Cary State Forest
Typical view in Cary State Forest
Cary State Forest is a 13,060-acre property that straddles the Nassau-Duval County line in northeastern Florida. Cary State Forest was established in the mid-1930's as one of Florida's original state forests. Being just outside Jacksonville, it seems Cary State Forest sees a lot of use as a teaching device: there is an open air teaching pavilion and interpretive nature trail that many of the schools in the area use for environmental education purposes. Cary State Forest is a regular destination for many local school field trips.
Although Cary State Forest is only a bit larger than 20 square miles, there are several different ecosystems represented on the property. In exploring the place you're going to find wet flatwoods, baygalls, mesic flatwoods, longleaf pine/wiregrass and cypress ponds. For wildlife there's bobcat, white-tailed deer and wild hog. Among the birds are pileated woodpecker, yellow-throated vireo, barred owl, great horned owl and wild turkey. Depending on the season, you might also come across a few pinewood tree frogs. A bit more rare in the forest are gopher tortoise, Sherman's fox squirrel, eastern indigo snake and Florida black bear.
In addition to about 40 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails, Cary State Forest offers three primitive campsites (meaning: no hookups). There is a restroom facility with showers located near the campsites. If you are interested in camping, you'd be well served to call ahead and make reservations: campsites are reservable but are usually available on a first-come, first-served basis. Camping also requires a State Forest Use Permit (usually between $5 and $8 per site per night).
One of the main stops for school and boy/girl scout field trips to Cary State Forest is the S. Bryan Jennings Environmental Education Center, an outdoor teaching pavilion that is also open to the public. Most of the organized kid trips who come to Cary State Forest also usually end up hiking the Adams Nature Trail, a 1.4-mile hike through a cypress swamp and across the wetlands, partially on an elevated boardwalk. Printed information with a map is usually available at Cary State Forest headquarters and at the trailhead kiosk.
For equestrian folks, Cary State Forest offers two 8-mile riding trails in addition to all the open-for-horses forest roads. The longest trail is probably the 12-mile Red Root Trail and Fireline Trail combination, passing through stands of immature slash pines, stands of mature longleaf pines and even crossing a couple basin swamps.
Part of Cary State Forest is managed as the Cary Wildlife Management Area by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. If you're interested in hunting on the property, you need to call them at 904-758-0525.
To get there: Cary State Forest is in Bryceville, between Callahan and Baldwin, off US Highway 301. The entrance is well-signed, just turn east on the dirt Pavilion Road and go to the grass parking area.
Map is courtesy of the Florida Department of Forestry