Looking for a fun day trip from Jacksonville with the kids? How about a visit to a butterfly filled rainforest, wild bison sightings, bat houses, and that’s just the beginning. These are just a few of the things you can see and do during a Gainesville day trip. Located just under two hours from Jacksonville, Gainesville has so much more to offer than football. Pack up the car and the family, and head out on an adventure!
Visit the Florida Museum of Natural History
Gainesville is home to the Florida Museum of Natural History. This museum is bursting with artifacts and exhibits from Florida’s past. It covers millions of years of Florida history in an engaging and entertaining way. Truly a family favorite, we all learned so much here. The museum itself is free with a small fee for special exhibits or the Butterfly Rainforest. If you are not tuckered out from all the fun head next door to the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention. Along with museum exhibits there are also creativity labs.
Explore a Butterfly Rainforest
Located within the Florida Museum of Natural History the Butterfly Rainforest is an enclosed tropical rainforest habitat brimming with 1000s of exotic butterflies. As you stroll along the one way path through the tropical surroundings of waterfalls and lush landscape you and your children will be mesmerized by all the butterflies fluttering around. We enjoyed it so much we walked the loop twice. There is a small fee for the Butterfly Rainforest but kids with an A or E in science on their last report card can get in free with a paid adult ticket.
View Wildlife at La Chua Trail
While visiting Gainesville we hiked the La Chua Trail. Located at the north end of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, the La Chua Trail is an excellent trail to get up close to wildlife. But be warned, this trail winds through an open prairie meaning you could see wild horses, bison, cattle, alligators, birds, etc. The beginning of the trail is on a boardwalk above the water. Once the boardwalk ends the trail goes through the open prairie. On the day we hiked this trail there were hundreds of alligators sunning themselves on the banks of the water. It was an amazing, slightly daunting experience.
Observe the Bat Houses
An absolute must for a Gainesville day trip, is a visit to the famous bat houses. Around dusk every night an estimated 100,000 Brazilian free tailed bats emerge into the sky from the UF Bat Houses located on campus. The bats emerge on warm evenings 15-20 minutes after sunset. It’s a must see, one of a kind, experience for the whole family and it’s completely free. There are benches along the fence to wait and watch, just be mindful not to sit in the splash zone!
Scout Out a New State Park
We love our Florida State Parks, and there are quite a few state parks, nature preserves, and forests within Gainesville city limits. Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park is a wonderful place to explore a gigantic sinkhole. Descend 120 feet down the 132 stairs to the bottom of the sinkhole. This park has unique hours; make sure to confirm hours before heading out. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is a wonderfully unique place to visit. There are many trails and an observation tower to view the wild bison, horses and other animals that roam there. We were lucky to spot bison, horses and deer while viewing the prairie from the top of the observation tower at dusk. Lastly, Gold Head Branch State Park is just a short drive from Gainesville and a great place to camp with the family. Don’t forget, kids can earn a Junior Ranger Badge at Florida State Parks for no additional charge.
Bonus Activity: Book a Fossil Hunting Expedition with Mudslinger Tours
Mudslinger Tours offers full day and half day adventures. They’ll give you everything you need and take you into the springs and river beds where you hunt for fossils and shark teeth.
Kids will Love a Gainesville Day Trip
Whether you are a nature lover, a wildlife observer or a history buff you will absolutely enjoy the many activities throughout Gainesville. It’s not just a college football town, although of course they have that too! Make a visit to Gainesville a fun-filled day trip, or a weekend getaway.
Jillian Gishler is a New Englander at heart. Born in Jacksonville Beach, she grew up in Massachusetts but was beckoned back to Florida by Mickey Mouse for a Disney World Internship. She returned to the beach in 2005 after graduating from Florida State. Ten years ago she opened her handmade & vintage collective shop, Sew Vicious, in Neptune Beach. Jillian raises chickens, is a passionate gardener, a DIYer, a thrift store junkie, a deal loving mama, and has several inspirational travel journals available on Amazon. She leads her daughters Girl Scout Troop, teaches sewing at a local Montessori School, and is a Parents Who Lead Alumni. She loves surprising her husband and daughters with mini-vacations around the Sunshine State.