If you think the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail is simply a rail-trail, think again. This paved path between the edge of Paynes Prairie and the heart of Hawthorne has some surprises to share.
Challenging terrain, for one. The western end of the trail is anything but flat. You’ll be cranking through the gears for most of the first four miles.
Curves, as well. That western end of the trail is decidedly not on an old railroad bed. If the climbs near La Chua weren’t enough, warning signs for tight maneuvers through The Hammock clue you in.
Along the ride, we delighted in finding scenic overlooks on Paynes Prairie and other natural features, as well as trailheads for trails that you can’t reach any other way but along the bike path.
Resources for exploring the area
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Location: Gainesville to Hawthorne via Rochelle
Length: 15.3 miles linear
Land Manager: Florida State Parks
Address: 3400 SE 15th St, Gainesville
Managed by Florida State Parks, the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail is open daylight hours. Leashed dogs permitted. Equestrians welcome east of the Rochelle trailhead.
While most visitors are here to cycle the trail, expect people walking along it near the La Chua Trail trailhead and the Rochelle trailhead.
You’ll pay a fee for parking at the La Chua Trail trailhead, but all other access points are free.
Trailheads for the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail
At the Gainesville end of the trail – the starting point for most riders – you have three options for accessing the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail: Depot Park, Boulware Springs, and La Chua.
Depot Park, 200 SE Depot Ave, Gainesville. A rundown factory district transformed into an urban playground, Depot Park is now the largest green space in the city and a gathering place for friends and families. Cyclists who live in Gainesville can ride to or get dropped off by bus at the park. Visitors can find parking here as well. A store offers drinks and snacks. A paved connector trail leads from a poignant Share the Road Memorial to the official start at Boulware Springs. Riding out and back from Depot Park adds 4.6 miles to your overall journey.
Boulware Springs trailhead, 3400 SE 15th St, Gainesville. While the historic waterworks and a picnic area make up the bulk of this park, there is actually a separate entrance for trail users. It’s at the first sign as you’re headed south along SE 15th St towards Paynes Prairie. Follow the narrow road back to a parking area that adjoins the official start of the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail. Hikers walking to Sweetwater Preserve (0.4 miles north) or the Sweetwater Overlook (0.7 mile south), both accessed off the bike path, may want to start here.
La Chua Trail trailhead, 4801 Camp Ranch Rd, Gainesville. This northern rim trailhead for Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park tends to be very busy, thanks to the alligator-watching opportunities along the La Chua Trail. It’s a large dirt lot, but it fills up quickly on weekends. You’ll want to park here if you plan to walk to the Alachua Trail Overlook, a 3.6-mile round-trip along the paved path. it’s only a 0.6 mile round-trip from here to the Sweetwater Overlook, too. There is a $4 per vehicle fee.
Once you’re beyond the orbit of Gainesville, the trailheads are more spread out. See our map above for locations. A three-car parking spot at SE 30th Street off SR 20 is about as close as you can get to the Prairie Creek Boardwalk.
The Rochelle / Prairie Creek trailhead (which also provides access to Prairie Creek Preserve) isn’t paved, but the parking spaces are right off a paved road and it holds a large number of cars. A vault toilet is a quarter mile east of this trailhead along the trail. If you don’t plan to tackle the full length of the trail, this is a good place from which to start a ride in either direction.
At the east end of the trail, the Hawthorne Trailhead has signage leading you off US 301 to find a moderate-sized paved trailhead with a portable toilet. Equestrians should use the Lochloosa Equestrian Trailhead off SE 200th Dr in Hawthorne, as it has parking for horse trailers and plenty of room to turn those trailers around.
Starting from the Boulware Springs trailhead, turn left to begin the ride. This nicely canopied stretch of trail skims along the forested edge of the upper bluffs of Paynes Prairie.
Within a few minutes, the Sweetwater Overlook comes into view. It’s a brief uphill on a side path to the right to lead you up to a viewpoint over the prairie, looking out towards Sweetwater Wetlands Park and US 441.
This cove is where Bivens Arm flows into Paynes Prairie. It was where the steamboat landing on the north shore once stood in the 1890s, matching the one that used to sit where the Bolens Bluff Trail, on the south shore, is now.
Return to the main trail. The downhill is noticable as you curve sharply east to cross the pedestrian walkway to the La Chua Trail.
If you’ve never wandered down there, it’s worth parking your bike to at least walk the boardwalk. La Chua boasts more alligators per square inch than pretty much any other piece of public land in North Florida.
The bluff above Paynes Prairie is pretty rugged, and this next half mile proves just how much. Climbing out of the prairie basin, the trail curves around deep sinkholes in the woods.
The marked side trail to the Alachua Lake Overlook is worth the extra 1.2 miles. The pavement is a little rugged for road bikes as the trail descends through the forest to the edge of the bluff.
At the end of this side trail, park your bike for the short walk out onto a large deck overlooking the prairie. In recent years, with the prairie flooded, it’s lived up to its reputation as Alachua Lake. This is the best overlook for it.
