Travel: Jacksonville’s Wild Side
The 7 Creeks Recreation Area beckons visitors to explore a vast and diverse natural habitat.
On a sunny Saturday morning, the city of Jacksonville marches to a diligent drumbeat. Traffic threads a constant course along I-295. Just 20 minutes east, it’s a different picture: The wind whistles through longleaf pines, and a pileated woodpecker’s primeval call resonates through the air. In this corner of Northeast Florida, it’s quiet enough to hear yourself think. Pausing to admire a creek winding through saltmarsh, it’s easy to imagine the Timucua Indians and Spanish explorers who came here before you.
Today, these woods and waterways are part of 7 Creeks Recreation Area, the latest jewel in Jacksonville’s park system crown. At 80,000 acres, it’s the largest network of urban parks in the nation. The Recreation Area encompasses seven creeks, as well as seven parks and preserves. These public conservation lands include 5,600 acres of diverse habitat—from piney flatwoods to coastal hammocks, cypress swamps to hardwood forests. Brackish creeks and rivers flow through it, and the vast saltmarsh of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve surrounds the entire area.
That Florida’s booming “Bold New City” retains this natural oasis is no accident; it’s the result of a unique alliance between federal, state, and local government, and not-for-profit organizations. Working together, JaxParks, the Florida Park Service, National Park Service, North Florida Land Trust, and Timucuan Parks Foundation connected their individual lands into a unified recreational resource. With new signage and expanded trails stretching more than 30 miles, there’s never been a better time for hikers, cyclists, and equestrians to get out and explore. “The area exposes visitors to different ecosystems connected by trails. It’s a wonderful example of what we can do together to protect our quality of life,” says Jim McCarthy, president of North Florida Land Trust.
Jacksonville native Kelly Osterhout calls 7 Creeks a local treasure: “You could hike for miles and never cover the same trail twice.” Distance hikers can follow seamless connections between longer routes such as 7 Creeks Trail, which traverses shorelines and forests. For a shorter, family-friendly experience, try the Betz-Tiger Point Hammock Trail or the ADA-accessible pathways in Edwards Creek Day Use Area. Following the Bogey Creek Preserve loop, you pass cypress swamp and oak hammocks before arriving at a picnic spot overlooking the creek.
The Recreation Area draws cyclists, too. “All of Northeast Florida is a biking mecca, but I was impressed with the variety of habitats and well-maintained trails here,” says Liz Sparks, a Tallahassee resident who recently visited 7 Creeks. “Having worked for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, I appreciate a partnership that results in an excellent recreation experience.” To start your adventure, pedal the shaded, hard-packed trails of Cedar Point Preserve.
Seen from a horse saddle, the trails present a different perspective. Equestrians have four trail ride options. With 15-plus miles of wide trails winding through flatwoods, sandhills and wetlands, Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park is the longest. Start your ride at the Jim Wingate Preserve trailhead, which was built with equestrians in mind.
As lovely as it is on land, don’t miss a chance to explore the waterways. Gliding along the creeks, a briny breeze envelops you, conjuring images of Indians pulling oysters from the rippling tide. As you dip and pull a paddle through coastal currents, ospreys hover overhead, scanning the creek for dinner. To chart your own course, pick up a Timucuan Trail Waterway guide or Thomas Creek Paddling Guide at one of the local outfitters or download from publictrustlaw.org/explore.
Surrounded by this much water, you’ll want your fishing gear. For inspiring views, try your luck at the Betz-Tiger Point Preserve fishing platform that overlooks Edwards Creek. At the Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve kayak launch, cabbage palms rustle in the wind along an undeveloped shoreline. It’s quintessential Old Florida, the kind of place your grandfather might have spent a carefree afternoon.
Grandfathers of today find the same contentment on the Cedar Point bridge. With his eight-month-old grandson strapped to his chest, a burly man casts a line. Minutes later, he’s reeling in his catch. The baby grabs for the wriggling redfish, and the grandfather smiles, saying, “Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
While waiting for a tug on your line, take a moment to scan the skies. Come spring or fall, you might see a painted bunting, one of 200 species birders have recorded here. Located in the Atlantic Flyway migratory path, 7 Creeks is a birder’s paradise, with Cedar Point a prime viewing area.
Whether you enjoy birding, fishing, biking, hiking, paddling, or exploring on horseback, you’ll find 7 Creeks a respite from routine. While contemplating a quiet cove or a massive oak cloaked in resurrection fern, you’ll resurrect parts of yourself lost in the shuffle of everyday life.
You’ll need a weekend to fully explore 7 Creeks, so plan ahead and opt for rustic or refined lodging. For a nature-based getaway, book a campsite at Little Talbot Island State Park. Craving retro refinement? Try the 11-room Hotel Palms, a restored 1947 motor court. Local talent shines at Atlantic Beach’s only boutique motel: Quirky murals adorn public and private spaces, while guests sleep on Jacksonville-made mattresses and wake to coffee from Bold Bean Coffee Roasters. Located three blocks off the beach in a park-and-explore neighborhood, Hotel Palms is close to shops and cafés. Ask ahead to reserve a free loaner bike.
If you like food with a view, you’re in luck. Watch barges and boats at Mayport’s rustic Sandollar Restaurant or admire a St. Johns River sunset at Palms Fish Camp off Heckscher Drive. Can’t wait to satisfy your appetite? Try the family-owned New Berlin Fish House & Oyster Bar. Run by the third generation of fishermen and seafood sellers, it’s the closest restaurant to the Recreation Area.
For a downloadable brochure, trail maps and more information, visit 7CreeksJax.org