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

Last updated on June 15th, 2021 at 05:17 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.

On the north end of the park is the deservedly famous La Chua Trail. 

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)
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)

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.

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

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.

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)

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. Two tips: 1) The tower sways ever so slightly in the wind, and 2) morning lighting is best for looking over the prairie.

You also can walk out into the heart of the prairie on the Cones Dike Traill, an 8-mile round trip.

Rangers highly 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 another possible bison-viewing area.

The other big wildlife attraction at Paynes Prairie 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 in winter. We were early for the migrating cranes, but if you make a winter visit, you might get lucky.

Great bike trail adjoins Paynes Prairie Preserve

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)

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.

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

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. 


Florida State Parks

Camping and Cabin Reservations


Florida State Parks are adding a $7 daily utility fee for campsites and cabins with electric and water as they transition to a new reservations system. There is now a two-night minimum for cabins. New accounts may be required: If you had a pending reservation as of May 24, your account should have been carried over to the new system. However, if you had no pending reservations, you will have to create a new account.
To reserve a campsite: Go to reserve.floridastateparks.org or call 1-800-326-3521, Monday-Friday, from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. up to 11 months in advance. (TDD 888-433-0287) Maximum stay is 14 nights. Editor’s Note: Readers report security issues blocking access to the new web site. Try again with another web browser, or call the number above.
Camping and Cabin Fees: Base rates vary from park to park. Additional fees include $7 per day for utilities with power and water, a $6.70 booking fee per reservation, state and local taxes. Cancellation fee: $17.50. Change fee: $10.
Pets: OK in campgrounds but not cabins, playgrounds or beaches.


Planning your visit to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

From the Editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but can change without notice. Please confirm rates and 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. and International Copyright Laws. All rights are reserved. Re-publication of this article without written permission is illegal.

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