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Mother Nature At Its Finest 

Mother Nature At Its Finest 

The ethereal moss-covered live oaks, vast prairies buzzing with life, mesmerizing clear blue springs, enchanting cypress trees emerging from black-water rivers and striking neon wildflowers dotting rolling green hills…. this is just a sampling of the many natural beauties Greater Gainesville has to offer. 

There is an incredible variety of habitats and wildlife within Alachua County and many public places to get out and see them. Greater Gainesville is home to the largest concentration of freshwater springs in the nation, the majority of which are less than an hour away by car. These springs feed the beautiful Santa Fe River and numerous creeks and lakes. 

Greater Gainesville is incredibly biodiverse, with unique plants and wildlife found in each kind of topography, such as wetlands, mesic hammocks, upland scrubs, watersheds and prairies. Many sizeable parks, preserves and natural areas keep this slice of wild Florida intact. 

An absolute cannot miss is Paynes Prairie, located south of Gainesville near the town of Micanopy. It may be surprising to know the American plains bison, an iconic symbol of the Wild West, makes a home here in Paynes Prairie, reintroduced here in 1975. Take in the sights of the prairie’s wild horses, 300 species of birds, deer and alligators from the 50-foot observation tower or 16 miles of paved trails. 

For a more educational experience, Morningside Nature Center offers up wildlife and natural habitat preservation tours, while Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park enables visitors to learn about Florida’s natural history via fossils and remains. Journey 120 feet deep into a sinkhole nestled within a lush pine forest. 

In addition, numerous local parks preserve green space in or near Greater Gainesville’s cities and towns. Residents love the area’s numerous trail systems, some natural, some paved, which wind for miles through urban green spaces, preserves, parks, public lands and more. 

According to the Florida Natural Areas Inventory, 21% of Alachua County is in conservation as of January 2022. Alachua County is situated close between two of the state’s three national forests — the Osceola Forest to the north and the Ocala Forest to the south. 

Fast Facts

  • 7 State Parks 
    • Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park  
    • Dudley Farm Historic State Park  
    • Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail  
    • Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park  
    • Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park  
    • River Rise Preserve State Park  
    • San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park  
  • 10 County Nature Preserves 
  • 23 County Parks 
  • 16 trails covering 189 miles ( 

Residents and leaders recognize the value, for both people and wildlife, of preserving natural lands. The community is passionate about environmental protection, which is reflected in the carefully planned developments and zoning, legislation and the abundance of nonprofits and other entities dedicated to this field. One of these entities is the Alachua Conservation Trust, which protects a total of 6,549 acres of land in Alachua County. It also works in 15 other counties throughout North Central Florida. 

Here is a look at local lands protected by the ACT

Photo By Duncan Kabinu

Alachua To Lake Butler Rail Trail  

85 acres (7 miles of trail) 


  • This seven-mile trail along an old railroad is the first step of a rails to trails system connecting the City of Alachua to Lake Butler and will eventually link to a larger system spanning North Central Florida. 


Blues Creek Ravine Preserve  

160 acres 


  • Florida is known for its flat, swampy landscape, but stream banks along Blues Creek and its tributaries are quite steep and a rare sight for Florida. This preserve is home to threatened plant species such as the crane-fly orchid and Southern lady fern. 


Fox Pen Preserve  

578 acres 


  • Fox Pen Preserve has very diverse habitats, such as upland pine, flatwoods, wetlands, mesic hammock and shoreline along Moss Lee Lake. It comprises a significant portion of the Lockloosa Forest project area and protects parts of the Orange Creek basin. 


Herzog Cave Preserve  

2 acres 


  • This preserve within Gainesville’s Haile Plantation does, in fact, have a cave, which drops about 32 feet straight down into a partially-flooded room. 


Historic Haile Homestead  

40 acres 


  • This property contains the second-oldest home in Alachua County, a 6,200-square-foot structure within the historic 1,500-acre Kanapaha plantation. 


Little Orange Creek Preserve & Nature Park 

2,883 acres 


A vast ecosystem of diverse habitats supports all kinds of wildlife here, with bears regularly traveling through. The preserve includes a large swamp and Fowlers Prairie, along with the pine and hammock forests surrounding it. On the southern end of the preserve is a nature park that has a playground, covered pavilion, fitness station, nature center and entryway to a two-mile trail. 


