Gainesville for Nature Lovers
By Melissa Vincent
Everyone knows Gainesville is the home to The University of Florida. Go Gators. But did you know it's also a nature lover's paradise?
I didn't until recently, when I explored the area for the first time. Here are my top five places to visit in and around Gainesville for anyone who loves animals and nature.
Devil's Millhopper State Park
A natural national landmark that has been visited since 1880. Walk down a 212-step wooden boardwalk to view the 120-foot deep limestone sinkhole surrounded by a miniature rainforest. During the wet season, the bowl of the sinkhole fills with water, giving it a magical appearance. There’s also a short hiking trail at the top, and a place to picnic, making this a great spot to exercise or relax in nature. 4732 Millhopper Rd, Gainesville, FL 32653, (352) 955-2008
You’ll get up close and personal with hundreds of different species of butterflies and birds from around the world, surrounded by lush tropical plants and the sounds of waterfalls, all in all an enchanting place you won't soon forget. Although you aren't allowed to catch the butterflies in the exhibit, I saw several land on people, giving them a “hands-on” experience after all. Every day at 2 p.m., weather permitting, you can watch live butterfly releases. The rainforest is located in the Florida Museum of Natural History. 3215 Hull Road, SW 34th Street and Hull Road, Gainesville, FL 32611, (352) 846-2000
Morningside Nature Center
Anyone who loves a good hiking trail will enjoy more than seven miles of them here. With 278 acres to explore, you’ll encounter a diverse display of wildflowers and wildlife. The Living History Farm is a recreation of a family farm from the 1870's. Adults and children alike will enjoy visiting the farm animals. From September to May, the farm has live interpretations of what life was like on a rural Florida farm in the 1870’s complete with staff dressed in period clothing. The biggest event of the year, held over Thanksgiving weekend, is the Morningside Nature Center Cane Boil and Fiddlefest. Watch as cane is pressed to extract 60 pounds of juice and then boiled down to only six gallons of syrup. The best part is getting to sample some over a hot biscuit. Sweet! 3450 E University Ave, Gainesville, FL 32641, (352) 334-3326
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
Stroll along a 1.5- mile paved walkway to view the 24 major collections that make up the gardens. My favorite spot was the bamboo forest, Florida's largest public display of the plant. There are plenty of benches and gazebos among the flowers, herbs, and plants where you can sit and enjoy a peaceful moment. Don't forget to bring your camera! 4700 SW 58th Dr., Gainesville, FL 32608, (352) 372-4981
Payne's Prairie Preserve State Park
A must-see 21,000-acre savanna located just south of Gainesville. Eight different trails allow for hiking, horseback riding, and biking. If you’re passionate about viewing wildlife, take the La Chua Trail to see hundreds of alligators and different species of birds. A short hike from the boardwalk leads to an observation deck to watch for bison, wild horses, and other animals. Bring binoculars. 100 Savannah Blvd, Micanopy, FL 32667, (352) 466-3397