Jacksonville – This North Florida metropolis can exude the charm of a southern town, but make no mistake: Jacksonville is the big city. A big, big city.
In fact, no other U.S. city can match the River City and its 840 square miles. This seat of Duval County has a massive footprint that takes up more than 91 percent of the county itself.
But seeking sanctuary in a city the locals call "Jax" doesn't have to be daunting. With such size comes the nation's largest urban park system, including more than 337 locales on more than 80,000 acres.
Many of Jacksonville's best natural attractions are within steps of downtown, from the Riverwalk that borders the St. Johns River to Treaty Oak Park, preserved on the site of a former riverfront amusement park. Others are in the outlying areas, such as Fort George Island and the expansive grounds of the Mandarin Museum, located in a south Jacksonville neighborhood that was once a quaint farming village.
The St. Johns River, which gives Jacksonville its "River City" moniker, flows north, one of only a handful of such rivers in the United States. It creates a picturesque scene downtown and is flanked on both banks by the Riverwalk, which marries the river with the downtown cityscape.
The north and south banks of the Riverwalk have two distinct feels, with Jacksonville Landing – a 125,000-square-foot shopping and dining complex – taking center stage on the 2-mile-long Northbank Riverwalk. And on the Southbank, a wooden boardwalk winds past the river, public artwork and fountains – including, most significantly, the spectacular Friendship Fountain. Also on the Southbank is the Museum of Science & History, where a planetarium offers a downtown respite of a different sort.
Want to bounce between the banks? Hop on the downtown water taxi.
Treaty Oak Park
For all the natural wonder in and around the heart of the city, Jacksonville's Treaty Oak remains the single most popular piece of foliage. Located south of the Landing across the St. Johns River, the Treaty Oak is a massive Southern live oak with a trunk measuring 25 feet in circumference, a height of 70 feet and branches swooping and spreading out to 190 feet in diameter.
The tree is estimated to be more than 250 years old, predating the founding of the city itself in the 1820s. The name conjures visions of settlers and Native Americans coming together under its canopy, but in fact, the tree has a history made interesting for entirely different reasons: A local newspaper writer trying to save the tree from development in the 1930s conjured up a story that a treaty had been signed there.
Jacksonville has since grown up around the stately oak, but so has Jessie Ball duPont Park, a 7-acre greenspace that gives the tree well-deserved room to be appreciated. It's the smallest nature park in the city. But its centerpiece is completely healthy and, arborists say, has 250 or more years of life and shade to offer.
Taking the Mathews Bridge east from Metropolitan Park downtown, on the Arlington Expressway, leads to Tree Hill Nature Center, a 50-acre natural getaway that is home to a Florida natural history museum, butterfly and hummingbird gardens, and native animals.
The center is a popular field trip for Jacksonville students, with a guided trail tour offering a 45-minute hike and lessons about different animal habitats and layers of the forest. Adults can explore on their own, of course, discovering the three unique ecosystems and fresh air for themselves.
Cary State Forest
In northeast Duval County – so far northeast, in fact, that it straddles the county line into Nassau County – is one of the area's most treasured running trails, located in one of Florida's original state forests.
Established in the 1930s, Cary State Forest features some diverse North Florida wildlife. White-tailed deer, pileated woodpecker and wild hogs make their home here, and a meandering trail – complete with a boardwalk that escorts hikers and runners across the wetlands – winds through a cypress swamp.
The Adams Wilderness Trail, as it is known, includes both a 3-mile and a 9-mile loop. And both walkers and runners might have the opportunity to spot the wildlife this patch of forest is known for.
Mandarin Museum and Walter Jones Historical Park
Once a small farming village all its own, and now a neighborhood in southern Jacksonville south of I-295 near the San Jose Boulevard exit, Mandarin was once known for shipping its oranges, grapefruit, lemons and other produce to the North.
Mandarin was also the seasonal home of Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wintered here from 1867 to 1884 and welcomed tourists to her homestead when she lived there.
Today, that history is celebrated at the Mandarin Museum & Historical Society, which welcomes visitors who admire the community's Spanish moss-draped oak trees and historic buildings. The Walter Jones Historical Park, named after the owner of the old Mandarin general store and post office, was acquired by Jacksonville in 1994 to create the city's first historical park. Visitors can explore a farmhouse, barn, outbuildings and sawmill – plus, most important for those seeking a little getaway from the city – a nature trail and riverfront boardwalk, all on 10 acres of a former working farm.
Big Talbot Island State Park
For a destination that feels truly removed from the bustling River City, head 20 minutes northeast of Jacksonville to Big Talbot Island State Park (13802 Pumpkin Hill Road, Jacksonville, 904-696-5980, www.floridastateparks.org/bigtalbotisland), where trails beckon toward the marsh and toward the shore.
Among the natural wonders to explore on Big Talbot Island is Boneyard Beach, with once-mighty live oaks and cedar trees that rise from the beach like skeletons. The unique beach is known for the unforgettable image of these trees, which have been battered over time by nature and erosion.
Trails at Big Talbot Island lead to the coast, a dramatic bluff overlooking the ocean and a natural salt marsh.
Big Talbot Island is part of a string of unique sea islands off the coast of Northeast Florida, and the thousands of acres of state parks located there collectively make up the Talbot Islands State Parks.
Beyond Boneyard Beach and the other attractions on Big Talbot Island, check out early Florida plantation history nearby at the Fort George Island Cultural State Park or explore the unspoiled, undeveloped beaches of Little Talbot Island, with its 5 miles of beaches, plus maritime forests, dunes and salt marshes.
Editor's note: This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com.
Amy Wimmer Schwarb has spent her professional career vacillating between the coasts of Florida and her home state of Indiana, spending several years as a staff writer and editor at the St. Petersburg Times and several more as a magazine editor in Indianapolis. But in the end, Florida won her heart: She is now a full-time freelancer based in St. Augustine.