On foot or by wheel, District conservation lands offer possibilities for recreation

March 2, 2023

Girl leaning on railing

A bridge is being widened and extended at the District’s Newnans Lake Conservation Area (Alachua County) to improve access for visitors who use mobility aids.

Elizabeth Byrd is an avid hiker. She spends her free time exploring her favorite trails across Florida’s many public lands, including those owned by the St. Johns River Water Management District.

Recently, while hiking the Hatchett Creek Tract at Newnans Lake Conservation Area just outside Gainesville, she was pleasantly surprised to see that the bridge allowing hikers to cross the meandering streams and swamps of Hatchett Creek was under construction. District staff were widening the bridge that will accommodate wheelchairs, large strollers, and other mobility aids like the wheeled walker Byrd uses as she hikes.

Getting into nature is good for the soul, but for people who use wheelchairs or other mobility aids, there can be unique barriers to enjoying the outdoors.

The District is committed to improving access to our conservation areas for public enjoyment. Trails and maintenance roads provide bikers and hikers (including those using strollers and wheelchairs) the opportunity for outdoor recreation. To balance public use with protecting these sensitive conservation areas, motorized vehicle access is prohibited in almost all District lands. However, a few of our properties allow vehicular access to portions of the area, including two that feature interpretive wildlife drives: Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive and Emeralda Marsh.

Often, visitors will find that our lands have accommodations that support access such as fishing piers, boardwalks, observation platforms, picnic / inclement weather shelters and restrooms.  Many of these structures meet the needs of a range of users. For example, there are sections of railing on some of our fishing piers placed at an appropriate height for someone using a wheelchair. Barricades to prevent cars from accessing certain areas are spaced to accommodate mobility aids and where possible trails, bridges and boardwalks are built (or improved) to allow greater access.

While the bridges and boardwalks improve access, visitors should consider that the trails themselves are still in an unpaved, natural state and minimally developed. During certain times of the year, they may be muddy, or flooded and impassable, while other trails are sandy, depending on the type of environment they cross.

We encourage everyone to visit our conservation areas and enjoy what they have to offer. As always, plan before you head out. District land is considered “back country” and has no staff onsite. Each visitor is responsible for determining their personal ability to access District trails safely. Please pack out what you bring in. You can find more information on specific properties and accessibility on our website (Using District lands – SJRWMD).

Opening in the fence to Newnans Lake Conservation Are

The gateway entrance to the Newnans Lake Conservation Area is wide enough to allow access for mobility aids.

wild scenic trail

Newnans Lake Conservation Area has wild scenic views like this along its trails, with many areas considered “back country.”

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