Protecting 500 acres of natural habitats on the University of North Florida campus, the UNF Wildlife Sanctuary includes cypress swamps, sandhills, pine flatwoods, and Lake Onieda, a man-made waterway.
Named for Distinguished UNF Professor Robert W. Loftin, who brought together the Sawmill Slough Conservation Club, the first trails were established in 1973.
They were honored with National Recreational Trail status in 1977. The trail system is well-maintained and well-marked, offering hikes for a variety of abilities.
While the 0.9-mile Red Maple Boardwalk is the preserve’s most popular walk, this article describes a broader exploration of the trail system, looping around and beyond Lake Onieda.
The Red Maple Boardwalk was fully restored and rededicated in 2017, so that portion of the hike will look a little different from our photos.
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Length: 4 mile loop on a trail network
Trailhead: 30.265733, -81.511567
Address: UNF Drive, Jacksonville
Fees: $5 parking permit on weekdays and during special event weekends
Restroom: at the nature center at the trailhead
Land manager: University of North Florida
Phone: 904-620-2800 (campus police)
Open sunrise to sunset. No bicycles or dogs are permitted, but you’ll encounter lots of trail runners.
For safety, the campus suggests you walk in pairs. Do not collect plants or wildlife.
Catch and release fishing is permitted with an FWC freshwater fishing license. The campus has kayaks available: check at the nature center when you arrive.
From Interstate 295 east, drive north past J. Turner Butler Blvd (SR 202). Take the next exit, Exit 52, to the University of North Florida. Turn right at the end of the ramp and follow UNF Drive into campus. Park in first parking lot on the right at Building 52 (Parking Services). On weekdays, you must obtain a parking permit inside before you hike. You can also do so online with the link at the bottom of this page.
After picking up a trail map and signing the register at the nature center, access the Red Maple Trail (boardwalk, blazed red).
Continue past the canoe launch and an interpretive sign on pitcher plants, and follow the boardwalk along the edge of Lake Onieda.
After 0.2 mile, a bridge crosses over to an island in the lake. Take a moment to explore this peaceful, open area.
Cross the bridge again and turn left to continue along the trail beneath the shade of slash pines and loblolly bay.
The boardwalk ends at 0.5 mile. Continue down the narrow corridor, noting the native spatterdock covering the end of Lake Onieda.
When you reach the intersection at Marker 51, turn left to follow the Blueberry/Goldenrod Trails, which will take you around the trail system’s perimeter.
Along this stretch of trail, Lake Onieda is to your left. To your right is a swampy floodplain forest, rich with wax myrtle and ferns.
Look closely for the bases of ancient cypresses that were logged out long ago. Also, keep an eye out for alligators here.
Past Marker 46, at 0.7 mile, the Blueberry Trail continues straight ahead while the Goldenrod Trail turns right. Continue on the Goldenrod Trail to enter Sawmill Slough, the heart of the floodplain forest.
Logging was big business in Florida from the late 1800s through the 1940s, which is why we have so little old-growth forest remaining.
Jacques LeMoyne, a French artist who came to Florida in 1564 with the colonists at nearby Fort Caroline, drew illustrations of cypress trees as big as modern sequoias.
His art is one of the few clues we have today of the rich beauty we’ve lost in Florida over the centuries.
The next trail junction is the Gopher Tortoise Ridge Trail. The Goldenrod Trail makes a left. Continue straight to follow the new trail.
It continues as a broad path facing the busy intersection (and the noise, unfortunately) of Interstate 275. The trail makes a sharp jog to the left, paralleling the highway.
As the elevation increases, the habitat yields to sandhills dominated with longleaf pine and turkey oak. Gopher tortoise burrows are being studied here.
Look for little flags that indicate the burrows. There’s a good chance you’ll see a slow-moving tortoise here. Please don’t disturb the burrows.
At Marker 39 is a small shelter. Passing Marker 37, you’ll see an unmarked cross trail to the left, which leads back to the Goldenrod Trail.
Continue straight, looking ahead at where massive longleaf pine cones scattered across the pine duff.
After 1.3 miles is reach a large pond. The longleaf pines are older here, and well-clustered together. The trail comes up to a marker. Turn left, around and away from the pond.
At Marker 23 is the junction of the Goldenrod and Gopher Tortoise Trails. Turn left to follow the Goldenrod Trail.
The Goldenrod Trail follows the ecotone between sandhills above and slough below.
A tiny patch of scrub hosts Chapman oak and sand live oak near Marker 26, yielding to scrubby flatwoods beneath the longleaf pines.
Spanish needles grow next to a bench as the trail narrows and becomes a corridor flanked by saw palmetto.
The footpath emerges at the original Gopher Tortoise/Goldenrod intersection after 2.4 miles. Turn right to cross back through Sawmill Slough.
On the far side of Sawmill Slough, you’re back at the T intersection along Lake Onieda.
Turn right to walk along the Blueberry Trail, enjoying the lake views. At 2.6 miles, the trail meets the Red Maple Boardwalk.
While it’s tempting to head back along the boardwalk, you’ll miss a must-see inside this sanctuary – an ancient cypress, thought to be more than 500 years old.
Turn right, away from the boardwalk, to head down to the Big Cypress Loop.
This part of the Blueberry Trail is popular with runners. At Marker 64, the Goldenrod and Blueberry Trails meet again. Continue straight ahead on the Goldenrod Trail.
At 3 miles, the Big Cypress Loop comes into view at a bench. Turn left to wander through the shady pine forest.
The trail makes a sharp left and becomes a tunnel beneath the oaks and pines.
Watch for a side trail on the right, where a yellow marker points you to the edge of the slough, for a nice view.
The trail pulls away from the slough and continues uphill, to a second side trail at 3.3 miles. That trail leads to the big cypress.
Returning to the main trail, turn right. You soon exit onto the Blueberry Trail. Make a left, and at the T intersection with the Goldenrod Trail, turn right.
After a short walk down the corridor, make a right again at Marker 69 to walk the Red Maple Swamp Boardwalk.
You’re now at the most popular spot in the sanctuary, with lake views to the left and massive cypresses in the swamp to your right.
At 3.8 miles, turn right at a junction in the boardwalk to take a short interpretive loop. At the end of the loop, turn right to reach the observation deck on Lake Onieda.
Continue past it to exit the trail system, making a right at the nature center to return to the parking lot for a 4-mile hike.
See our photos of the Loftin Nature Trails
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
For a surprising diversity of habitats and hilly terrain, the Jacksonville Arboretum and Gardens is a hidden treasure for hikers and a bonanza for botanical delights
Along the meandering, estuarine San Pablo River, Castaway Island Preserve is a breezy spot to get away from the city and enjoy a breath of fresh air on a nature trail
The Theodore Roosevelt Area of Timucuan Preserve provides one of the best hikes in the Jacksonville area, combining rugged terrain with cultural history and scenic views.