Florida’s state parks are often hidden gems. Such is the case with Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. We were planning a trip some years ago when I saw a swath of green on the map. I had never heard of Paynes Prairie, but it seemed worth a stop. We visited in January of that year and I was delighted to find a savanna filled with migratory birds, alligators, and bountiful wildlife. It was like a tiny, hidden Everglades. The park is 21,000 acres with various habitats, from swamps to forests.
In April of this year, I went to Gainesville for work. Once the meeting was over, I asked the person I had the meeting with if she wanted to go for a hike. We took our work hats off, put our friend hats on, and headed over to the park.
She drove us to Bolen Bluff, a trail in Paynes Prairie, just off 441, about 25 minutes south of Gainesville. We found a wee turtle and golden orb weaver within minutes. We also spotted a northern parula. The forest gave way to prairie. Ahead of us was a family of bison.
People expect exotic wild animals in Florida, like cobras and Mickey Rourke, not bison. They were once native to Florida and were reintroduced to the park in the 1970s as part of the park’s goal of preserving the land as a living museum. The population reached 70 in 2011, but unfortunately, they deemed this excessive and began culling instead of sterilizing or maintaining. There is now a small group of 8-10 bison.
I had to drive to Jacksonville the next day, but I got up early and hiked two additional trails on my own. I first stopped at the visitor center and went to the top of the observation tower. From there I spotted a few wild horses and unspoiled wilderness across the prairie basin.
Then I drove to the La Chua trail. To reach the trailhead you need to go through suburban Gainesville. It isn’t the easiest spot to find and the park provides written directions. The parking lot leads to old barns and out onto a trail that runs out to the Alachua Sink, draining into the prairie. The waterline and waterways are teeming with wildlife, especially birds and reptiles. There are kites, blackbirds, primordial-looking dragonflies, alligators, turtles, herons, egrets and more sliding and flying in and out of the reeds. Unlike in winter, the alligators are active in the spring, often walking across and blocking the trail. Even at 10am on a weekday, there were birders and hikers out. A word of caution, if you don’t recognize animals for what they are and show some common sense, I don’t recommend visiting. There’s no Plexiglas between you and the rightful, rather large, inhabitants of the savanna.
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
Hours: 8:00 a.m. until sunset, daily
This map provides an overview of the area.
Main Entrance Admission
$6.00 per vehicle, limit 2-8 people per vehicle
$4.00 Single Occupant Vehicle
$2.00 Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, passengers in vehicle with holder of Annual Individual Entrance Pass
LaChua Trail Admission
$4.00 per vehicle
Bolen Bluff Admission
$2.00 per vehicle, limit 8 people
Also worth checking out in the area:
The University of Florida is home to the world’s largest occupied bat houses. At dusk each night thousands of bats fill the sky.
North side of Museum Road between Village Drive and Radio Road across from Lake Alice.
This is basically a huge sinkhole accessed via stairs.
9:00 am – 5:00 pm Wed-Sun, closed Mon-Tues
4732 Millhopper Road
Gainesville, FL 32653
P.S. – Chopstix on Rt 441 has a decent vegetarian selection.