UNF reopens nature trails after $1 million renovation
A 500-acre nature preserve that serves as the front yard for the University of North Florida — as well as a long-loved escape for Jacksonville residents — has received some serious updates as part of a $1 million renovation.
UNF President Moez Limayem officially opened the update of the Robert W. Loftin Nature Trails on Thursday. They include a renovated bridge over the 18-acre Lake Oneida, new boardwalks and other improvements for the thousands of people who use it every day.
Limayem cut a symbolic ribbon to celebrate the redone nature trail and facilities, its three main trails and two loop connectors, which are open from sunrise to sunset daily to students and the general public.
“We have such a beautiful campus at UNF, and our nature trails are a valuable asset for our students and our community,” Limayem said. “We are especially proud of our Eco Adventure programming, and we encourage everyone to come out to our preserve and enjoy the natural beauty of Northeast Florida.”
The trails are named in memory of UNF professor Robert W. Loftin, who worked with campus planner Hilton Meadows and others to get the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to designate the Southside school as a state-protected bird sanctuary more than 50 years ago to control hunting there. The 1,381-acre campus has six colleges and more than 17,000 students.
Loftin and the Sawmill Slough Conservation Club joined UNF faculty, staff and community members to set up the school's original 12-mile nature trail system, opened to the public in early 1973. By 1977, the Department of the Interior recognized it as a National Recreation Trail.
In 2006, the 300-acre Sawmill Slough Preserve on campus was designated as a preserve, including a wetland habitat stretching through the western portion of the campus to Butler Boulevard. The preserve also includes the 2.85-mile Goldenrod Trail, which overlaps the 1.44-mile Blueberry Trail around Lake Oneida. There is also a short Gopher Tortoise Ridge trail that is home to gopher tortoises.
There's also a half-mile Big Cypress Trail passing a 500-year-old cypress tree, as well as the wheelchair-accessible Red Maple Boardwalk that traverses Buck Head Branch Swamp. The site is home to the UNF Osprey Challenge Course and 22-year-old Eco Camp, with summertime educational programs for children ages 6 to 14.
The school does not conduct formal tracking of the people who use the nature trail and facilities. But years of use and decades of exposure to Florida weather had aged the boardwalks and bridge in the past few decades, school officials said. So $1 million was allocated for the demolition and replacement of several boardwalk sections across the trail system, renovation of the bridge over Lake Oneida and other updates.
The funding also was allocated to develop conceptual designs for a new Eco Adventure facility at the site with more shelter, program space and restrooms for those who use its lake, Osprey Challenge rope ladders and zip line and other facilities. The new facilities will include offices, four program rooms, a large common area, restrooms and increased storage, while facilities for gear checkout will be refurbished. If built, the facility would cost $5 million to $6 million, UNF stated.
There is no cost for using UNF's nature trails, but there is a $5 parking fee on weekdays.