Bike back up the side trail and turn right at the Gainesville / Hawthorne sign. After a short stretch of relatively level riding, you reach a sign for The Hammock.
It’s here that the trail enters the deep shade of a hardwood hammock and starts making some sharp curves. Since you can’t see riders coming towards you, stay on your side of the trail.
Once you reach the power lines, the trail straightens out. You’re finally on the old rail line that ran from Gainesville to Hawthorne. From this point on, the ride is straight and level.
Red Wolf Pond is a marsh on the north side of the trail along the beginning of this stretch. It was once connected to Newnans Lake, which is on the north side of nearby SR 20.
Crossing SE 30th Street, where there is a small parking area adjoining the trail, continue on to the bridge over Prairie Creek and the Prairie Creek Boardwalk.
This is another spot where it’s worth parking your bike to stretch your legs. The short boardwalk provides serene views of the creek, which drains Newnans Lake into Paynes Prairie.
After a straightaway, the trail makes a curve away from SR 20. Watch for a trailhead at Prairie Creek Preserve with a bench on the right. It’s another nice spot in the shade.
Swampy on both sides of the bike path, the next straightaway parallels both the preserve and CR 2082, cutting through a cypress swamp before gaining a little elevation.
Passing the second trailhead into Prairie Creek Preserve at the Witness Tree, you reach the Rochelle trailhead after 6.4 miles (plus 1.4 if you rode to the overlooks). This is a good turnaround point for a short ride.
Just beyond the parking area, in the forest, you pass a vault toilet for trail users. The trail becomes a tunnel beneath oak trees, with a broad grassy strip on the right for equestrian use.
Riding past the Third Bethel Baptist Church on a segment with a little less shade, you come up to a stop sign in Rochelle, where traffic doesn’t stop for you. Cross with caution.
Curving into a forest that doesn’t provide a full canopy over the trail, you’re paralleling a rural road to the left. Eventually, you see a small trailhead along that road. Stop at sometimes-busy CR 325 just beyond it.
While there are planted pines off to the left, the forest becomes increasingly damp along both sides of the trail. You’re riding through a conservation area called Phifer Flatwoods Preserve.
For the sake of hikers walking in from the trailhead, there are benches along this stretch.
You pass two trailheads on the left within a half mile of each other. A swamp spans the space between them.
Each of these trailheads in Phifer Flatwoods Preserve leads to its own set of trails, which can be hiked – or if you can ride off-road, biked.
The trail gains a little elevation before crossing a small bridge. Soon after is a stop sign at the crossing for SE 152nd Street in Grove Park, a tiny community along SR 20.
Adjoined by marshes and then by houses, the trail reaches another minor road crossing with a stop sign. Soon after, you’re surrounded by the woods again.
A long bridge spans Lochloosa Creek. Rising from marshy forests east of Newnans Lake, this tannic waterway snakes its way south to Lake Lochloosa.
The trail becomes a straightaway again, with some more road crossings to deal with. It’s nicely shaded, and since you’re drawing close to Hawthorne, you may run into people walking for exercise along it.
After curving around the Lochloosa Equestrian trailhead – where there is a bench but no restroom – you get back on the straightaway for the final mile and a half to the terminus in Hawthorne.
Crossing a small bridge over Dry Creek, you can see light at the end of the tree tunnel.
The trail briefly curves around a fence along a school before arriving at the parking area at Hawthorne.
A large bench is built into the trailhead kiosk at this end, adjoined by a garbage can. You’ll find a portable toilet at the parking lot.
A round-trip ride from Boulware Springs to Hawthorne – including the side trip to the overlooks – is 32 miles.
Gainesville to Hawthorne
|0.0||Boulware Springs trailhead|
|0.7||Sweetwater Overlook (0.2 mile RT)|
|1.0||La Chua Trail trailhead|
|1.8||Alachua Lake Overlook (1.2 mile RT)|
|4.0||Red Wolf Pond|
|4.3||SE 30th Street|
|4.8||Prairie Creek Boardwalk|
|5.3||Prairie Creek Preserve Kelly Crossing trailhead|
|6.4||Rochelle / Prairie Creek Preserve trailhead|
|8.7||Phifer Flatwoods trailhead|
|9.3||Phifer Flatwoods Preserve West|
|9.9||Phifer Flatwoods Preserve East|
|10.7||SE 152nd Street|
|13.8||Lochloosa Equestrian Trailhead|
Discover places you can access from the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail
Gainesville’s original city water source, Boulware Springs is home to a historic waterworks where turtles sun and a trailhead providing access to preserves along Paynes Prairie
On the eastern side of Sweetwater Preserve, hike a gentle loop through the woods along Sweetwater Branch.
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.
In the deep shade of the floodplain of Prairie Creek near Gainesville, Prairie Creek Preserve is a beauty spot provided to the public by the Alachua Conservation Trust
Official Map (PDF) Official Website