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One with Nature

Hemming Plaza

Photo by Greg Downing, courtesy of Visit Jacksonville

The Confederate statue in Hemming Plaza survived the Great Fire of 1901.

Jacksonville operates one of the largest urban park systems in the United States. The city’s residents are serious about protecting their surroundings: parks, ecological preserves and nature centers abound. Here, we highlight some of the must-see places to explore the natural beauty of the area.

HEMMING PLAZA: The oldest park in the city is located in the heart of the government center. Jacksonville founder Isaiah D. Hart established the area as a public square in the 1850s. The park has changed names and function through the years, but it stands today as a popular pedestrian mall. Stop by Fridays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to listen to live music and shop for local goods, produce and flowers at the Hemming Plaza Market.

METROPOLITAN PARK: A large recreational space along St. Johns River’s north bank, this park is renowned for its outdoor concerts. Home of the Jacksonville Jazz Festival and the Starry Nights series, Metropolitan Park has hosted acts such as Tony Bennett, James Taylor, Faith Hill, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Train, Hootie and the Blowfish and The Beach Boys. Families should stop at Kids Kampus, a 10-acre recreational and educational facility next to Metropolitan Park. Kids will love playing on the colorful playground and mini city landmarks.

JESSIE BALL DUPONT PARK: A small park of only seven acres, it’s the mighty Treaty Oak that is the main attraction here. The sprawling live oak is approximately 180 years old with a circumference of 25 feet and a height of more than 70 feet. The park’s walking paths and benches offer a beautiful space to spend an afternoon.

FRIENDSHIP FOUNTAIN AND PARK: Located on the south bank of St. Johns River, Friendship Park offers stunning views of downtown Jacksonville. The park is home to Friendship Fountain, which was the world’s largest and tallest fountain when the park opened in 1965. The fountain can spray 17,000 gallons of water a minute to a height of 120 feet. Currently closed for renovations, the park and fountain are scheduled to reopen in June 2011.

TIMUCUAN ECOLOGICAL & HISTORIC PRESERVE: This 46,000-acre nature preserve includes historic sites, undisturbed natural areas and recreational opportunities such as boating, fishing, kayaking, hiking and biking. Observe wildlife while walking one of the preserve’s trails, or take in the unique history of Florida at the Kingsley Plantation and Fort Caroline National Memorial.

JACKSONVILLE ARBORETUM & GARDENS: Wander through 120 acres of natural preserve to see a wide variety of North Florida’s flora and fauna. The arboretum’s trails include educational signs for visitors to learn about the plants, animals and habitats on display. Bonus: The arboretum is dog friendly, as long as pets are leashed and cleaned up after.

TREE HILL NATURE CENTER: If you're in town April through October, head to this family-friendly discovery zone featuring live animal displays and a natural history museum. The center has provided environmental education to residents and visitors for more than 40 years. Take a guided nature walk on the center’s 50 acres of trails or visit the on-site butterfly house.

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