Bisons and wild horses graze on the prairie.
Yes, weâ€™re still in Florida. In fact, itâ€™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.
What you can reliably expect to see on the La Chua trail are alligators; theyâ€™re plentiful, fat and happy. Theyâ€™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. Â Theyâ€™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. Â 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 â€“ 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 didnâ€™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 bisonâ€™s range extended this far south. (Today thereâ€™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.Â (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,Â a ranger told us. Â 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.
Thereâ€™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 Floridaâ€™s oldest and most picturesque towns, Micanopy. Hereâ€™s a Florida Rambler article on Micanopy and a historic bed and breakfast there.
- A must-do:Â Visit Cross Creek,Â Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home, now a state park.Â Hereâ€™s a Florida Rambler report on the spot.Â (We loved it.) Itâ€™s only a few miles from Paynes Prairie.
- When visiting Cross Creek, stop for lunch or dinner at Â The Yearling restaurant, a Cracker cabin with live blues at night and a menu of local cuisine.