Tucked behind the Florida Museum of Natural History and the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, the University of Florida Natural Area Teaching Laboratory is an outdoor classroom for students and visitors to immerse themselves in several common Florida habitats and get to know them very well, thanks to identification and interpretation of the habitats and their inhabitants. Although this 49-acre natural area is entirely surrounded by the bustle of Gainesville, it’s an excellent launch point for learning plant identification before you head out to the quieter hikes in the region.
Length: 1.5 miles
Type: balloon and loops
Fees / Permits: none
Good for: birding, plant interpretation
Bug factor: low
Restroom: use the restrooms at the museums when they are open
The UF NATL Nature Trails are located behind the University of Florida Cultural Arts Plaza off Hull Road. From Interstate 75 exit 384, follow SW Archer Road east 1 mile to the intersection with SW 34th Street (SR 121). Turn left and continue 0.7 mile, past the Doyle Conner Center, to turn east onto Hull Road across from the Hilton. Turn right into the parking area just past the Harn Museum of Art. Park either in the flat-rate lot (currently $4) if you plan to do the hike and visit either of the museums, or use a metered space (45 minute limit) and watch your time if you’re just doing the hike.
From the front of the Florida Museum of Natural History, walk around the building to the left. You’ll see a blue sign that says “Experience Natural Florida! Self-guided nature trails. 300 ft to trails.” Follow the arrow on the sign to walk downhill and across paved access to the back of the museum to reach the fenceline and a welcome kiosk for the start of the nature trail system. You can pick up a map here. Trails take off in several directions from this point, with the Upland Pine Trail to the right, the Old Field Nature Trail to the left, a connector trail straight ahead towards the Hammock Trail, and one along the fenceline that connects to the SEEP Nature Trail, the wetlands area. Turn left to follow the fenceline, passing a grid of small trails that intersect the Old Field Trail. The understory under the pines is entirely open.
Continue along the perimeter, passing a trail junction. Songbirds flitting through the trees and warble, which calls attention to the surprising lack of traffic noise in this urban setting. You can hear a distant hum but it’s not drowning out the sounds of nature. A kiosk on the left at 0.2 mile explains the purpose of the SEEP Nature Trail, showcasing the University’s Stormwater Ecological Enhancement Project, a man-made wetland with gradients of marsh and swamp engineered to clean stormwater from the surrounding parking areas. A boardwalk is straight ahead, but the signs direct you past it to the right to start the loop.
As you start the SEEP Nature Trail, the interpretive markers on plants that we’d normally think of as weeds help define It’s helpful to learn common Florida plants from the interpretive markers here, such as wild radish and Cuban jute. As the trail passes another junction with the Old Field Nature Trail, there is a pond off to the left and downhill. At a wide intersection that leads to a shed on the right, the SEEP Nature Trail turns left, passing the back side of several greenhouses and a sign “Caution. Alligator nesting area.” Don’t wander down that path to the pond!
Interpretive signage explains some of the inhabitants of this habitat, like cricket frogs and tree frogs, on the way to a back entrance to the trail system, only accessible by students and staff. The basin below is described as a “self-organizing system,” with 120 species of native plants thriving after restoration of the pond. The trail follows a fenceline, passing another back entrance after a half mile at the tiny Natural Park Area, a shady spot with picnic tables. It drops downhill past an array of interpretive signs about insects into the treatment marsh portion of this wetland area. It’s here that the boardwalk begins, winding through giant cutgrass and marsh fern. The sound of burbling water is constant as you pass a small weir.
The boardwalk curves into a shrubby swamp with a fringe of wild iris and wax myrtle beneath river birch, passes a cattail marsh, and enters a planted cypress swamp with both pond and bald cypress, bromeliads and shield lichen clinging to their bark. On a small island, a bench adjoins a basket oak. Water flows slowly through this man-made series of wetlands down a natural slope to the alligator nesting pond, which is in the base of a gently sloped sinkhole. As the boardwalk ends, so does the loop.
Retrace your steps along the fenceline behind the perfoming arts center back to the first left, entering the Old Field Nature Trail at a sign that says “Old Field Plot B.” This grassy path leads uphill to the forested fringe beyond the field. With its roots as the Florida Agricultural College, this is part of the living laboratory for students at the University of Florida. Small signs sprout from the grasses under the pines, indicating how old that section of the field is, that is, how long it’s been since it was last tilled, showing the difference in natural succession of a field to a forest over time.
At a four-way junction, continue straight ahead beneath the slash pine through more succession plots. Up ahead, you’re approaching a forest road that runs perpendicular to this trail. At the “Old Field Nature Trail” sign before that road, turn right. Loblolly pines tower overhead, while the shrubby saltbush in the understory attracts butterflies in the fall. One interpretive marker you shouldn’t miss is poison ivy. It grows in many forms in Florida, from thick vines dangling overhead and mimcking hickory branches to this very common type, a vine in the grass.
As this trail ends, you reach the Hammock Trail kiosk at the edge of the denser forest at 0.8 mile. Turn left at the kiosk to start this loop, which enters an unrestored upland pine forest to showcase what happens as the forest goes through natural succession. The understory is choked with grapevines and young oak trees. At the fork, keep to the right. Notice how many laurel oaks there are? This is one of the more opportunistic trees in Florida, and will take over an old field and turn it into a forest, which is exactly what happened here. According to the signs, this was a treeless field 65 years ago. Laurel oak forests tend to look scraggly, dense, and unkempt compared to what the natural habitat here should be, a sandhill.
As the elevation drops, the trail enters an upland hammock. This is an excellent section of trail for learning about native Florida trees and plants, although the signage, like the words “loblolly pine” strapped to whopping big pine tree trunks, is intrusive at times. The soapberry tree has leaves that look like sumac, while the winged elm has rough ridges along the edges of its leaves. Delicate white blooms of innocence, also known as fairy footprints, and the painted-leaf, which is a native poinsettia, rise from the forest floor. The footpath meanders and dips through a slightly undulating landscape with karst features, naturally sculpted by eroding limestone, such as small sinks. Off to the right, you can glimpse the succession plots of the Old Field through the trees.
With a slight rise in elevation, the trail climbs back up into the laurel oak forest and completes the loop, emerging at the Hammock Trail kiosk. You’ve hiked 1 mile. At this junction of trails, the Upland Pine Trail goes to the left and straight ahead, the Old Field Trail to the right. Walking straight ahead under the taller pines, you’re in the zone between the field successions and the older slash pines. Passing another path into the Old Field Trail on the right, the trail returns to the welcome kiosk at the entrance. Turn left to walk over to the Upland Pine Trail and start this final loop.
The Upland Pine Trail leads you through an “island of restoration” adjacent to homes on the edge of the University and amid what was once a farmer’s field. Here, bringing back the sandhills habitat – mainly longleaf pine and wiregrass – that once dominated vast swaths of the Southeast was the goal in this part of the living laboratory. You can compare the bark and needles of loblolly, slash, and longleaf pines, and the leaves and bark of red oaks and turkey oaks. The farther along you go on this trail, particularly once you cross the old forest road, the healthier the habitat looks. Leaving the pines, the trail loops left into the laurel oak forest and emerges next to the opposite side of the Hammock Trail kiosk.
Continue straight ahead down the path you’ve already trod between the pines and the old field. Reaching the welcome kiosk at the entrance gate, leave the preserve by walking straight ahead and up past the Florida Museum of Natural History to the parking lot, completing a 1.5 mile walk.