In a densely wooded corner of the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, the Robert W. Loftin Nature Trails are a prime place for trail runners and hikers to play. Protecting 500 acres, this sanctuary includes cypress swamps, sandhills, pine flatwoods, and Lake Onieda, a popular launch point for exploration by kayak. Part of the National Recreational Trails System, the trails here date back to the 1970s. They are very well-maintained and well-marked, offering hikes for a variety of abilities. While an easy stroll on the Red Maple Boardwalk is the most popular walk on this in-campus preserve, this hike describes a broader exploration of the trail system, looping around and beyond Lake Onieda.
Location: Jacksonville Southside
Length: 4 miles
Lat-Long: 30.265733, -81.511567
Type: network of loops
Fees / Permits: Parking is free on weekends but a $3 permit is required on weekdays.
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: At the nature center at the trailhead
The trails are open from sunrise to sunset. Neither bicycles nor dogs are permitted along the trail system. The Red Maple Boardwalk (0.9 mile loop) is the wheelchair-accessible portion of the trail system.
From I-95 exit 344 drive east on J. Turner Butler Blvd (SR 202). Exit on St. Johns Bluff Rd north, and turn right into the first entrance to the University of North Florida. Park in first parking lot on the right.
Your hike starts from the parking area, where you first see signs for the Blueberry Trail (blazed blue) and Goldenrod Trail (blazed yellow), the exterior trails of this trail system. Pass by the nature center to pick up a trail map and sign the trail register, and access to the Red Maple Trail (blazed red), a boardwalk along Lake Onieda that is wheelchair and stroller friendly. Skip that entrance and continue past the canoe launch, where an interpretive sign points out that pitcher plants have been re-introduced to this preserve, which has its share of seepage slopes amid the pine flatwoods. A boardwalk keeps your feet dry as you follow the edge of Lake Onieda inside a shady corridor of pines and hardwoods. Interpretive markers along this part of the trail help illuminate the botany of these wet flatwoods.
The trail breaks out of the woods to become a boardwalk right along the edge of the water, offering an expansive view across the lake. Water lilies float on the surface; cattails gather along the edge. After 0.2 mile you encounter a picnic area, flanked by a sidewalk along the campus road but well in the shade. A bridge crosses over to an island in the lake. Take a moment to explore. It’s very open in the middle but wooded on the edges, where you’ll find picnic benches and horseshoe pits – and perhaps someone hanging out in a hammock, reading between classes – along its perimeter. Cross the bridge again and turn left to continue along the trail. A boardwalk made of plastic wood lifts you above the soggy pine forest on the water’s edge, under the deep shade of slash pines and loblobby bay.
After a half mile, the boardwalk ends. You continue down a narrow corridor loosely defined by the landscape, walking on pine duff along the water’s edge. Native spatterdock covers the end of Lake Onieda as you near the exit to the University’s grounds. Rather than follow the trail that heads that way, turn left at the intersection at Marker 51, past the bench – following the Blueberry / Goldenrod Trails – to start looping the perimeter. Along this stretch of trail, there is water on both sides. Lake Onieda is on your left, and a swampy floodplain forest on your right, the trail atop a tramway between them. A cool breeze drifts across, but it is a place to be alert for alligators. One of the interpretive signs calls your attention to the roots in the trail, and there are many. A green, rich understory of wax myrtle and ferns fills the swamp forest. Look carefully, and you can see the bases of ancient cypresses that were logged out long ago.
Passing Marker 46 and a bench, you reach an important trail intersection at 0.7 mile. Here, the Blueberry Trail continues straight ahead along the lake, and the Goldenrod Trail turns right to explore more of the sanctuary. Turn right and you enter the heart of the floodplain forest, which is called Sawmill Slough. The trail is slightly elevated to stay dry, likely another logging tramway. 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 sequoias, one of the few clues we have today of the rich beauty we’ve lost in Florida over the centuries.
