Spanning 600 acres along the estuaries of the St. Johns River, with sweeping views from atop an ancient midden that tops the bluffs, the Theodore Roosevelt Area of Timucuan Preserve provides one of the best hikes in the region, combining rugged terrain with cultural history and scenic views.
Length: 3.1 miles
Lat-Lon: 30.3700, -81.4833
Type: balloon loop
Fees / Permits: free
Difficulty: easy to difficult
Bug factor: moderate to extreme
Restroom: at the trailhead parking area
Leashed pets welcome. Bicycles permitted only on the Willie Browne Trail. Please do not ride bicycles on the midden.
From Interstate 295 in Jacksonville south of the Dames Point Bridge, take exit 45 for Merrill Rd E (SR 113). Follow Merrill Rd for 5 miles to Mt. Pleasant Rd. Turn left. Continue 0.9 mile to the entrance to the Theodore Roosevelt Area on the right.
Named for the most conservation-minded president in United States history, the Theodore Roosevelt Area exists because of the single-minded love for this land that its owner, Willie Browne, maintained for all of his life. Willie grew up in this forest and lived most of his life here. He was at an impressionable age, his early 20s, when Theodore Roosevelt established National Forests, National Parks, and the National Wildlife Refuge system.
Willie was duly impressed. This land his family had acquired meant a lot to him. He spent his adult life living in a small cabin without modern conveniences, turning down offers from developers to turn this forest and ancient midden into subdivisions. After he died in 1970, the property was passed on to The Nature Conservancy, to create a preserve in perpetuity. It became a foundational part of a new National Park, Timucuan Preserve.
0.0 > Start with a look at the map on the kiosk at the trailhead. You might want to take a photo of it with your phone, as there are some points of confusion once you’re atop the midden. Map brochures may be available and if so, take one with you. The entry to this trail system is the Willie Browne Trail, an old road back to the Browne homestead. It’s shaded by extremely tall trees in a well-established hardwood hammock.
0.3 > A wide spot appears in this already wide trail in the hardwood hammock, shaded by pignut hickory, live oak, and tall bluejack oaks, where there is a bench near a kiosk that invites you to pay attention to the changes in the landscape around you, as the habitats transition towards the salt marsh. The sizes of some of the oaks and magnolias are simply impressive, and it’s thanks to the Browne family that these trees were left alone to grow to these heights. Trail markers are in green.
0.6 > A bridge is up ahead, and as you cross it, notice how red bay clings to the slopes of Hammock Creek. Just beyond this waterway, you encounter a kiosk labeled “Theodore Roosevelt Area.” This marks the start of the loop portion of your hike. Keep right to start along the Willie Browne Trail Loop, which stays on the broad old road beneath a showy canopy of live oaks.
0.8 > Rising up a hill, you see a clearing. To the right is an interpretive area with a kiosk. The posts here are all that remains of the cabin that Willie Browne lived in until his death. “I could have sold the land. I could have bought fancy clothes. I could have traveled the world…but I like the woods.” Thanks to Willie’s love of these woods and his decision to follow in the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt to protect them, we can all enjoy them now.
The Willie Browne Trail turns left here at a map kiosk to make a loop. Continue straight ahead past the cabin site, passing a trail junction to the left as the trail, still as broad as a road, arcs downhill through a canopy of coastal hammock. Trail markers are now black and bicycles are not permitted through this archaeological area.
0.9 > As the trail swings down to estuary level, you catch your first glimpses of Round Marsh through the trees. After a short distance, the view opens up. The spill of oyster shells – your clue to the midden that sits uphill to the left – increases as you draw within view of the observation tower up ahead. Coming to a trail junction at the base of the midden, follow the long, thin peninsula straight ahead, beneath the cedars.
1.0 > A favorite destination for all visitors to this National Park, the observation deck overlooks the sweep of Round Marsh and mazy meanders of Colorinda Creek, which flows through an expansive estuary out to the St. Johns River in the distance. In addition to its 360-degree views, the observation deck is a perfect perch for birding.