Marjorie A. Hoy Memorial Park at Orange Lake Overlook  

71 acres 


  • Experience Old Florida at Orange Lake Overlook, once the home of the Timucua tribe and later a citrus grove with a citrus shop, packing house and mill. Today, the beautiful view overlooking the lake inspires artists and delights visitors. 


Prairie Creek Lodge and Preserve 

606 acres 


  • Adjacent to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, the Prairie Creek Preserve contains the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery and the Prairie Creek Lodge, which hosts the Alachua Conservation Trust’s headquarters and public events. The preserve has a network of trails through a variety of habitat types. 


Rockwood Park  

1 acre 


  • This urban park off N.W. 22nd Street in Gainesville offers some green space, native plants, a Little Free Library event and an outdoor fitness equipment station sponsored by Gainesville Health & Fitness. 


Saarinen Preserve  

78 acres 


  • This preserve puts roughly 2.6 miles of public trails through a mesic hammock containing pine and oak trees right between the cities of Newberry and Gainesville. The land was designated in the late ’90s to encourage native plants to grow alongside and eventually replace planted slash pines in the area. 


Santa Fe Springs Preserve  

254 acres 


  • This preserve includes the gorgeous Santa Fe Spring, a dynamic, second magnitude spring more than 70 feet deep in some places with a cave system around 150 feet deep. The spring has a short run flowing out to the Santa Fe River. Visitors can enjoy all the splendor of the springs and river here, with alligators, gar, towering cypress trees, turtles, native azaleas and more. 


Santa Fe River Preserve  

1,067 acres 


  • The convergence of the New River and the Santa Fe River creates a unique habitat. The banks with high bluffs are lined with wild azaleas and rain lilies. Cypress, tupelo and river birch comprise the bottomland between the banks and the upland forest. The preserve includes the 1 ½-mile Gracy Trail through sloped forest and the ¾-mile Blue Trail that approaches the New River banks. 


Serenola Forest Preserve  

124 acres 


  • This preserve on the southern end of Gainesville expands conservation lands connected to Paynes Prairie, therefore providing threatened plant and wildlife species more space to thrive. The preserve includes a nice one-mile trail loop, located near Idywild Elementary School and the University of Florida’s Oak Hammock. 


Tuscawilla Preserve 

600 acres 


  • A prairie, Lake Tuscawilla, hardwood hammocks, wetlands, small creeks and mesic forests can all be found within this preserve. The interesting name comes from the Seminole tribe, which called the area Tuscawilla in the era of Chief Micanopy. 


Take a Walk on the Wild Side 

Learn about some of Greater Gainesville’s interesting native animals: 

North American river otter 

These playful, dark brown water pups are known to build dens on shore that serve a dual purpose of protection from predators and weather and also function as a place to cool down or stay warm. 


Southern fox squirrel 

Look high up in the pine trees for the Southern fox squirrel and do not look for a particular color. They can be anything from cream, tan, reddish brown, brown, gray, black or a combination of these and are particularly large, nearly as big as a house cat. 


Squirrel Chimney cave shrimp 

The Squirrel Chimney cave shrimp is probably the most unique creature native to Greater Gainesville. It is practically invisible, with a translucent body only about one inch long. It is found nowhere else on earth other than the Squirrel Chimney sinkhole within Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, according to the FWC. Little is known about this possibly extinct shrimp, which has not been spotted since 1973. 


Dusky pygmy rattlesnake 

These snakes may fool some into thinking they are babies, because a fully grown pygmy rattle will measure only one foot in length. They reside in prairies, lowland pine areas, marshes, lakes and cypress swamps and are grey with black blotches on their back across a reddish stripe. 



Longnose and Florida gars are common in practically every body of freshwater in Florida, including in Greater Gainesville’s many springs. It is easy to identify gar, with their long, slender bodies and pointed, toothy mouths. Longnose gar are the most common, growing up to six feet in length with a tan-olive color and small brown spots, while Florida gar are shorter and covered in large dark spots. 


