Here in Gainesville we don't have to look any further than our own backyard for opportunities to connect with nature. Gainesville is a nature lover's city, home to a wealth of protected wetlands with walking trails running right through them!

Sweetwater Wetlands Park

Sweetwater Wetlands Park is the crown jewel of Gainesville's nature preserve/park system. The 125 acre landscaped wetlands teems with wildlife, including alligators, wild horses, deer, tortoises, and dozens of species of birds. 3.5 miles of boardwalks, observation decks and raised trails allow visitors to observe the wildlife from really close up without interfering with the natural habitat.

The park is not only beautifully landscaped and relaxing to walk, it helps protect the Alachua Sink and Florida Aquifer by naturally filtering out pollutants and harmful minerals, and provides habitat for the diverse local ecosystem as well as migratory birds.

Bird watchers break out their zoom lenses along the boards at Sweetwater Wetlands Preserve in Gainesville.

In a relatively short distance you might see a cormorant drying its black iridescent wings in the sun, a kestrel swooping down from its nest high up in the trees, or a loon mincing across the water's green carpet with its gangly flipper feet. If you're really lucky you may see a herd of wild "cracker" horses making their way across the prairie. These dazzling animals were introduced to the region by the Spanish colonists and have since been adopted as the state's official horse. Leave your pets at home for this visit to avoid disturbing the natural habitat of wildlife.

A short stretch of trail is shaded by a towering oak canopy, but most of the trails are exposed to the sun. Be sure to bring your sun block and stay hydrated. Lean-tos are interspersed throughout the park for shade and rest. The open sky is glorious around sunrise and sunset.

Strolling around Sweetwater Wetlands 125 acres, you get the sense that the trails go on endlessly. In fact, the park makes up a mere 0.6% of Payne's Prairie's 21,000 acres. Payne's Prairie was Florida's first nature preserve. There are no roads across it, and it's only accessible from its southern and northern ends, which makes it an ideal habitat for wildlife and a case study in how preservation can be done in a way that is accessible to the public.

Cost: $5 per car, $2 per person (bicyclists, pedestrians, buses)


Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail

The Gainesville-Hawthrone Trail is another way to explore Payne's Prairie's diverse and unique ecosystem from a respectful distance. The 16 mile trail follows the former train line, wending its way through Downtown Gainesville before arriving at Payne's Prairie on the way to neighboring Hawthorne.

The most lush stretch of the trail is accessible from South 15th Street by Boulware Springs, where you can park and walk or hop on your bike. Cypresses and oaks provide shade most of the way. The trail is popular with cyclists, but you'll find an equal number of folks out for a leisurely stroll.

Sweetwater Overlook is a beautiful place to look out over Payne's Prairie. On the way you might spot a family of white-tailed deer, wild boar, and even the occasional armadillo rustling in the brush.

Heading back into town, reward yourself for your exertions at Cypress & Grove, a brewpub located right off the trail.

Cost: free

On the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail, off the beaten path. Prescribed burns mimic the role lightning played in managing the ecosystem while reducing the risk of wildfires.


La Chua Trailhead

The La Chua Trailhead is one of the more interesting walking trails branching off from the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail in East Gainesville. The trailhead is located about a mile past Sweetwater Overlook heading toward Hawthorne. It's also accessible from SE 15th Street (which becomes Camp Ranch Road). On a warm day you're almost certain to see alligators basking in the sun, and a plethora of wading and migratory birds acting like it ain't no thing. 

With all the wildlife to be seen, La Chua gets crowded during the academic year. Most visitors stick to the paved boardwalk, but if you branch off onto the unpaved path during the dry months there's a chance you'll see wild horses and bison roaming the prairie. The bison were reintroduced in 1975 as part of the park service's goal of "restoring Florida's natural resources to pre-European settler conditions."

That last sentence sounds a bit awkward considering the Seminole history in Payne's Prairie. Payne's Prairie was a Seminole stronghold and the site of many battles during the protracted Seminole Wars that resulted in the tribe's forcible removal to Oklahoma and exodus to the Everglades by the mid-1800s. The park could do a better job of recognizing the complex history of indigenous settlement, conflict, and displacement in the region.

Cost: $4 per car

Majestic oaks provide shade for visitors to the La Chua trail 

We've covered Payne's Prairie in all its glory. Now let's take a look at some neighborhood gems that are great for a quick dip into nature.

Cofrin Nature Park

Cofrin Nature Park is a forested area with a half-mile hiking trail, playground, and wetlands fed by Beville Heights Creek. Situated off NW 8th Avenue between the University of Florida's main campus and shopping along I-75, you could easily miss this hidden gem.

Cofrin Park has one thing that no other park in Gainesville has: hills! Though the trail is brief, it's steep for Florida and will give you a workout. It's also thickly forested, with light pleasantly filtering through the latticework of cypresses and oaks.

Another feature unique to Cofrin Park is its memorial garden, which is dedicated to the victims of suicide and their loved ones. Even if your family hasn't been touched by suicide, it's a serene place to sit and reflect. There's a labyrinth whose bricks are inscribed with the names of the deceased.

Cost: free

Kids playing in the labyrinth at Cofrin Park in Gainesville, which is dedicated to loved ones who have been lost to suicide. Photo: Rain0975 | Flickr

Loblolly Woods

Loblolly Woods provides Hogtown Creek a green buffer where it crosses NW 8th Ave just north of UF's main campus. It also gives residents a nice respite from the city.

The shaded trails run alongside clear waters with white sand banks that seem to glow in the dark around dusk. Loblolly is great fun for kids. There are lots of fossilized shark and ray teeth to be found along the creek. Keep in mind that the woods are a habitat restoration area, so be sure to stick to the trails and help keep Gainesville wild!

Cost: free

Hogtown Creek's white sand banks and clear waters

Other Great (Free) Walking Trails in Gainesville

  • Depot Park - Awesome city park with extensive walking trails and an epic playground for the kids. Gets busy with joggers around quittin' time. Pop a Top and Boxcar located within the park for quick bites and brewskies.
  • Bivens Arms - Cozy trails popular with dog walkers. Street noise is ubiquitous.
  • Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park - Impressive jungley pine forest ringed around a sinkhole. Usually crowded.
City heron on stakeout, Depot Park retaining pond