Words and images by Carly Wille
At the southern entrance of the Bayard Conservation Area, oak trees standing tall in the sky boast full leaves of light and dark greens. The forest’s verdant canopy screens bushes and creatures below from the midday sun, sparing just enough light on the forest floor for visitors to make their way through its trails.
The Bayard Conservation Area located in Green Cove Springs is a vast 9,702-acre landmass that offers hiking, biking, horseback riding, camping, fishing and hunting. It rests in the heart of Clay County along the western bank of the St. Johns River and right outside of Green Cove’s metropolitan area.
As hikers walk along one of Bayard’s two hiking trails, pine needles crunch and tree branches snap on the forest floor. The meandering pathway, formed solely for human trek, shifts from narrow to wide with every turn. Brown leaves float atop swampy marshes that emerge throughout the hike, while gaunt and creaky boardwalks aid hikers in crossing the serene bogs.
The conservation area is mute besides an occasional rustling bush or screeching bird. Even on it’s busiest of days, Bayard offers solitude to each of its visitors.
Although he grew up in Jacksonville, avid Bayard visitor Matthew Conrad said he appreciated that the area wasn’t swarmed with hikers.
“It’s a perfect day for a hike,” said Conrad. “I was worried when I saw a full parking lot that it would be crowded, but there’s so many miles of trail that we only ran into other hikers maybe once an hour.”
The conservation area offers more than 15 miles of trails that wander through the John P. Hall Nature Preserve. The bark on the towering oak, scattered throughout the area are painted with either blue symbols, marking the hiking trails or colored diamonds, marking the equestrian routes.
Warbles of woodland birds and the occasional knocking of a woodpecker’s beak against the trees are omnipresent in the canopy above. Deep into the trails stands a towering observation deck. It is a perfect site to catch an overhead view of Bayard and is a prime lookout for animal observation.
Karen Davis from the St. Johns River Water Management District said the Bayard Conservation Area is an exceptional location for animal watching.
“From the observation deck, visitors tend to see a lot of deer,” said Davis. “Deer thrive in this area, which is why it is such a popular spot for hunting.”
The Bayard Wildlife Management Area is the name for the southern areas in Bayard that permit hunting. Hunters value the Wildlife Management Area as a choice spot for fishing, frogging and hunting turkey and deer.
Hikers and equestrians however, must pay attention to the signs posted on the exterior of the management area that list when and where hunting is permitted.
Hunters must also follow the regulations and avoid the areas that are closed to the sport. The months of September through November allow deer hunting, and March and April are for turkey hunting.
Being so close to the St. Johns River, the Bayard Conservation Area is sometimes referred to as a wetland.
Young, silvered tadpoles stroke through the brackish blend of Clay County land and St. Johns water. Deep into the trails, the vegetation thins out and a shoreline appears.
Heather Venter, the St. Johns Water Management District’s land manager, said the forest’s proximity to the St. Johns River is one of the main reasons that this particular area in Green Cove was chosen by the state to preserve.
In the Bayard Conservation Area, visitors can appreciate abounding habitats: the flourishing, green forest alive with creatures, roots and stumps protruding up and out of the sodden floor of the marshes, the campgrounds, offering an authentic camping experience deep in the wilderness and the St. Johns River — famous for its brackish beauty and surplus of fish and animals.
“When it’s season, pods of manatee can be seen in the St. Johns,” Venter said. “The Bayard Conservation Area provides visitors with the opportunity to see countless species, whether they be land or water-bearing. That is why we strive to preserve this particular area in Green Cove’s natural habitat.”