With its mix of pine flatwoods, bayhead swamps, hardwood forest, scrub habitat, and the marshy edge of Chacala Lake, the 6.2-mile Chacala Trail offers more diversity than any of the other trails at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.
It also offers the park’s only primitive campsite. Less than 2 miles in along the loop, it’s an ideal destination for beginning backpackers and families with children, since it has a bathroom and a pitcher pump.
Length: Up to a 6.2-mile loop
Trailhead: 29.5267, -82.2874
Fees / Permits: $6 per vehicle
Restroom: At the campsite
Land Manager: Florida State Parks
Open 8 AM until sunset daily. Leashed pets welcome. Well-behaved dogs are also welcome at the campsite.
If you plan to stay overnight, you need to reserve your space at least two days in advance. Call the park directly to do so.
This trail is also open to equestrians and cyclists, who will want fat tires for this off-road ride.
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. After you enter the park and pay your fee, drive straight back along Savannah Blvd. Look for the trailhead on your right, across from the road that leads to the campground. Since this trail is open for trail riding, you’ll see several hitching posts in the parking lot.
The trailhead kiosk provides a nice overview map that you can snap a photo of before taking this hike. Prior to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park being formed in the 1970s, this land was ranched. Much of the forest you see has grown up since then.
From the kiosk, head straight ahead. You quickly reach the T intersection. Turn right.
The trail winds between oak hammock and scrubby flatwoods. Despite being a multi-use trail, the footpath is in pretty good shape. There are occasional benches.
When you reach the T intersection with Pine Road, turn left, past the bench. It’s a rough sandy jeep road, tough going in places. As you enter the shade of an oak hammock, keep alert for the trail junction on the right at 1 mile. Turn right as indicated by the “Chacala Pond” sign.
Although it lies between scrubby flatwoods and bayhead, the footpath is firm, carpeted by pine needles. A dense understory of saw palmetto yields to a sparser understory of wax myrtle under the pines.
You reach a bench at a trail junction at 1.5 miles, with a “Chacala Pond” sign pointing right, and a “Jackson Gap” sign straight ahead. Turn right.
As it winds through the pine flatwoods, the trail curves to the left. The tree canopy lifts, becoming a mixed forest of oaks and sweetgum, progressing into a shady oak hammock. At 2.1 miles, you see the “Group Camp Area” sign. A short side trail leads to the campsite.
Passing an old fence line, you continue into a mixed hardwood hammock of hickory, elm, sweetgum, and ironwood. Saw palmettos crowd close to the trail as it meanders back into scrubby flatwoods.
You pass between sections of fence discouraging you from turning off onto an old overgrown road. Deer moss thrives beneath the rusty lyonia and wax myrtle.
Turning left into a hardwood hammock, the trail curves to the left. After you cross a jeep trail in the middle of the clearing, follow the blazes back into the woods.
To the right, through breaks in trees, you can see an open grassy area— adjoining ranchland along the prairie. As the trail curves left away from the open area, it enters a hammock filled with grand old live oaks of extreme girth, their spreading limbs covered in resurrection fern.
After 3.7 miles, you reach a bench. A “Chacala Pond” sign points to the right. Head down the trail corridor, a spur off the loop. Passing through a floodplain forest on a causeway, this side trail ends at a picnic bench on Chacala Pond.
Marsh grasses and aquatic plants ring the edge of the lake, providing good hiding places for alligators. Although the view is limited, it’s a beauty spot, worth the extra 0.7-mile round-trip hike down this trail.
Return back up the spur to the trail junction and turn right. The trail twists and turns through the oak hammock, which yields to a mixed loblolly and oak forest.
Pass a split rail fence blocking an old trail. Continue straight. At the next T intersection, you see a “Pine Road” sign pointing right, and a bench on the left. This is where the Jacksons Gap Trail comes in. Turn right.
At 5.3 miles, you come to a T intersection in this majestic cathedral of pines. To the right, Jackson’s Gap Trail leads to the visitor center and Cones Dike. To head back to the trailhead where your park is car, turn left.
Walking through a pine forest up to Pine Road, cross it. The trail drops into the shade of an oak hammock before winding out into scrubby flatwoods.
Once it is back in the the shade of the oak hammock, the trail completes the outer loop. Turn right and return to the trailhead kiosk after 6.2 miles.
Exploring Paynes Prairie
More trails in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
Walk along a bluff where early explorers and native peoples once looked out over vastness of Paynes Prairie to discover a panorama that invites you to immerse in it
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.
A worthwhile wander on water management lands, this loop hike at Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve hits the highlights of this colorful 2,850-acre preserve.