Protecting 509 acres in an otherwise crowded urban area, Tillie K. Fowler Regional Park is located right along US 17, across from the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. While the Nature Center and its trails are the park’s focal points, the Island Hiking Trail is a rough gem that winds through the northern third of the preserve.
The trail has numerous unmarked cross-trails and firebreaks, so it takes some way-finding savvy. There are also some habitats to avoid wading in. The beauty of the forest, however, makes this adventure worthwhile.
This hike is listed in “Hikers Guide to the Sunshine State” as “Westside Regional Park”; the park was renamed since publication.
Length: 1.9 miles (longer or shorter loops possible)
Lat-Long: 30.237783, -81.699003
Type: loop system
Fees / Permits: Free
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: At the Nature Center
Open 5 AM – 7 PM daily (until 9 PM during daylight savings hours). Please use your typical precautions for personal safety while visiting an urban park.
Tillie K Fowler Regional Park is along US 17 just 2.8 miles north of I-295 at Orange Park. At the traffic light, turn west to enter the park at the circular drive. Continue along the park road for nearly a mile, passing several side trails and a picnic area on your left. There is a loop in the road near the end at the nature center. Park your car on the left. The trailhead is on the right at the picnic area, starting as a paved trail at the red sign.
The orange-blazed Island Trail follows the paved path through the piney woods picnic area. At a long bridge over a drainage area, the redbud, sweetgum, and red maple trees will show their colors in fall. The boardwalk gives way to a natural footpath of pine duff and leaves, and your adventure begins.
Watch for blazes and orange flagging tape as you walk. The footpath is broad and easy to follow, but don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security. It’s a maze in here!
When you reach the first trail junction , keep left to stay on the trail’s outer perimeter. This path scrambles down an undulating landscape through pine straw and pine cones, down a small bluff into a low-lying area. Beware of stumps, knobs, and roots hiding under the soft pine duff. The forest is very pretty, an interface between hardwoods and floodplain, where both yaupon holly and wax myrtle stand along the footpath.
Just after a quarter mile is a large, majestic slash pine with saw palmetto at its base. At 0.3 mile, an unblazed but well-defined trail comes in from the left at a spot with chunks of concrete strewn next to an old metal barrel. Continue straight ahead. You’ll see another enormous pine, this one with branches reaching down into understory.
At the junction with a blue blazed trail, turn left to follow the orange blazes. There’s a short stretch where both blue and orange blazes are painted on top of each other. It can be a little confusing, since the blue vanishes into the understory. Stay with the orange blazes.
The trail makes a quick left and comes to a T intersection with a broad, unmarked trail to the right. Turn left, staying with the blazes. The vegetation here (saw palmetto, loblolly bay, sweetbay magnolia, highbush blueberry, dahoon holly, and the occasional southern magnolia) signals the edge of the floodplain.
The trail crosses an old road at around 0.4 mile and a big puddle to skirt. There is a marsh off to the right. There’s a reason this is called the Island Trail; you’re headed to the island in the Ortega River floodplain – a large patch of higher ground surrounded by wetlands, mostly wet forests.
At a half mile, I lost the blazes. Maybe you won’t, maybe you will. I’m sure they went somewhere. You come to a junction where the broad trail heads straight into a large body of dark, uninviting water, and a narrow trail goes to the left. Head left into the floodplain forest, where fungi cling to fallen logs. The sloppy, gunky muck of the footpath is courtesy of the overflowing wetlands surrounding you.
The trail begins to curve away from the wetlands and up into the slash pines. When you reach a junction with another unmarked trail, skip it and stay with the broader path. In moments you’ll come to a T intersection–and the missing blazes! My guess is that they went through the nasty puddle you avoided earlier.
Turn left to follow the orange blazes again, and reach the “Island Loop” sign and a junction at 0.7 miles. Follow the broad path straight ahead into scrub habitat, a delightful find on the island’s high ground. The crooked branches of rusty lyonia arch overhead, entangled with sand live oaks and water oaks.
It’s a straight shot down this section of trail. As you near the Ortega River floodplain, you’ll see the floodplain forest’s colorful leaves beyond the screen of scrub.
The trail jogs to the right down another long, straight corridor with a very tall slash pine standing overhead. You may see a gopher tortoise as you walk through a gauntlet of blueberry bushes. Watch your step for older burrows.
The trail leaves the scrub and again becomes a zigzagging pine duff path through the pines and oaks. It’s obvious now that you’re on an island, since there is a line of brightness off to the left through the trees, with cypress trees rising from the edge of the floodplain.
The trail curves to fit the north rim of the island, with the floodplain beyond defined by cypress rising behind the cabbage palms. In winter, the floodplain forest is almost devoid of leaves. Take the left fork as you reach the next junction, staying with the orange blazes that lead you along the island’s rim.
The footpath zigzags back and forth between clumps of saw palmetto before transitioning back into the scrub forest. At 1.1 mile, you come to the end of the Island Loop. Straight ahead is an unmarked trail that you’re welcome to explore – keep your bearings! – but to exit, you must turn left.
Down this straightway into the pines, you pass the T junction from before. Continue forward here, and again when you see another side trail at the base of a large loblolly pine. As the path widens, ignore yet another side trail, this one to your left. Straight ahead, cross the bouncy boardwalk at 1.3 mile, and pass the firebreak to your right.
At the next right, follow the orange blazes up ascending a natural staircase of roots. Passing a bench, the trail quickly jogs left and away from it. Passing another side trail to the right, you may hear the sounds of helicopter training across the street at Jacksonville NAS.
The trail swings into a broad depression, perhaps a canal or road in older times, and then scrambles up a low mound into the forest, plunging into a wall of bamboo. At 1.5 mile is another bench.
The next T intersection is the final major choice to make along the hike. I chose right. Left, it seems, will extend your trek a little more but bring you closer to the industrial noise. Turning right, you’ll soon emerge at that original unmarked intersection with the concrete and barrel. Turn left here.
Scrambling up and over the undulations at the edge of the floodplain forest, you return to the small bluff where the loop began, at 1.8 miles. The orange blazes come in from the left. Turn right to cross the boardwalk and exit through the picnic area, completing a 1.9-mile hike.