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 Preserve State Park is 21,000 acres with no roads across it, accessible only from its southern or northern end. Each has its own attractions.
North end of Paynes Prairie Preserve
On the north end of the park is the deservedly famous La Chua Trail.
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 La Chua 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 rarer than gators – wild horses.
Be aware, however, that the prairie may be wet and if you are coming from a distance, it makes sense to call ahead to the park ( 352-545-6000.)
Wild horses and bison of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
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 the bison’s range once extended this far south. Today, there’s a herd of 50 to 70 and the males, who were getting aggressive with the park’s neighbors, have been removed.
South end of Paynes Prairie Preserve
The southern end of Paynes Prairie Preserve, a ranger told us, was actually a more likely place for us to spot bison. 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 thickly draped with Spanish moss. The vista is lovely but you may or may not see wildlife. Using a zoom lens on a November 2021 visit, we were able to confirm that two small dark figures in the distance were, indeed, horses. They were standing in water up to their bellies.
On the tower other visitors report having seen bison up close from that location on previous visits.
The tower is also located at the start of a walk into the the heart of the prairie on the Cones Dike Trail, an 8-mile round trip. Previous visitors have reported this as a place for seeing bison.
Also take note: The tower sways ever so slightly in the wind.
Also on the southern end of the park, rangers recommend the Bolen Bluff Trail, a 2.5 mile round trip through a shady loop with a spur that leads to a wildlife viewing platform. It’s also a frequent bison-viewing area, we were told
On our November visit, we walked the Bolen Bluff Trail, which is worth taking for the beauty of its live oak forest. We saw evidence of bison — bison patties, I guess you’d call them — but no bison.
Great bike trail adjoins Paynes Prairie Preserve
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 State Road 234 and 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.
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park camping
Payne Prairie Preserve State Park camping gets rave reviews. (One occasional negative: It’s popular with students from nearby University of Florida — possibly noisy campground neighbors.)
The heavily shaded campground is near Lake Wauburg and it accommodates tents, trailers or RVs (back in). There’s a short walk from the parking area to the tent sites. Each site has a limerock surface, lantern post, fire ring with grill and picnic table, with nearby water and electric service.
Most RV sites have 30 amp electric service; a few have 50 amp service. ADA accessible restroom facilities with hot showers are available in the campground. A centralized dump station is available for RVs. Several nearby trails wind through pine flatwoods, hardwood forest or hammock, baygall, open ponds and old fields.
Planning your visit to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
- Website for Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.
- Friends of Paynes Prairie Preserve, whose page lists lots of resources
- Address: 100 Savannah Blvd, Micanopy, FL 32667.
- Phone: 352-545-6000
- Day-Use Admission: $6 per car
- It would be easy to spend a full day or more hiking and biking.
- If you stay in nearby Micanopy, you’ll find one of Florida’s oldest and most picturesque towns. 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.
Sunrise hike at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
In the first Sunday of each month November 2023 through April 2024, a park ranger will lead a hike at sunrise on La Chua Trail. Hikers will learn about the natural and cultural history of the northern end of Paynes Prairie. $10 per person. Hikes will be cancelled if substantial rain is forecasted. Pets are not allowed on La Chua Trail. Service Animals are welcome but not recommended. limited spaces available. RSVP is required.Register today at www.prairiefriends.org.
Birding at Paynes Prairie
The Florida Birding Trail calls Paynes Prairie “one of Florida’s premier birding and wildlife viewing sites.” It reports: “Large numbers of migratory Sandhill Cranes winter here, from November to March; Florida Sandhill Cranes are present all year, and in winter, Whooping Cranes may be present. Among the 270 species of birds on the park checklist are Limpkin, Purple Gallinule, King Rail and rarities such as Yellow Rail, Tundra Swan, White-faced Ibis, Golden Eagle, Groove-billed Ani, Vermilion Flycatcher, and Harris’s Sparrow.”
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.