Natural Springs in Greater Gainesville 

2 kayakers in the Gainesville springs
Get Up And Go Kayaking

North Central Florida is famous for its high concentration of springs, some of which are first- and second-magnitude. A first magnitude spring discharges at least 64.6 million gallons of water per day, while second magnitude springs discharge 6.5 million to 64 million gallons of water per day. 

See Also

Alexander Springs 
49525 County Road 445, Altoona

Blue Springs 
7450 N.E. 60th St., High Springs

Ginnie Springs 
5000 N.E. 60th Ave., High Springs

Ichetucknee Springs 
12087 S.W. U.S. Hwy 27, Fort White

Juniper Springs
26701 FL-40, Silver Springs

K.P. Hole 
9435 S.W. 190th Avenue Road, Dunnellon

Otter Springs 
6470 S.W. 80th Ave., Trenton

Poe Springs 
28800 N.W. 182nd Ave., High Springs

Rainbow Springs 
19158 S.W. 81st Place Road, Dunnellon

Rum Island Springs County Park 
1447 S.W. Rum Island Terrace, Fort White

Salt Springs
13851 Hwy 19 N., Fort Mccoy

Silver Glen Springs 
5271 FL-19, Salt Springs


Pedal Power 

North Central Florida has become a mountain biking destination for everyone from seasoned cyclists to beginning bikers. Thanks to the location in the center of the state and in proximity to many springs, rivers and creeks, the variety of terrain, sloping landscapes and many different kinds of forests and scenery, Greater Gainesville is one of the most dynamic places for biking in the Sunshine State. 

Best Bike Cities 

No. 29 — Gainesville 

Bicycling Magazine 


San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park 

With its diverse terrain and breathtaking landscapes, San Felasco in the City of Alachua is a popular venue for mountain bikers. Multiple trails and loops carve through the preserved paradise filled with wildlife.  

Tire-testing terrain 

  • Rolling hills, creek crossing, sinkholes and log bridge 
  • The state park contains Florida’s largest protected mesic hammock 
  • 40-mile trail system 
  • 7,000 acres 

Nonprofit Friends of Felasco invites mountain bikers around the country to come participate in the annual all-day Tour de Felasco, featuring the 25- and five-mile Metric Century Rides. The highly anticipated Tour has become a Gainesville tradition. 


O’Leno State Park 

O’Leno State Park is nestled in High Springs, where the Santa Fe River begins to flow underground. Mountain bikers flock to this unique place with nearly 11 miles of multi-use trails surrounded by stunning views of natural Florida.  

Although some portions demand more skill to ride on, most of the trail is perfect for beginning and youth cyclists. 



Just outside the city limits of Greater Gainesville lies a massive and intricate trail system complete with jumps, flow lines and rideable wooden features. Mountain bikers from all over the country travel to Santos Trailhead and Campground for the 80 miles of single-track trails that range in skill level from beginning to expert.  

Many of the Santos trails were developed by professional trail-building organizations, and the Ocala Mountain Biking Association maintains them. The Vortex Freeride and the Land Bridge are just a few of the features that attract cyclists to this mountain biking destination.  

Each spring, thousands of mountain bikers from all over the country venture out to Santos for the four-day Fat Tire Festival, with food trucks and children’s mountain bike rides. Saturday is the big 50-mile fun ride called the Fat Tire Fifty, which requires an intermediate level of endurance. 


Urban Trails 

Hidden within cosmopolitan Gainesville are several small trails ranging in skill level.  

Lake Pithlachocco Mountain Bike Loop at Newnan’s Lake State Forest is a 5.7-mile, single-track trail for beginning to intermediate riders. The West Trail is a 1.7-mile track with short climbs that weaves through the beautiful Sweetwater Preserve. Loblolly Woods has a 2.4-mile track that follows Hogtown Creek through a peaceful forest near University Avenue.  

Each year, local bikers join the Tour de Gainesville to ride more than 60 miles through Gainesville. 


Haile’s Trails 

Located on a private property in Newberry, Haile’s Trails is only open to the public twice a year. It is built around an old rock quarry and provides some of the most challenging single-track trails in Florida.  

With its rugged terrain, steep climbs and descents, this trail is considered an intermediate to advanced ride. The hard rock tread base and limited access ensure the trail stays in great condition year-round. 


By Jewell Tomazin 

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