Discover Gainesville’s own “Big Sky” on a walk out into Paynes Prairie on the Cones Dike Trail, where you can hike or bike up to 8 miles through the largest prairie in North Florida.
Of all of the trails at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, Cones Dike is the one where you are most likely to see the herds of wild horses and bison that call the prairie home, while taking in a panorama from rim to rim.
Length: Up to 8 miles round trip
Trailhead: 29.5473, -82.2923
Fees / Permits: $4 per vehicle
Restroom: Near the trailhead
Land Manager: Florida State Parks
This trail will be closed when water levels in the prairie make it dangerous to hike.
Dogs ARE NOT PERMITTED as you will see many alligators along this dike, and a dog is too tempting for an alligator to snatch. We recommend against taking small children out into the prairie for the same reason.
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.
This trail is open to cyclists, but you may find the surface a bit too soft in some places, grassy in others for anything other than fat tires. You definitely want to avoid taking a spill off this 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. After you enter the park and pay your fee, drive straight back along Savannah Blvd to where it ends in a circle around a parking area. Park here for trail access.
From the large Great Florida Birding Trail kiosk at the edge of the parking lot, follow the sidewalk into the woods. When it comes to a picnic area with a restroom, walk into the picnic area and past the restroom to find a trail junction behind them.
To the right is the Jackson Gap Trail, a connector to the larger Chacala Trail. Turn left to follow the Cones Dike Trail. The trail broadens into a forest road as it approaches the prairie rim.
After 0.2 mile, you reach the gate. If the gate is locked and/or posted, the trail is closed. Since Paynes Prairie can fill up with water and become Alachua Lake, there are times that you simply can’t wander out there.
Note the “Open Range” sign. As the water rises, the horses and bison tend to stay close to this dike, so the rangers may close the trail if they are concerned about conflicts with wildlife.
When the prairie is marshy, but not dried out, wildlife watching is at its best. Walking out into the prairie, you can turn and look back towards the big observation tower along the Wacahoota Trail.
We’ve often seen the horses grazing in the open prairie between the tower and this dike.
Following this trail is easy. Just follow the dike. You can’t go anywhere else without landing in a marsh. Keep alert for alligators and snakes. More commonly, you may come across an alligator snapper or a softshell turtle on the dike.
Paralleling a marshy ditch, the dike makes a sharp right. After 0.8 miles, it makes a sharp left. Hiking this in the morning means enjoying a little bit of shade from the sweetgums and red maples.
A thicket of Virginia willow and sea myrtle crowds close to the dike on both sides as the trail, paralleling a fence, becomes hummocky underfoot.
After 1.7 miles, the fence line ends. Cones Dike continues into the center of the savanna, providing you a “Big Sky” view, a rarity in North Florida. Past a water management monitoring station, the dike curves past a pond.
Crossing a culvert, the trail parallels a wide slough. The dike curves to the right. You can see the slide marks of alligators down the sand banks.
Alligators abound anywhere water pools in this savanna. Don’t be surprised to count fifty or more along this hike.
Marsh grasses shimmer in a sweeping bowl between the dike and a peninsula poking out into the prairie. As the dike makes another turn, you reach a “Restricted Area” sign. This marks the end of the trail at 4 miles.
Turn around and retrace your route back to the south rim of the prairie, keeping alert for wildlife. While you can hike out and back any distance you care to along this trail, a full round-trip is 8 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
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
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.
Circling Levy Prairie at Barr Hammock Preserve provides a glimmer of understanding of the chain of prairies that William Bartram saw during his 1774 traverse of the region