It didn’t feel like I was in Jacksonville anymore. It didn’t even feel like I was even in Florida.

The hilly, sandy path I was hiking meandered through deep woods, twisting right and then left, over a creek via a wooden bridge, and then along a golden stream. In some places, I could look down into deep ravines, and as I walked I could hear birds singing overhead in the tall trees.

Above photo: Lake Ray.

“It’s a nice escape, a place to decompress,” Chuck Hubbuch, board member of the Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens, told me before I visited the 120-acre educational wilderness off Monument Road one recent morning.

“Science has shown that people are stressed out by modern society,” he said. “It’s a place to get away from the hustle and bustle and relax a bit in fresh air.”

Or to get a good workout by trail hiking for a couple of hours, as I did.

But that’s the beauty of the arboretum. It features a variety of well-marked trails, and you can expend as much energy enjoying it as you wish. On my first visit, I took my dog around the 1/3-mile long Lake Loop Trail, which circles Lake Ray, a picturesque man-made body of water dotted with “spatterdock,” floating flowers that resemble lily pads.

The 1/3-mile Upper Ravine Trail, the 1/3-mile Jones Creek Trail, and the 1/2 mile Live Oak Trail took me through dense, shady canopies of trees that included southern magnolia, sweet gum, loblolly pine, black cherry, chinquapin, wax myrtle, yaupon holly and several varieties of oak, including live oak. Blue, yellow, orange and white wildflowers grew along many of the trails, created by a corps of dedicated volunteers.

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A small waterfall on Aralia Trail.


A Barred Owl rests on a small branch just above Jones Creek.


Mighty cypress trees tower over Jones Creek.


A protected Gopher Tortious slowly crawls out of his den.

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Rain Lilies basking in the sun along the banks of Lake Ray.

“We rely so much on the generosity of those who appreciate what we are trying to cultivate here — our members, our tireless Board of Directors and our dedicated volunteers,” says Willis Jones, president of the board. “We receive no regular funding from the City or State, and we welcome anyone who wants to be a part of our growth.”

The arboretum, which features 13 distinct ecosystems, opened in November 2008 and is maintained by volunteers. Managed and operated by the nonprofit Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens, it is located on land that the city of Jacksonville purchased in the early 1970s for passive recreational purposes. The Humphries Gold Mining Company mined titanium there from 1944 to 1961, but the land sat vacant for more than 30 years and has reverted well back to natural woodlands.

Close to the St. Johns River, the land includes Jones Creek, a tributary, which even has a small waterfall, called “Cascades.” You need to hike the 1/3-mile Aralia Trail to get there, and as waterfalls go, it’s small, but you can hear the rushing of the water before you come upon it, and when you see it, you have to smile. As any natural waterfall in Jacksonville, it’s special.