On the westernmost edge of Alachua County, Watermelon Pond is a sprawling prairie complex that was once a massive lake, a haven for wading birds. Unfortunately, the dewatering effects of continued development in the region and a nearby cement plant dried up the landscape more than five years ago, leaving only a fraction of the water behind. Protecting more than 4,200 acres, this is one of the more remote natural lands close to Gainesville. Views are panoramic all along the prairie rim, making the 5.5-mile double loop trail system a delightful destination for hiking.
Length: 5.5 miles
Fees / Permits: none
Good for: birding, wildlife
Bug factor: moderate
Dogs are not permitted on this hike. Bring binoculars for wildlife sightings along the prairies and in the trees. Seasonal hunting is permitted – currently, archery in Oct and small game in Nov-Dec – see the FWC guide for Watermelon Pond for specific dates.
From the intersection of SR 24 and US 27/41 in Archer, drive north for 6.6 miles to CR 28 (SW 46th Ave). Turn left and drive west 1.2 miles to SW 250th St. Turn left and drive south on SW 250th St for 3.7 miles, passing the northern trailhead for Watermelon Pond en route. The road ends at Watermelon Pond Park. Once providing a boat ramp into the lake, it remains a quiet place for a picnic under the sand live oaks. Park on the left when you enter the park; the right-hand side has deep, soft sand from horse trailers turning around in a low spot.
Walk uphill to the kiosk from the parking area. We saw our first fox squirrel scrambling between the sand live oaks in the parking area, a good sign for more wildlife sightings ahead. The kiosk is at the corner of a fenceline with private property. A cute watermelon-shaped birdhouse is on a tree adjoining the kiosk. Pick up a map and head down the fenceline, where an arrow points straight ahead. Markers show that the trail system is shared by hikers and equestrians. From this inauspicious and somewhat boring start – a worn path paralleling the firebreak along the fenceline – you wouldn’t assume the beauty that lies beyond.
After 0.4 mile, the trail reaches the beginning of the Fox Squirrel Loop. Take the right turn, cross the firebreak, and enter the sandhills. The trail is well-named; we’d already seen three of these uncommon squirrels by the time we reached this point. The fox squirrel is much larger than a gray squirrel, with tawny chestnut fur and a dark mask around and above its eyes, with white fur around the nose. You won’t mistake it for an ordinary squirrel! There are three subspecies in Florida, but the one you see here is the Sherman’s fox squirrel, a species of special concern.
The first blaze you see is on a strange quad-trunked loblolly pine. The trail is marked with a mixture of yellow blazes and signposts, but you have to watch for them. The next one isn’t obvious, but the path is. It skirts around a low prairie on the right, which is dry and filled with blackberry bushes at its lowest point. Yellow jasmine drapes over the oaks on the uphill side, and there are signs that hogs have rooted through the bottom of the prairie. To the left are Florida rosemary bushes with deer moss and reindeer lichen at their bases, a smidgen of rosemary scrub. You can see deer moss flowing like a stream downhill through the woods towards the trail. A big rosemary bush is on the right just after you pass the next marker indicating the trail location. It has fresh new growth on top of it, draped with jasmine.
Trail curves to the left through a patch of sandhill, the yellow double blaze points you past another swale of prairie, out in the open. More clumps of rosemary grow along the edge of this prairie, along with clumps of deer moss and some sphagnum moss in bloom. You pass a sand road off to the left crossing the prairie and vanishing into the woods on the far side. Stay to the left at the fork in the trail; a yellow blaze leads you forward. Clusters of sandhill lupine grow in the low grass, its pinkish-lilac blooms in evidence in late winter.
The trail passes a large rosemary bush with an excellent example of a lichen called reindeer lichen or British soldiers (Cladonia leporina) clustered all around it before reaching the end of the prairie after three-quarters of a mile. A marker points you through a patch of trees and uphill into an open area the sandhills. Native yucca, and more rosemary bushes, cluster around the trail. Climbing up over a ridge and down again, the trail is surrounded by yellow buttons (Balduina angustifolia) which bloom in the fall. Passing a pine with a catface from turpentine tapping in the past, the trail curves to the left, just as it does each time you reach a point where you aren’t quite sure where it goes. At the next marker, there is an enormous catface in a very old slash pine, just before you reach a T intersection at 1 mile. Turn left to continue on the loop. The trail follows a firebreak, not the easiest of walking, as you climb up the next hill.
The sounds of songbirds fill the air as you walk along the edge of the sandhills, passing a broad open area on the right that appears to have been a cattle pasture, now overgrown in dog fennel. Straight ahead, you get your first glimpse of the vast prairie of Watermelon Pond. The trail, however, curves to the left and comes to a trail junction with the sign “North Parking / South Parking.” Turn left and walk up to the trail map on a post. You’re at the junction of the Fox Squirrel Loop and the Blue Heron Loop. Continue down the slope, through the rim of sand live oak along the prairie’s edge, to the next marker and turn right to start the Blue Heron Loop, also blazed yellow.
