Words and images by Erin Reedy
One of the lesser-known locations to visit in Jacksonville is home to many. Friendly geese, fish, turtles and squirrels can be seen on many days and if lucky, a visitor might even spot the native student who has taken a break to embrace a small adventure.
The University of North Florida’s Robert W. Loften Nature Trails have been part of the school for almost as long as the university has been around. In 1973, the 12 miles of trails were officially opened to the public, and in 1977 they became recognized as a part of the system of National Recreation Trails.
Named after a UNF professor who championed then, the Loften trails snake through the 500 acres of natural habitat that surrounds the campus past lakes and on boardwalks over marshy sections. Interpretative signs dot the path.
Today the trails have been scaled back to 5 miles, but that does not stop the animal residents and students from enjoying the beauty that the tucked-away pathways offer.
Many Jacksonville residents may not know, however, that these trails are not limited to just UNF students. They roll out a nature- filled welcome to the general public and offer great adventures for visitors seeking an escape to Mother Nature while staying close to home.
Open 365 days a year from sun up to sun down, the trails offer a refreshing escape from the fast-paced world beyond. Non-students wanting to enjoy the trails need only pay a parking fee.
During the week parking costs between $5 and $8 depending where visitors park, said Meghan Higgins, a staff member of the university’s Eco Center. “During the weekends (parking) is free (for visitors).”
If the trails are the only thing visitors want to explore then parking is the only fee.
“The trails are 100 percent free,” said Higgins. “(Visitors) can look in at all the education stuff and talk to us if they want to know more of what’s going on.”
The trails range in length from the half-mile Big Cypress trail, a shorter boardwalk trail is closed for renovation, to the nearly 3-mile-long Goldenrod Trail that loops around Lake Oneida and back into the wetland area.
Although the trail system is open to hikers, dogs, bikes, motor vehicles and alcohol are not permitted. Camping and campfires are also not allowed.
One of the unique habitats to which the trails lead is the Sawmill Slough Preserve, a protected wetland environment that consists of 300 acres. Here visitors can view plants and animals native to the area.
But the trails are not the only get-back-to-nature activity available for visitors.
“They do have access to the lake with their own equipment; they can’t rent equipment from us because it comes out of student funds, but they can use the lake,” Higgins said. “On the weekends you can do birthday parties and special events like that. You can rent out the pavilion and rent out the picnic tables and we do (guide)-led education hikes.”
A trip to the trails brings an added bonus for visitors: the opportunity to see the wonderful campus of UNF and all there is to offer in this beautiful area of Jacksonville
“I like coming to the trails because I’ve been at other university campuses and they don’t have this kind of retreat,” said Holly Dean, a UNF student. “Having this here gives the availability to do homework outside at the picnic tables, take a little break from the craziness of campus and it’s very stress-relieving and it promotes you to be more athletic and outdoorsy.
“As far as Jacksonville in general, we do have a lot of trails as is but that’s part of what makes it so beneficial is that you can’t go 20 minutes without finding something like this,” she added, “so having this here on campus not only brings the families and kids to more outdoorsy stuff, it also brings kids to a university and says this could be you one day.”