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

Last updated on November 17th, 2021 at 01:00 pm

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.

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. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville: The La Chua Trail is also popular with alligators. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville: The La Chua Trail is also popular with alligators. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.)

Wild horse, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.
Wild horse, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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 water up to their bellies in water.

One 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 Traill, an 8-mile round trip.

Also take note: The tower sways ever so slightly in the wind.

Happy alligator along La Chua Trail, Wild horse in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.
Happy alligator along La Chua Trail at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. (Photo: David Blasco)

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 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.

Trail to the observation tower on the south end of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.
The lovely trail goes to the observation tower on the south end of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Wildflowers in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.
Wildflowers in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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. 


Map of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park southern area.

Planning your visit to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

A note from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but can change without notice. Please confirm details when planning your trip by following the links in this article.

This article is the property of FloridaRambler.com and is protected by U.S. Copyright Law. Re-publication without written permission is against the law.


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Shirley Reilly

Sunday 25th of October 2020

Not much help for the handicapped who can't walk far or who walk with walkers or chairs. This is true of almost all Florida parks. There are a few where you can drive through.

Martha Rogers

Monday 18th of May 2020

Thanks for the wonderful information.

Marilyn

Sunday 23rd of February 2020

Loved the information.

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