Illustration by Caroline Gaspich.

Part of what gives Gainesville its distinct spirit and authenticity is the abundance of flora-filled spaces within the city. A sense of home pervades the parks of Gainesville, and if you’re ever feeling out of touch or need some open fresh air, a visit to these verdant community parks can bring you back down to earth. And unlike some of those big-name national parks, whose tickets might be getting a $70 price tag in the coming year, you can leave your wallet at home
for nearly all of our local favorites.•

 

The Thomas Center

Admission? Free. Trees? Check. Wildlife? If you’re  lucky!

Following a street lined with beautiful and quirky Queen Anne style houses, you’ll approach an estate in the historic neighborhood of Duckpond. Known as the “cultural heart” of Gainesville, The Thomas Center is a space for art and history exhibits, performances, and meeting rooms for civic matters. However, the most important aspect to note of the historic area is the gardens adjacent to the building. Find a perfect reading perch in the gazebo, pack for a picnic beneath the hundred-year-old oak, or take a mindful stroll through grassy pathways and observe squirrels and canaries, all the while surrounding yourself with the rich history of the memorialized grounds.

Bo Diddley Plaza

Admission? Free. Trees? Not so much. Animals? Only if you count the dogs.

Named after a legendary musician who spent much of his later years in the area, Bo Diddley Plaza is a vibrant community and family-oriented space. The distinctive hub of Downtown Gainesville was recently renovated to include a box office, a polished stage, and a manicured grassed area for hanging out and relaxing. The Union Street Farmer’s Market is a local favorite, held every Wednesday from 4- to- 7 p.m., where diverse vendors sell their local and homemade products. Concerts, dance classes and festivals happen here year-round.  Bo Diddley is a casual and welcoming place for all Gainesvillians, where one can hear the laughter of families, practice acroyoga, support other locals or enjoy a cold beer on the steps of the plaza.

 

Depot Park

Admission? Free. Trees? Just a few. Wildlife? Maybe in the brush, but park signs ask that you stay on the paths.

Despite being just over one year old, Depot Park has deep roots in Gainesville’s history. From railroad depot to industrial hub to public recreation area, the park’s metal-and-concrete accents hint at its storied past.  The park is open and contemporary; some defining features include the Rail Trail for bikers and pedestrians as well as the children’s playground with water jets to help cool off from the Florida heat. Depot Park houses the Pop-A-Top convenience store, where you can find healthy food options and products from local businesses. Although Depot Park was a hard industrial space in the past, it has been transformed into a modern and inviting green area, where children can play and events, like food truck rallies and art-walks, are held.

 

Alfred A. Ring Park

Admission? Free. Trees? A’plenty. Wildlife? Butterflies, lizards, treefrogs and much, much more.

Off of Northwest 23rd Boulevard and NW 16th Avenue, Alfred A. Ring Park is a greenway only about 1.5 miles long, but densely covered by pines, sweetgum and oak trees. There are multiple creeks throughout the trail and a variety of wildlife is present. Alfred A. Ring, a former UF professor, also devoted a wildflower garden to his wife, which you can find near the start of the trail. It’s difficult to get lost with directional signs at almost every corner, but you may find yourself pausing at a lattice-patterned bench, an observation deck, or even the playground for junior adventurers. This trail is a calm and low-pressure experience for beginner hikers. 

 

University Gardens

Admission? Free. Trees? Oh yeah. Wildlife? It’s about the small things: Lizards, birds and, if you come at sundown, bats!

On the farther southwest side of the UF campus, the University Gardens is somewhat of a hidden gem on campus. More of a self-reflective and secluded spot, a mossy boardwalk leads you down a short path covered by crunchy leaves and small wildflowers, with streams sprinkled along the way. You can diverge from the beaten path and explore, as the trees stretch back and reveal that much of the nature on campus is still preserved. 

 

Westside Park

Admission? Free. Trees? Check. Wildlife? Do pinecones count?

By Loblolly Woods, Westside Park is a place where nature and community merge harmoniously. Tall pines and a short trail surround a basketball court, recreation center and a playground where families and adolescents buzz around. Westside’s motto is “It Starts In Parks,” which emphasizes that one’s formative years should involve community and a connection to nature.

 

Payne’s Prairie

Admission? $2 if you walk, $4 if you drive, $6 if you bring friends. Trees? Here and there, but not everywhere. Wildlife? This is the place.

If you want to take a step away from the city altogether, but don’t want to travel far, Payne’s Prairie is a slice of pure, wild Florida. Not only was it the state’s first preserve as of 1971, but it’s also one of the scarce places east of the Mississippi where you can still see bison roam, as they once did from coast to coast. There are dozens of miles of trail to explore in the prairie, but if it’s your first visit, you may want to stop at the visitor’s center and see the park from atop their 50-foot watchtower. If you’re a wildlife or bird enthusiast, the must-see is La Chua trail, which is a mile of wetlandy goodness, replete with basking gators, wading birds, vocal frogs and timid water snakes. A few notes of caution: because it’s a prairie, there aren’t many trees or shady spots to be found, so be sure to pack plenty of water and sunscreen. And if you come after a particularly rainy day, expect many parts of the trails to be flooded.