We love our island paradise, but there’s so much more to explore in Florida, and some places are practically in our backyard. My husband, Troy, and I heard about Jennings State Forest from a friend, who said it was a nice place to camp and hike, so on a recent long weekend, we decided to check it out.
Jennings State Forest is a hidden recreational gem. Located about 10 miles west of Jacksonville, it’s a 1-hour drive from Amelia Island. This state forest is large, with six drive-in entrances located around its perimeter. It boasts two campgrounds, Bootleggers and Hammock Campground.
We chose to camp at Bootleggers because it’s a great place for star gazing and it’s only a short walk to Yellow Water Creek. But the highlight of our visit was hiking the Pioneer Trail, which offers a unique hiking experience not commonly found in Florida. Constant elevation changes, beautiful bluffs above Black Creek, hollows, waterfalls, and much more can be found on this exciting hiking trail.
Several primitive hike-in campsites are also available in Jennings, so an overnight hiking trip was part of our Jennings experience. One site, called Mule Landing, was on a small bluff above North Fork Black Creek on the Pioneer Trail, and the views were beautiful. That night, we pitched our tent, filled our water bottles from the creek, and slept well, listening to the mysterious calls of barred owls.
In addition to the Pioneer Trail, we took a short jaunt on the Dunn’s Farm Trail, which offers a variety of ecosystems to explore. More than 15 different natural biological communities exist in Jennings State Forest, including sandhill, slope forest, flatwoods, seepage slope, dome swamp, blackwater stream, and seepage stream. The Dunn Cemetery, located along Dunn’s Farm Trail, has been recently restored by volunteers and is now well-maintained, a fascinating find that speaks of the people who used to live on these lands many years ago.
We didn’t bring kayaks on this trip to Jennings, but we will in the future. The state forest has several places to put in, including Ellis Ford, Knight’s Landing, and Indian Forge Recreation Area. A paddling trip on Black Creek can take approximately two to six hours, with the possibility of an eight-to-ten-hour paddle further into the town of Middleburg, if desired. That will surely be on our list of things to do when we return.
On our last day at Jennings, we drove to the Old Jennings Recreation Area, which offers visitors ample parking and access to several different trail systems for hikers and equestrians. The Sandridge Trailhead Complex offers visitors approximately 9 total miles of hiking trails and 25 miles of equestrian trails. The Sandridge Loop is 6.75 miles in length and takes hikers across rolling sandhill ecosystems with long scenic vistas. The Sandridge Trail Loop also has four different connector trails: the Bird Blind, Longleaf, Wiregrass, and Cypress Dome connectors. These connectors offer shorter loops when combined with the Sandridge Trail.
We spent the day exploring all the trails in this area. Wildlife flourishes here, and we sighted white-tailed deer, wild turkey, hawks, and songbirds. What an amazing long weekend of exploration, star gazing, and camping! If you want to find out more about Jennings State Forest, visit www.fdacs.gov/Forest-Wildfire/Our-Forests/State-Forests/Jennings-State-Forest.