1.1 > Returning along the peninsula to the base of the midden, look off to the right for a nice view across the tidal marshes. Keep right to ascend the midden on the Timucuan Trail, blazed with green posts. This narrow, rugged trail twists and winds over massive piles of oyster shells eroding out of the midden. As you dip through spots dug out to remove shells for building and road material, and you see the bright white oyster shells spilling out from beneath the lush hammock, just think—this is a centuries-old landfill. Will our landfills of today host such vibrant forests in the future? What’s especially fascinating is where erosion has removed shells from beneath the pine and oak roots, leaving them perched atop roots of up to five feet up in the air, much as if they were giant red mangroves.
1.2 > After a rugged climb with numerous scenic viewpoints over the St. Johns River estuary and St. Johns Creek, you come to a trail intersection with a bench. A few paces away is the final resting place of Sgt. John Nathan Spearing, a solider from the Confederate States Army. Unless you want a quick trip back to the cabin site along the black blazed cross-trail, pass by this intersection and continue along the rim of the bluff.
1.3 > The Timucuan Trail becomes increasingly more rugged, with steeper grades and rough roots underfoot. Poison ivy and Virginia creeper intermingle as a ground cover, and the trail narrows significantly. The canopy closes in, with streamers of Spanish moss hanging from the oaks. Passing another black blazed cross-trail across the midden to the left, keep going and you’ll come to a bench soon after it, offering another view over the marshes. The trail gets even more rugged, dipping in and out of ravines along the bluffs.
1.5 > A bench sits in the shade along a short side trail on the bluff, but offers no views. Past this turnoff, the trail climbs steeply through the dense understory before leveling out on the bluff.
1.6 > After a curve at the top of the hill, you briefly look down a substantial drop from the top of the bluff to Fort Caroline Rd below, leading out to an industrial complex along the river. The Dames Point Bridge is in the distance. The trail begins to descend through oak scrub.
1.8 > Florida rosemary thrives in a rare patch of rosemary scrub near a curve in the trail where a bench sits in the shade. The trail continues a gradual descent from the high point you left earlier.
1.9 > You reach a T intersection with the Spanish Pond Trail. To the right, it leads 0.7 mile to the Spanish Pond trailhead across from Fort Caroline; you can extend this hike another 1.5 miles by hiking down to the pond. Turn left to stay on the loop, now following the red blazes of the Spanish Pond Trail. After a few moments, the trail makes a sharp left.
An old side path leads down to the right through the saw palmetto, marked with a black blaze. Follow it downhill through the palmetto for a peek at the floodplain of Alligator Pond. Floodwaters removed the bench that was once at the bottom of the hill, and the pond is now well-hidden behind a screen of vegetation. When we first hiked at this preserve, there was an alligator nest along the pond. Return to the main trail and take a right.
2.0 > Pass a bench beneath the richly textured canopy of the maritime hammock. Dense with draperies of Spanish moss, oaks, red bay, and magnolias create a tunnel effect as the trail widens.
2.2 > The red-blazed Spanish Pond Trail ends at the intersection with the Willie Browne Trail (straight ahead and to the right) and one of the cross trails of the Timucuan Trail. A map near a bench helps you get your bearings. Turn right to rejoin the Willie Browne Trail, now following the blue blazes on the posts. Along the left side of the trail is the Browne family cemetery.
2.4 > The loop portion of the Willie Browne Trail ends at the kiosk within sight of the bridge over Hammock Creek. Continue straight ahead to walk back out the old homestead road to the trailhead.
2.8 > As you marvel at the big trees one more time, pass the bench next to the interpretive sign about habitats.
3.1 > Return to the Theodore Roosevelt Area trailhead. Off to the right is a small picnic area and restrooms under the shade of the high canopy of hardwood forest.