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Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, located just South of Gainesville, Florida, is a hidden gem that became the state’s first preserve in 1971 and spans over 21,000 acres. Living in Florida my whole life, I only recently discovered bison reside here. With the majestic bison, nearly 300 species of birds, deer, alligators, and several other critters are found in the park, making Paynes Prairie a nature-lovers paradise!
Historical Bison and Spanish Horses
One of the most captivating and unique aspects of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is the presence of bison. Bison, an iconic symbol of the West, are rarely found outside that region today but historically extended into Florida.
In 1975, bison from Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma were reintroduced to Paynes Prairie to hone in on the historical significance of the massive creatures that once roamed the Gainesville area. Today, a herd of roughly 50 bison call Paynes Prairie home.
In the 16th century, Spanish horses were brought from Spain to Florida and were primarily used for herding cattle. The land that is Paynes Prairie today was once a Spanish cattle ranch, Hacienda de La Chua. Similar to the reintroduction of the bison, Spanish horses were reintroduced in 1985 through a genetically similar herd donated to the park by the Friends of Paynes Prairie. A herd of 50 to 60 wild horses can be found grazing in Paynes Prarie today.
The prairie basin is no stranger to water. The prairie contains several sinkholes, with the largest being the Alachua Sink. It acts as a conduit for water entering the aquifer at up to 6 million gallons per day. In the 1800s, steamboats were able to navigate the area for cargo transport until Alachua Lake suddenly drained. The Florida Southern Railway was then built in 1882 and provided cargo transport, allowing Gainesville to grow. The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail runs along this historic rail line. Weather continually reshapes the basin and it’s not uncommon for the bison and horses to be wading in deep water.
This one-of-a-kind state park also attracts a wide array of bird species throughout the year. Species such as the Yellow Rail, Golden Eagle, Groove-billed Ani, Bald Eagles, and several migratory birds can all be found here, making it a bird watcher’s paradise. The diverse habitats, including wetlands, lakes, and forests, provide a rich and varied environment for the hundreds of bird species.
No visit to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is complete without encountering the iconic American alligator. These ancient creatures can be found sunbathing along the park’s waterways and lurking beneath the water’s surface. Visitors can safely observe these apex predators and witness their impressive size. If visiting on a sunny day, visitors can witness hundreds of gators sunbathing along the water.
Outdoor Adventures: Trails, Camping, and More
Beyond its diverse wildlife, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park offers a wealth of outdoor activities for visitors to explore. The park features a network of trails suitable for hiking, biking, and horseback riding, allowing nature enthusiasts to take in the park’s stunning landscapes in so many different ways. Popular hiking trails include:
La Chua Trail (2.9 Miles) – Walk along a beautiful boardwalk that gives a view out towards the prairie. Visitors are nearly guaranteed to spot gators along this walk. Excess rain has cut this trail short past the boardwalk, making it about 1 mile, but the shortened hike will not disappoint. Dogs are not allowed on this trail.
Bolen Bluff Trail (3.0 Miles) – This trail is accessed via a $2 parking lot off 441. This trail brings visitors through the woods and into the prairie where there is a viewing platform. This trail is where I spotted both the herd of bison and horses! Dogs are not allowed on this trail.
Wacahoota Trail (0.8 Miles) – A partially paved trail leading to the large observation tower. Dogs are allowed.
Cone’s Dike (5.1 Miles) – A mostly shaded route that is great for both walking and biking. Dogs are not allowed on this trail.
Chacala Trail (6.5 Miles) – A series of tail loops that wind through shady forests and seasonally wet pinelands. Parking for this trail is found at the intersection of Puggy Road and Savannah Boulevard. Dogs are allowed on this trail.
Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail (16.0 Miles) – A 16-mile trail open 8:00 AM – Sundown with free access. Dogs are allowed on this trail. Access begins at Boulware Springs (3500 SE 15th Street). Dogs are allowed on this trail.
Camping is available for those seeking an overnight stay, offering a chance to experience the park’s charm under the starlit sky. The Loop PPCG campground allows tents, trailers, and RVs for $18 per night. Pets are also allowed. More information on camping can be found here.
Canoeing and kayaking are available on Lake Wauburg, which covers nearly 370 acres. Access to the lake is available from the public boat ramp on the east side of Lake Wauburg. Paynes Prairie does not provide any equipment rentals so you must bring your own canoe or kayak. No boats with motors are allowed.
Need To Know
Entrance to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is:
$6 per vehicle (2-8 people)
$4 for single-occupant vehicles
$2 for pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, or passengers with the Annual Individual Entrance Pass
The main address is: 100 Savannah Blvd Micanopy, Florida 32667
The park is open from 8:00 AM – Sunset year round. Ranger Station hours are Sunday – Thursday 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM and 8:00 AM to Sundown on Fridays – Saturdays and holidays. The La Chua Trail and Bolens Bluff may close before sunset depending on alligator activity.
For the best chance at spotting the bison and horses on your visit, call the office at
(352) 466-3397 and ask the rangers where the last sighting was. The office receives daily reports on the location of the animals, if spotted, and can guide you to the best trail to take to spot them.
The perfect first stop when exploring Paynes Prairie is the Visitor’s Center where there are interactive exhibits about the park and its history along with a 50-foot observation tower with panoramic views. Knowledgeable rangers are also here and can answer any questions you have and make recommendations on the best hike for the time of the year.
As always, keep your distance from all animals in the park. Visitors must stay 100 feet away from the bison and horses and 20 feet away from alligators.
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