At Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, bison and wild horse roam free amid one of the state’s largest and northernmost grasslands, a shallow basin cradled in a park 21,000 acres in size.
Location: Micanopy and Gainesville
Fees: $4-6 per vehicle
Open: 8 AM until sunset daily
Leashed pets welcome
In 1765, botanist William Bartram described a visit to the village of Cuscowilla, on the edge of a vast prairie, where he met with the great chief Cowkeeper. Bartram’s written record of “the great Alachua Savannah” in his “Travels” helps define what Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is today.
Because it’s so large, the park has numerous entrances and trailheads, some of which are free to visitors. At the top of the popularity list are the wayside boardwalk in the middle of the prairie along US 441. Bolens Bluff, a loop trail above the south rim, was free for years but now has a fee.
The park’s main entrance, just north of Micanopy, provides a scenic drive through jungle-like floodplain forests back to the visitor center and museum. It’s also the access point for the campground, lake, equestrian trails, and trails on the dikes out to the prairie. Be sure to walk the short Wacahoota Trail for a birds-eye view of the prairie from atop a tall observation tower.
For sheer drama, visit the La Chua Trail near Bouleware Springs. It’s a boardwalk snaking past the sinkhole that swallows up the prairie’s creeks – when it clogs, the prairie turns into a massive shallow lake – past basins so thick with alligators they look like cereal in a bowl of milk. Now you know why this is Gator Country.
This, too, is why pets are banned on most of the trails. The prairie is well-known to herpetologists for its diversity of reptile and amphibian species, many of which don’t play nice with dogs. Keep alert for snakes and alligators as you explore the trails, as they are both in abundance here.
Explore the park
- Along Lake Wauberg - A wander along Lake Wauberg to the symphony of Archie Carr's favorite frogs brought memories flooding back of gentler times.
- La Chua Trail - Located at the north end of Paynes Prairie, the La Chua Trail is an excellent wildlife watching site, with an elevated boardwalk and lengthy dike out to an observation tower.