major roads and accessed via a walk down the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail from Boulware Springs Park. With an easy loop traversing eight different natural communities, it’s a great family hike.
Length: 2 miles
Lat-Long: 29.621507, -82.308472
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: At Boulware Springs Park historic waterworks
Leashed dogs are permitted. Bicycles are discouraged – there is a bike rack at the trailhead.
Boulware Springs Park is open Open 7 AM – 8 PM daily. Take a few minutes to check out the historic waterworks – the spring was the first water source for the city of Gainesville, purchased for municipal use in 1891. In 1905, the city landed the University of Florida – it was vying with Lake City for the location of the university – by offering free water from the springs. The waterworks are on the National Register of Historic Places.
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.
Starting at the historic Boulware Springs Waterworks – the easier of the two parking areas to find, which connects with the parking area in the back via a short paved trail – follow an unpaved trail lined by a split-rail fence to a big trailhead kiosk and parking area for the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail. Continue along this paved path to meet the main biking trail at a T intersection, and turn right. Walk down the shaded corridor – keep to the right to be obvious to the bicyclists whizzing past towards downtown – to the Sweetwater Preserve trail kiosk on the left at 0.4 mile. You can’t miss it, thanks to the unique bike rack next to the trail – it’s painted to resemble a coral snake on one end, and a king snake on the other end. I’ve never seen such a clever teaching tool before or since! 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 trail starts between the kiosk and bike rack, starting off in sandhill habitat with mature sand live oaks. At the reverse fork, keep right. Within a few moments, you encounter mossy ground, the earth covered in puffs of deer moss. Prior to this land being preserved, the area was used for cattle grazing and farming, so there are still signs of old furrows. At the next fork, the sign points you to the left. Take the right side instead to head counterclockwise around the loop – the better to bask in the sun at the beginning of the hike. Passing more mossy patches, keep left at the next fork – avoiding veering off onto a road – to stay on the footpath through the sandhills.
Strolling through a second-or-third growth hardwood hammock along the edge of a scrubby, mossy area, you’re corralled onto the footpath by rotting logs of laurel oak resplendent in funky fungi, bracken fern peeping up behind them. Paw-paw show off cream-colored blooms in spring. Off to the right, you can see the back side of the historic Pine Grove Cemetery for a few minutes, healthy longleaf pines screening off most of that view.
Turning away from paralleling the cemetery fenceline at 3/4 mile, the trail jogs left into a dense hardwood hammock. A baygall sits down and low to the left through the woods as the trail heads down a gradual slope lined in cabbage palms. An eastern fence lizard skitters past, climbing up a shiny lyonia. Dropping quickly in elevation, your surroundings become more lush and humid, the path narrowing down to singletrack. Saw palmetto have thick trunks belieing their age.
Passing an interpretive sign about decomposers, the trail descends. Cinnamon ferns fill in the open spots in the understory. Step over the gatorbacks in the trail and pass a bridge before crossing a bridge over an ephemeral stream draining the baygall. 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. Walk under a swamp chestnut oak with its massive leaves as the trail keeps descending. Off to the left, through the dense foilage, you can catch a glimpse of a large sinkhole. You’ll get close to it later down the trail. Zigzagging between saw palmetto stands, the trail is flanked by dips in the earth near a large catfaced longleaf pine.
After 1 mile, turn right to take the spur trail down to Sweetwater Branch at the “Creek” sign. Coming to an interpretive sign and a bench, you reach Sweetwater Branch. It’s a clear, sand-bottomed stream, beautiful to behold. However, you don’t want to go wading in it – or, even worse, drinking it. Its headwaters are near Main Street and NE 28th, so all of the water from the city’s street sewers – plus treated sewage effulent – pours into this creek, which heads into Paynes Prairie. And yes, those alligators you see at La Chua Sink come up the creek. Resist the temptation, 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 jogging through cedars on the slope above the sinkhole. You see a fenceline with Paynes Prairie Preserve off to the right. At “The Pond” sign, turn left and walk down the slope of a large sinkhole. Trail’s end is well above the sinkhole’s swampy bottom at a bench under the trees. You can see a willow marsh on the far side of the marsh. Head back up the slope and straight ahead.
Gaining elevation, with hickory and oak overhead, the trail parallels the fenceline with Paynes Prairie, a pasture with tall dog fennel. A thicket of yaupon holly crowds close to the footpath on the left, with prickly pear growing at their bases. By 1.4 miles, the trail reaches the fenceline, veers left, and heads through a dense understory with younger hickory, oak, and mounds of grapevine piled over it all. Veering right, the deeply shaded corridor has Spanish moss draped overhead. The lines of logs appear again as you return to the beginning of the loop after 1.5 miles. Continue up to the trail junction to finish the loop, and straight ahead through the sandhills to exit the preserve. Turn right on the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail to walk down the shaded corridor to Boulware Springs Park. Turn left and follow the path back to where your car is parked, wrapping a 2-mile hike.