With a sweeping panorama of the prairie all around as you drive US 441 across Paynes Prairie, one spot lets you get out and see it up close: the Ecopassage Observation Boardwalk.
Length: 0.1 mile round-trip
Trailhead: 29.5741, -82.3350
Fees / Permits: Free
Land Manager: Florida State Parks
Open dawn to dusk daily. No pets, please.
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 3.5 miles north along US 441, passing the Bolens Bluff trailhead. Stay in the right lane and slow down as the highway descends into the prairie so you can use the designated pulloff to park at the beginning of the boardwalk.
Although this is the shortest hike in the park – a little over 500 feet each way to the observation deck at the end of the boardwalk – the Ecopassage Observation Boardwalk sees more visitors than anywhere else in the park.
Before the Ecopassage was built beneath US 441, motorists used to stop all along the causeway across the prairie. That wasn’t the best thing to do for a very important reason: the high number of reptiles that crossed the road.
While Archie Carr is best known for his work with sea turtles, he was a professor of zoology at the University of Florida, and herpetology was a pet subject of his.
While studying the snakes of Paynes Prairie, he discovered 765 of them killed along this stretch of US 441. On one visit. This was before Interstate 75 existed.
We watched the Ecopassage built in 2000. It elevated the highway atop big concrete conduits so the snakes – and alligators, and every other creature living in the prairie – could pass under the highway instead of trying to cross it.
A walk out along this boardwalk lets you look back at the highway and see the Ecopassage, although the willows and other shrubs do a good job of concealing it.
More importantly, it provides a panorama of the eastern side of the prairie. To the north, Gainesville is atop the bluff. To the east, Bolens Bluff is in the distance.
And straight out ahead, the sweep of the prairie goes on as far as the eye can see.
No matter whether the prairie is covered in water or relatively marshy, this is a great stop for wildlife watching. Look down, and you’ll likely see an alligator.
Spring, summer, and fall bring stunning arrays of wildflower blooms across this landscape when it’s marshy.
Expect purple pickerelweed in late spring, American lotus blooms in summer, and swamp sunflowers in the fall.
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
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
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
A worthwhile wander on water management lands, this loop hike at Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve hits the highlights of this colorful 2,850-acre preserve.