Netted chain fern and cinnamon fern cluster along the water’s edge beneath cypresses that shade the walkway. The trail crosses over two bridges that allow the slough to flow freely past fallen cypress logs of enormous size. Passing a bench, the trail rises up through the shade of cabbage palms to the next trail junction, the Gopher Tortoise Ridge Trail. The Goldenrod Trail makes a left; continue straight to follow this new trail, which continues as a broad path directly facing the busy intersection of Highway 9A. 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. Unfortunately, on this side of Sawmill Slough, road noise is a component of the hike. But so are gopher tortoise burrows, which are being studied here. Look for little flags – like you’d associate with buried cable – poking out of the forest floor to indicate the burrows. There are many, so your chances of coming across this slow-moving tortoise are quite high. Don’t disturb the burrows, but if you get close enough to see a flag, there are markers dangling from the flags, numbering each of the burrows.
At Marker 39, a small rain shelter with a bench underneath it provides some shade. Turn around, and beyond the edge of this forest you can see the big fountain at the University’s entrance. As you walk, the scent of pine rises from the forest, with many young longleaf pines beneath the turkey oaks, whose leaves crackle underfoot as you walk the trail. Passing Marker 37 after a mile, you see an unmarked cross trail to the left. As I learned later, these cross trails lead back to the Goldenrod Trail so you can shorten the loop as needed. Continue straight ahead. You can see for some distance down the long trail corridor, where massive longleaf pine cones are scattered across the pine duff.
After 1.3 miles you reach a large pond on the perimeter of the University’s property. The longleaf pines are older here, and well-clustered together. The trail comes up to a marker, and although there isn’t an arrow here to point you on, turn left as the broad trail swoops around and away from the pond. At Marker 23, you reach the junction of the Goldenrod and Gopher Tortoise Trails, with a map on a post to help you figure out where to go next. Here’s where I had to alter my route due to the prescribed burn, but it worked well to extend the hike. I turned left to follow the Goldenrod Trail.
Along the Goldenrod Trail, the tell-tale needles bristling from pine trunks belie the presence of pond pines along the edge of the slough. This trail follows the ecotone between the sandhills above and the slough below and to your right. 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 down a little and becomes a corridor flanked by saw palmetto. A pileated woodpecker streaks overhead and a pair of cardinals wing by. Sweetgum intrudes into the pine forest as you pass Marker 33. The footpath snakes along through the forest with a nice cushion of pine duff to walk on, emerging 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, which provides pretty views of the lake. At 2.6 miles, the trail meets the Red Maple Boardwalk at a bench. 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, that the loggers missed. Turn right, away from the boardwalk, to head down to the Big Cypress Loop to take a look at this ancient wonder.
This part of the Blueberry Trail is popular with runners, especially in the afternoon, so expect to encounter many. After it crosses a small boardwalk to keep you out of a damp area, it’s broad and nicely shaded beneath the pines and oaks. Reaching 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 the character of the trail changes, becoming a tunnel beneath the oaks and pines, with pine needles dangling above and thick pine duff underfoot. The trail works its way to the edge of a slough with significant-sized cypress. But the best is yet to come. 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 into scrubby flatwoods. Passing under a bower of bent trees, you reach a second side trail at 3.3 miles. Step down it to find the big cypress, a towering ancient of the forest along the edge of the floodplain. A bench lets you sit and ponder the ages.
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. This is the most popular spot in the sanctuary, since it’s an easy walk for everyone. Don’t get so distracted by the lake views that you miss the many massive cypresses in the swamp to your right. The boardwalk has no sides, and is very close to the lake, so be on the lookout for alligators. At 3.8 miles, there is a junction in the boardwalk, which tempts you deeper into the swamp. Turn right. This short interpretive loop twists and winds through the floodplain forest, showing off towering trees and stands of ferns. It ends back at the edge of the lake at a T intersection. Turn right, and you come to the observation deck on Lake Onieda, a place for excellent photos of the lake itself. 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.