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 kayaks.
Part of the National Recreational Trails System, the trails here are 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.
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
Trails are open from sunrise to sunset. No bicycles or dogs are permitted. The Red Maple Boardwalk (0.9 mile loop) is wheelchair-accessible.
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.
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 is a shady picnic area, and 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 here 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.
The next trail junction is the Gopher Tortoise Ridge Trail. The Goldenrod Trail makes a left; continue straight to follow the new trail, which continues as a broad path facing the busy intersection (and the noise, unfortunately) 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. Gopher tortoise burrows are being studied here; look for little flags (like those associated with buried cable) that indicate the burrows. There’s a good chance you’ll see 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. Contiue 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 here, around and away from the pond. At Marker 23 is the junction of the Goldenrod and Gopher Tortoise Trails. Turn left here 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. Be on the look out for alligators as well.
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.