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Explore natural attractions with the family


There are lots of things to love about Gainesville, but for my family, the best things are the sunshine, enjoying the outdoors year-round and the fact that there is still a little bit of “wild” left in the wildlife. Here are the best family attractions in Gainesville—fresh air, blue skies and a hint of adventure guaranteed.

1. Kanapaha Botanical Gardens

In the Children’s Garden, a dragon spouting water instead of fire ignites my sons’ imaginations. The boys love the maze and the koi pond and, of course, the dragon overlooking lily pads in a pond below. They firmly believe those lily pads are the offspring of the giant, platter-like lily pads in the nearby Water Gardens. The Water Gardens and its four waterfalls use reclaimed water—an ecologically enlightened oasis that just happens to attract a few dragons of its own. Alligators have made a home here, and visitors may just catch a glimpse of one in the winding waterway of the Water Garden.

We all love strolling through the serene Bamboo Gardens, down paths lined with tall clusters of swaying bamboo. The lush Hummingbird Garden is full of red, orange and pink flowers, which are best to attract the tiny birds. The beauty of the garden and charming gazebo are wonderful, and the boys love keeping track of how many hummingbirds they’ve spotted.

Finish off your Kanapaha visit with a stroll through the ginger and herb gardens to feel like you’ve completely sated the senses of sight, sound and scent.

2. Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo

Zoos have always been a family favorite, but the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo makes the top of the list. There is an impressive variety of animals (otters, caracals and gibbons, to name a few) in a space that feels small, cozy and, above all, friendly. Pathways curve around animal habitats. Fuzzy swinging primates cruise along one side of the fine wire fence while my kids cruise along the other, and every once in a while they all stop. Boys and animals alike look through greenery and fencing to inspect the curious creatures on the other side. The people at work there, whether they are full-time staff or student interns, are always eager to field questions from visitors, which encourages my kids to delve in, learning more each time we visit. I’ll never forget the time eight-year-old Kevin announced exuberantly that they ought to call it a “learning zoo” because that is what you do there.

3. Florida Museum of Natural History

Chasing butterflies? Yep, we do that. First, though, we head to the Teaching Lab Trails behind the museum. The “Hammock Trail” is a short, quarter-mile trail that runs in a circle through a broad-leafed habitat, but in order to get to the Hammock Trail ecosystem, you can choose to either go through old agricultural fields or upland pines. If these three ecosystems aren’t enough, there is a separate fourth trail, the “SEEP Trail,” a boardwalk path that winds you through wetlands supported by the Stormwater Ecological Enhancement Project. Say hello to wading birds and other wetland wildlife that have settled there.

Of course, the real celebrities at the Museum of Natural History are the butterflies—the Butterfly Rainforest is always fluttering with excitement. With more than 1,000 butterflies from 60 or so different species living together in the Rainforest, spotting a butterfly is a sure thing. There’s even a pretty good chance of getting to watch one emerge from a chrysalis in the rearing lab. It fascinates my boys. Personally, I’m fascinated when we step into the Butterfly Rainforest, a world of color and music. Pink, red and purple flowers are set against a glossy green backdrop, visually combining with a melody of whispering wings and chirping birds, dressed to the nines in tropical hues. We are all a little more enchanted every time we visit.

4. Local Parks

Gainesville is lucky to have fantastic state parks nearby, such as Paynes Prairie and Devil’s Millhopper. But our family loves the amazing, smaller-scale neighborhood parks, too. It would be close to impossible to choose just one—and from my boys’ perspective, it would seem almost disloyal to leave out any of the parks. So, let’s explore a couple:

Sweetwater Wetlands Park

Wild horses, alligators, birds and butterflies are all within viewing distance along a 3.5-mile walking trail that takes you through crushed-gravel paths and wooden plank boardwalks. I love hearing the crunch of gravel beneath the boys’ feet as they roam, hoping to see a glimpse of one of the free-roaming horses grazing in the knee-deep grasses. A rustle in the abundant greenery that lines the path puts them on alert for a peek at a long-legged bird. The park doesn’t have playground equipment, but if you are a young boy, you will see quite clearly that the wooden steps leading to the deck overlooking the water are much more than a viewing platform; they are (depending on the day) a pirate ship, a lighthouse, a frontier fort or a spaceship.

Kanapaha Playground and West Side Park Playground

These are both great everyday parks, with fun playground structures, room to run around and almost always the company of other children to keep things interesting. My boys are always thrilled to spend an afternoon at these two.

Possum Creek Park

This park has grown with my boys. While once we made good use of the slides and swings, now they enjoy the skate park. I enjoy the free time to squeeze in some exercise on the jogging trail that circles the perimeter.

Hal Brady Recreation Complex

The recreation complex has a lot of great things for kids, like fun and modern playground equipment and the all-important “Sprinkler Park,” which makes summertime at the park that much more appealing. It also has a climbing wall and skate park, which my boys are making the most of now that they are a little older.

Morningside Nature Center

This wonderful nature park has more than seven miles of trails winding through pine woodlands, sandhills and more. And, we stop by whenever we can for two events: Barnyards Buddies, held on Wednesdays from September–May, gives everyone the chance to feed farm animals alongside the helpful staff, and Living History Saturdays at the Farm offer live interpretive experiences to give visitors a glimpse back in time to 1870. Don’t miss exploring the cabin, kitchen, barn and one-room schoolhouse.

No matter which outdoor haven you choose in Gainesville, your family will have a fantastic time, and you can feel good about making sure that everyone’s had plenty of fresh air.

Enjoy the beautiful outdoors in Gainesville.

PICTURED: Butterfly Rainforest
Photo Courtesy of Visit Gainesville
PICTURED: Herb Garden at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
Photo Courtesy of Visit Gainesville
PICTURED: Turtles at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo
Photo Courtesy of Visit Gainesville