Walking along the expanse of prairie – which is very reminiscent of Hopkins Prairie in the Ocala National Forest – you can see for quite some distance off to the left as the trail follows an old road between stands of planted pine. After 1.7 miles you reach a trail intersection. Although it is not signed from this direction nor shown on the map, straight ahead is a short detour down to a point where you can see what’s left of Watermelon Pond. Take this side trip if you like – you’ll also be able to see the pond on the return trip of the Fox Squirrel Loop – but be sure to make the right here at the double blaze to follow the Blue Heron Trail into the forest. The footpath works its way between rows of planted pines and large sand live oaks along another prairie arm, where you might see a herd of white-tailed deer, as we did. Leaving the shade, the trail pops out at a T intersection facing the prairie. Turn right. Passing a sign that says “state forest boundary,” since you’re on the edge of Goethe State Forest, the trail follows a forest road with soft sand in places. Warblers flit between the oaks. Reaching the next T intersection, at the corner of the prairie, turn left.
Following a sand road along the rim of the prairie, still along the yellow blazes, you pass a sand road on the right going up into the woods. The path broadens and becomes more of a firebreak for a stretch, leaving the prairie rim to ramble between a thicket of sandhill and pine forest. After 2.4 miles you reach a Y junction with a trail going off to the left along the prairie rim into Goethe State Forest to a trailhead off CR 337. Keep right. The trail sweeps sharply to the right to weave along the edge of another arm of the prairie. You’ll see a confirmation marker. Watch for fox squirrels in this area as you enter sandhill habitat; by this point, we’d counted five for the day.
At 2.7 miles the official connector trail to Goethe State Forest takes off to the left. It, too, is blazed yellow, which is confusing. Continue straight ahead, with a pine-topped ridge off to your left, to stay on the Blue Heron Loop. The trail goes through a little patch of rosemary scrub framed by high-bush blueberry as it continues into the sandhills. Emerging on the edge into a large, open grassy area, the trail curves to the right as it passes more massive Florida rosemary bushes. You see confirmation yellow blazes, and, in the distance to the left, a fenceline marking a boundary of the preserve. Curving to the right, the trail goes up and over a little stretch of sandhills and emerges along another prairie, reaching a reverse y intersection. Continue straight ahead along the prairie rim, passing a path that goes off to the left through the prairie. The main trail stays to the right, following the rim, circling the prairie. It passes a cluster of high-bush blueberries growing in conjunction with Florida rosemary, and a cluster of sandhill lupine growing under a small longleaf pine. At 3.4 miles, a sand road goes into the woods on the right. Go straight, and you’ll see the next confirmation blaze.
Passing the other end of the path across the prairie – it was a shortcut after all – the trail makes a curve to the right and goes uphill into a pretty sand live oak hammock, which would make a nice camping spot, were camping allowed. After this brief stretch of shade, the trail drops down through another prairie, with forest on the far side. After 3.7 miles, you reach a picnic area with covered picnic benches under the deep shade of live oaks. Coontie grows wild in the understory. This spot marks the intersection with the Watermelon Pond Trail, which leads to the north (equestrian) trailhead. Make sure you make the right turn to continue on the Blue Heron Loop, south along an old road under a shady tree canopy. Popping out into the sunshine, the trail parallels a pine plantation for a short distance.
At the next junction with a sand road coming in from the right, there is another sign “North Parking / South Parking.” Make sure you’re headed towards the South Parking area, walking along the edge of an old pasture. You reach the next sign at 4 miles. Turn right and walk down the slope, past the map, to the junction of the two trails again. Now that you’ve completed the Blue Heron Loop, turn left at the trail junction to start back along the remainder of the Fox Squirrel Loop. The trail hugs close to the pond’s former shoreline, with a rim of sand live oaks and water oaks just up the slope. You pass two sand roads on the left leading uphill. Florida rosemary thrives in the blinding white sand on the prairie’s edge. The prairie itself has an interesting landscape, not one you’d want to shortcut across. Having been the bottom of a lake for so long, it is full of swales where water may still collects, and even a deep sinkhole adjacent to the footpath.
Where the road you’re following sweeps up to the left to leave the prairie, a marker points you straight ahead to follow the rim of the prairie. It’s an impressive and vast landscape, even more so than the panoramas of the Blue Heron Loop. Water sparkles in the far distance in what is left of Watermelon Pond, way out in the middle of the grasslands at the heart of it all. As the trail curves left, the full extent of the prairie’s expanse becomes visible. You see what looks like a dock and several homes in the far distance. The trail continues to curve with the prairie rim, reaching a fenceline. It’s here that it turns left and upslope, away from the prairie, after 4.6 miles. It quickly turns right to cross a firebreak and guides you past large Florida rosemary bushes and under the brief shade of sand live oaks. You can still see open prairie up ahead, beyond the fenceline, but here most of the prairie rim is on private property, so the path roughly parallels the perimeter of the property. A bit of the rim sneaks through the fence, so the trail curves to the left along it, with the footpath bright white sand.
By 4.9 miles, you reach the firebreak and the fence again. Cross the firebreak, and the trail turns left to parallel the fence for the return trip. Climbing up and over a hill, which is part of a peninsula sticking out into the prairie to the right under private ownership, the trail continues down the slope. At the bottom of the other side of the hill, at 5.1 miles, is the junction with the Fox Squirrel Trail, completing this second loop. Continue straight ahead along the fenceline to exit, reaching the kiosk at the Watermelon Pond Park trailhead after 5.5 miles.