Bike & Hike / Central Florida

Paynes Prairie: Bison and wild horses? Yup, in Florida

Wild horses along La Chua Trail, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

Wild horses along La Chua Trail, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

Bisons and wild horses graze on the prairie.

Yes, we’re still in Florida. In fact, it’s pure, unadulterated Florida like the Spanish explorers found 500 years ago.

This bit of wildness is Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, a National Natural Landmark just outside Gainesville in north central Florida.

The prairie is a vast Everglades-like savannah that is a great place for hiking, biking, camping and particularly wildlife viewing.

Paynes Prairie is a big place (21,000 acres) with no roads across it, so you access it from either its southern or its northern end. Each has its own attractions.

The northern end of the park has the justifiably famous La Chua trail. For wildlife viewing, our friend FloridaHikes.com ranks La Chua up there with Florida’s best:  among “a handful of places that stand out as excellent locations for wildlife watching in Florida – Circle B Bar, the Anhinga Trail, Shark Valley, Green Cay Wetlands.” (Check out Florida Rambler’s stories on each of those spots.)

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville: The La Chua Trail.

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville: The La Chua Trail.

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville: Wild flowers along the La Chua Trail.

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville: Wild flowers along the La Chua Trail.

Happy alligator along La Chua Trail, Wild horse in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

Happy alligator along La Chua Trail.

Wildflowers in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

Wildflowers in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

Sandhill cranes at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

Sandhill cranes at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

Trail to the observation tower on the south end of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

Trail to the observation tower on the south end of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

Observation tower on the south end of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

Observation tower on the south end of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

Wild horse, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

Wild horse, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

What you can reliably expect to see on the La Chua trail are alligators; they’re plentiful, fat and happy. They’re piled in a heap in the marsh area at the start of the trail, near the Alachua Sink, a natural sinkhole that drains water collected on the marsh into the aquifer.  They’re also lurking in the weeds along the trail. (Watch your step.)

The trail starts with a boardwalk with good views over the sink, the wetland and its wading birds. Beyond the boardwalk, a grassy trail extends 1.5 miles into the prairie with a wildlife viewing platform at the end.  In summer, this is a beastly walk: No shade and temperatures pushing 100.

On our overcast November day, however, conditions were perfect and we were rewarded with something we find rarer than gators – wild horses.

The wild horses at Paynes Prairie are descendants of those brought to Florida by the Spanish. They grazed on flowers and grasses in and along the trail near the viewing platform at the end. We had hoped to see wild horses, perhaps in the distance; we didn’t expect to share a 10-foot-wide trail with them. (A previous hiker had said one horse was “nasty” so we edged carefully past them.)

We were less fortunate spotting wild bison. The only bison we saw was a head mounted in the visitor center.

Ten bison from Oklahoma were introduced here in 1975 because when the Spanish arrived, the bison’s range extended this far south. (Today there’s a herd of 50 to 70.)

The other big wildlife attraction has been, in some years, flocks of migratory sandhill cranes. Some sandhill cranes live in Florida year around, but this region has attracted huge populations some winters.  (In 2008, there were 5,000 migrating sandhill cranes massed here. That year, a dozen whooping cranes, among the most endangered birds in North America, joined the flock. )

We were early for the migrating cranes, but if you make a winter visit, you might get lucky.

The southern end of Paynes Prairie Preserve was actually a more likely place for us to spot bison,  a ranger told us.  As we entered the southern entrance, we spotted flocks of turkeys and a buck with a full rack of antlers, but never caught sight of a bison.

At this southern end of Paynes Prairie, there are a half dozen trails to explore and an impressive visitor center with a 50-foot-high observation tower overlooking the prairie.

You reach the observation tower after a short walk through a forest thick with drapes of Spanish moss. Two tips: The tower sways ever so slightly in the wind and morning lighting is best for looking over the prairie.

You also can walk out into the heart of the prairie on the Cones Dike Trail (eight miles round trip.)

Rangers highly recommend the Bolen Bluff Trail, a 2.5 mile roundtrip through a shady loop with a spur that leads to a wildlife viewing platform. Our kindred soul Florida Adventurer got his up-close experience with wild horses on this trail.

There’s one additional notable trail in the region: a scenic, paved 16-mile bike trail, Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, which cuts across the top of the park. To access this trail, you need to approach from the north and check the map for trailheads.

We parked our car at the bike path trailhead on SR 234 and then were able to bicycle several miles to the start of the La Chua Trail and back to our car. Here’s more information on the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail from Florida Rambler.

Planning your visit to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

  • It would be easy to spend a full day or more hiking and biking in Paynes Prairie.
  • If you stay in nearby Micanopy, you can also visit one of Florida’s oldest and most picturesque towns, Micanopy. Here’s a Florida Rambler article on Micanopy and a historic bed and breakfast there.
  • A must-do: Visit Cross Creek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home, now a state park. Here’s a Florida Rambler report on the spot. (We loved it.) It’s only a few miles from Paynes Prairie.
  • When visiting Cross Creek, stop for lunch or dinner at  The Yearling restaurant, a Cracker cabin with live blues at night and a menu of local cuisine.
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5 Comments

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  2. Karen Gensert says:

    I am from Ohio. I visited this area of the park last week. It was a very nice SHORT!!! walk. I just wish that it would have been posted!!!!!! either on here or at the entrance. that the board walk was CLOSED. And the trail to the prairie and the watch tower was closed… Kinda a waste of my day planned for a wonderful hike in nature. We talked to a Ranger and it sounded like they have been closed and the prairie walk will not be open for some time. PLEASE!!!!! update info online so others are not also disappointed. When on vacation, with NOT much time, I was disappointed It was not posted OUT OF ORDER> Still a very nice short walk…

    • I so understand your disappointment. It’s certainly happened to me before. I see on the state park’s website there is a message: “Partial closure of LaChua Trail. Due to high water level there is partial closure of the grassy portion of the LaChua Trail, including the Observation Tower. You may also experience closure of the Boardwalk due to repairs. Call the Ranger Station for updates 352-466-3397.”

      I will add a note to our article, and it’s a good reminder to always check for current conditions before heading to a natural setting. High water is definitely a problem with many trails outside the dry winter season in Florida, and the state and national parks do close trails and entire areas for various reasons, not always with a lot of notice.

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