At the Bolens Bluff Trail in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, it’s an easy walk through a shady forest to a bluff with a north-facing panorama of the prairie.
When conditions are right, you can walk up to a mile along a dike in the middle of the prairie to be surrounded by Gainesville’s own “big sky.”
Length: 2.7 mile loop and spur
Trailhead: 29.5569, -82.3297
Fees / Permits: $2 per vehicle
Land Manager: Florida State Parks
Open 8 AM until dusk. The gate may be closed earlier for safety reasons.
Dogs ARE NOT PERMITTED because of the risk of alligators being tempted to come after them (and by extension, you). We recommend against taking small children out into the prairie for the same reason, although the 1.9-mile loop atop the bluff is fine for all ages.
The prairie portion of the trail will be closed when flooded. Otherwise, if you descend into the prairie, carry a hiking stick and be fully aware of your surroundings.
Bison and wild horses roam freely, as do the alligators. Keep at least 20 feet between you and any alligators. The horses and bison are wild and can hurt you if you get too close.
Bikes are allowed on this trail, but you’ll find it tough going out on the dike.
From Interstate 75, take the Micanopy exit and drive east to US 441. Turn left and watch for the park entrance on your right within a mile. Pass that entrance and continue 3.4 miles north along US 441 to a trailhead parking lot on the right, just before the highway descends into the prairie.
The loop starts at the split rail fence. Turn right. While a Creek village occupied part of the south rim of Paynes Prairie more than two centuries ago, a pioneer family eventually settled on this high ridge.
The trees closest to the trailhead are relatively young. But as you walk along the footpath, you enter a forest of live oaks that are a century or more old, their limbs covered in resurrection fern.
The trail curves to the left, passing through a clearing of bright white sand before re-entering the oak hammock. When the oak hammock opens up again, you’ve reached the edge of the bluff after 0.7 mile.
The trail heads down the bluff to the edge of Paynes Prairie to what was once a steamboat landing. For many years, the prairie was known as Alachua Lake, and the boat ferried oranges and passengers from here to a landing on the north shore.
In recent years, Paynes Prairie has taken on its old persona, so if the trail slips under the waters of Alachua Lake, this is your turnaround point.
But if the prairie has dried out and the dike is visible again, you can walk out along it for a half mile into the wide open spaces of Paynes Prairie.
Mist rises from distant water holes. Scattered groups of Virginia willow provide sporadic shade. Tune in to the rustling and scurrying of many creatures, especially the alligators.
Although the dike continues out through a gate further into the savanna, your turn-around point is a half-mile out. From here, you can see cars on US 441 and the taller buildings of the University of Florida in the distance.
Returning to the top of the bluff after 2 miles, turn right. Although the footpath is closer to the edge of Bolens Bluff, it doesn’t offer views to match.
In the shade of the hardwood hammock, trumpet vines carpet the ground and cascade over tree limbs, dripping with large orange trumpet-shaped blooms during the spring and summer.
When you come to the split rail fence, you’ve completed the 2.7-mile loop. The parking lot is just ahead.
Exploring Paynes Prairie
More trails in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
For the longest loop hike in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, tackle the Chacala Trail for a 6.2-mile circuit that brings you to a view of Chacala Pond
To fully immerse in the vastness of Paynes Prairie, follow the Cones Dike Trail, the longest of the footpaths that leads out into the prairie
Providing the easiest-to-reach panorama of Paynes Prairie, the Ecopassage Observation Boardwalk encourages you to stop and take it all in
One of North Florida’s oldest bike paths, the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail provides a mostly shaded rural ride
There are a handful of places that stand out as excellent locations for wildlife watching in Florida, but the best place to see alligators is in the home of the Gators, Gainesville
Along the Lake Trail at Paynes Prairie Preserve, Lake Wauberg and the wildlife that lives in it is the star attraction
Under the dense canopy of a hardwood forest, the Prairie Creek Boardwalk provides a unique perspective on the creek that links Paynes Prairie and Newnans Lake.
Other trails worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Peek through thick curtains of Spanish moss beneath grandfather live oaks along the shores of an ancient lake
On the high ground above Lake Tuscawilla, an ancient village once stood. The Micanopy Native American Heritage Preserve is dedicated to its memory and preservation.