Being a Florida native, I must say that even though I was always aware of Florida’s natural beauty I didn’t grow fully aware of its importance to me until I moved to Gainesville. Growing up in Palm Bay, my friends and I mostly went to the beach rather than hiking and because of this, I did not expose myself to all that Florida has to offer.
I am now a senior with a major in biology at the University of Florida. When I first moved, I was more focused on doing well in my classes and making new friends. At the time I did not realize that learning about the school would open my eyes to the life around it. Through canoe trips and visits to the bat houses, I was able to look beyond my backyard and found some natural beauty that I would like to share with you.
- Lake Alice
Right on campus is a great place to start exploring nature as a student. Lake Alice has plenty of trees all around the lake, so you can hammock with a view or have a quiet place to study. The recently renovated docks and the nature trails also allow for a nice break away from home. You can even find an occasional gator in the lake! Of course, UF is known for its gators, on and off the field, but I never expected to find bats. However, Lake Alice has bat houses right across from the lake where hundreds of bats flood out daily at dusk.
- Loblolly Nature Park
About three weeks into social distancing, my roommate and I were feeling the need to go outside, so we decided to check out a small nature trail close to where we live. Surprisingly, even though the trail is off of a busy road, you can’t hear any sounds of traffic from the inside. During my visit, I saw some people just walking dogs and others riding bikes. As I walked through Loblolly Woods, I was surprised to find a creek. As I walked towards the creek, I saw people sifting through the creek’s sand, sorting out tiny rocks from shark teeth. Many of my coworkers at the Florida Museum have mentioned that finding shark teeth is quite common in Gainesville. Coming from the coast, this came as a surprise to me. You mean, even as far inland as Gainesville, with no beach, we can find shark teeth? Sure enough, if you go sifting through the right creek, you can find many of these tiny treasures. I bought some sifters and started sifting through the creek sand, and have started my own tiny collection of tiny shark teeth. I never expected that something this cool was near me all this time.
- Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
This nature center has 68 acres to explore. They have a bunch of interesting features like their collection of bamboo and their impressive herb garden. What I was most blown away by was their Victorian cruziana. I had first heard about this intriguing plant in my plant diversity class. If you’re not familiar with it, it is a huge lily pad over a meter in diameter. At the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, their collection is so extensive that it looks like you can run across the tops of them!
- Paynes Prairie State Park
On my many trips home to Palm Bay when I thought I was driving past acres of empty land, I was actually driving past Paynes Prairie, a special ecosystem home to a ton of animal diversity. I have heard that people have seen things like wild bison and horses there. I went to check out this common landmark and found nice nature trails and an observation tower. Many guests were taking advantage of the area’s tranquility by just relaxing or eating lunch while looking out on the prairie. I will confess that I was a little bummed that I did not see my first Florida bison or any wildlife during my visit. However, on my way home I was stoked to spot a small family of deer. There were three adults and a little spotted fawn grazing on the side of the road!
- Ichetucknee Springs State Park
The springs are quite literally a “cool” place because they offer fresh, cold water from the ground. While there are many springs you can visit along the Santa Fe River, I recently went to Ichetucknee Springs State Park. For a small fee, we were able to park and have access to all the facilities. The main draw of the area is naturally, the spring. Surrounding it there were all of the amenities for picnicking and swimming. The clear water was quite tempting, and after the initial shock of how chilly the water is (and the occasional fish by your feet) it was well worth the swim in that crisp water.
It amazes me how each of these nature destinations provides such a unique experience and can be found right inside the Gainesville community. Initially, I was unaware of the beauty that these places had to offer, but I am so glad I got out there and learned something new. I visited these places because they were featured online, in a convenient location for me, or just simply mentioned to me by a friend. However, there are still a ton of nature facilities I have yet to see, and I cannot wait to keep exploring!