Secret Jacksonville: Bulls Bay Preserve and Waterfall
A little known nature preserve on Jacksonville’s Westside is home to a hidden natural treasure: one of Florida’s rare waterfalls. It’s also the source of two significant creeks and has a human history going all the way back to Isaiah D. Hart, the founder of Jacksonville. Photographer Erik Hamilton and The Jaxson’s Bill Delaney take a look at one of Northeast Florida's best, longest kept secrets.
Creation of Bulls Bay Preserve
Map of properties assembled by Jacksonville’s Preservation Project from 1999-2003.
In 1997, the landowner, N.G. Wade Investment Company, proposed to develop a 250-acre industrial park on the eastern side of the swamp. The plan called for filling in 151 wetland acres, so the St. Johns River Water Management District required the company to give up a large tract of property for mitigation.
Conservation was a main priority for the mayor of Jacksonville at the time, my father John Delaney. His administration’s Preservation Project, which acquired over 51,000 acres of preserve and park land from 1999-2003, jumped at the chance to add Bulls Bay to the collection. They worked out a unique deal with the SJRWMD and N.G. Wade, in which Wade could build their development in exchange for transferring the remaining 1,237 acres to the city for a new park, protected by conservation easements. The city took over in December 1999. None of the news reports from the time mention the waterfall; in fact my father didn’t remember it was there.
The Jacksonville-Baldwin Rail Trail eastern terminus at the Bulls Bay Preserve.
According to Mark Middlebrook, head of the Preservation Project at the time, the deal was part of a much broader plan to assemble Westside tracts. The city was developing an abandoned 14-mile railroad track into the Jacksonville-Baldwin Rail Trail, and was especially interested in properties adjacent to it. Bulls Bay was perfect, as the trail’s terminus was the swamp’s eastern edge. The same plan led to the establishment of Camp Milton Historic Preserve, a Civil War site on the rail trail west of Bulls Bay.
Middlebrook says the idea was to develop 5 miles of hiking and offroad bike trails in Bulls Bay, creating an amenity connected to the rail trail. “We knew exactly where we wanted to go with it, what kind of trail systems we wanted to develop, how it could be used,” he said. However, due to the conservation easements, SJRWMD would not agree to the city working on the property. The plans stalled, and following Middlebrook’s departure in 2003, were backburnered indefinitely. “It was a fascinating project to work on,” said Middlebrook. “It’s frustrating that it kind of lost its momentum.”
New century, new trails
Bulls Bay Preserve trail map. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services.
After sitting mostly inaccessible for nearly two decades, Bulls Bay Preserve finally got renewed attention in 2019. The impetus was the city’s plan to develop TIAA Bank Field’s Lot J; an old agreement between the city and state had tied development in the stadium lots to establishing public access at Bulls Bay. As such, the city dusted off the old plans from the Preservation Project era.
Trail at Bulls Bay Preserve
The SJRWMD was more willing to allow trails this time around, although only in certain areas. “[The wetland system] is protected by a conservation easement so park development is limited to a few disconnected upland areas,” said Daryl Joseph, Jacksonville’s Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Services. First was a one-mile trail loop off Imeson Road in the northeast of the park. Through 2019, the city quietly created a group of smaller trails for hikers and mountain bikers and an entrance off Old Plank Road. So far, Bulls Bay hasn’t attracted much attention, and according to Joseph, there are no further plans to develop new park facilities due to the restrictions on the property.
All the trails offer a pleasant walk through the woods, but one in particular, the Waterfall Loop, features something you can’t see in most of our low, flat state: a waterfall. At about 4 feet it’s a relatively small waterfall, but it’s remarkable all the same for its rarity. Located just eight miles from Downtown Jacksonville and less than a mile from I-10 and I-295, it’s one of the most accessible waterfalls in Florida.
The small falls above the main waterfall.
The waterfall sits on a tributary to the Cedar River, which rises in a rural neighborhood west of the preserve. Neither the waterfall nor its creek have names of their own. Upstream from the main waterfall is a smaller rapid or fall where water descends over rocks.
The trails take hikers over the top of the main waterfall, offering a view of the lower creek as well as the smaller falls upstream.
Below the main fall is a small pool. Unfortunately, the detritus of the surrounding Westside neighborhoods often makes its way into the creek and collects in the pool. From the pool the creek continues on its way to the Cedar River, and ultimately out to the Ortega and St. Johns Rivers.
Bulls Bay Preserve is worth a visit by anyone interested in seeing what a Florida waterfall looks like (again, it’s pretty short, but cool), or who just wants an eminently accessible walk through the woods. So far the preserve is a fairly well kept secret, but that’s bound to change as visitors start to realize what a gem they’ve found. After 200 years, maybe it’s time.
Next page: More images from Bulls Bay Preserve