For the easiest wildlife watching and guaranteed scenic views, head to the Lake Trail along Lake Wauberg in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.
It’s been a family favorite since the park opened, and has improved over the years with the addition of a fishing pier extending farther out into the lake.
Not a visit goes by where we don’t spot a dozen species or more of reptiles, amphibians, and birds along the first quarter mile of this accessible trail, which is best reached from the parking area for Lake Wauberg.
Length: 0.7 mile linear
Trailhead: 29.5297, -82.2977
Fees / Permits: $6 per vehicle
Restroom: At the picnic areas along Lake Wauberg
Land Manager: Florida State Parks
Open 8 AM until sunset. Leashed dogs permitted. Bikes are permitted on this trail but need to be walked across the boardwalk section. This trail is wheelchair accessible from the parking lot to the boardwalk and across to the picnic area on the far side.
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 Savannah Blvd to the first intersection. Turn left. Follow this road, passing the campground entrance along the way, to where it ends at Lake Wauberg. Park at the east (right-hand) end of the parking area to access the trail.
The Lake Trail begins as a paved ribbon into the floodplain forest at the east end of the Lake Wauberg parking area. You might be wondering why the parking area is as large as it is.
When this state park opened, this was a popular place for Gainesville residents to go swimming. That was fine until the alligator population – which, as hard as it is to believe today, was on the endangered species list until 1987 due to over-hunting – rebounded and it became too dangerous to swim in the lake.
The paved path tunnels into the forest, with swamps flanking both sides. We’ve spotted some large cooter turtles, softshell turtles, and alligators in these shadowy waters beneath the red maples and sweetgums.
The path curves left and becomes a boardwalk. An interpretive sign fills you in on alligators and their habitat. It’s not uncommon to see them cruising the shallows to your left, or hiding in the aquatic plants along the swampy shoreline.
Extending the boardwalk out into the lake for better views, the pier also serves as a place for visitors to fish. From it, you can see the University of Florida recreation complex on the far side of the lake.
The boardwalk continues across this cove in Lake Wauberg to a small hill topped with a picnic area and restrooms. The paved path makes an arc around its base near the water and suddenly stops.
Most visitors simply come out here and back along the Lake Trail, since it’s a half-mile round-trip from the parking area to experience the best scenery along this walk.
From the back of the picnic area behind the restrooms, the Lake Trail continues on another half mile on a forest road, connecting this scenic area to Savannah Blvd.
Since it traverses mostly open meadows, follow it only if you are looking to connect to the visitor center area or the Chacala Trail from here.
While it’s not overly scenic through this stretch, it’s another place for wildlife watching. Over the years, we’ve seen fox squirrels, rabbits, and flocks of wild turkeys in these open spaces.
The trail ends at Savannah Blvd. To connect with the park’s other trails, a left turn – followed by another 0.7 mile along Savannah Blvd – gets you to the visitor center parking area, which is the access point for the Wacahoota, Jackson Gap, and Cones Dike Trails.
A right turn, followed by almost a mile walk or ride beneath the canopied section of Savannah Blvd, lets you reach the Chacala Trail trailhead.
Otherwise, turn around and retrace your path back to the picnic area on Lake Wauberg, crossing the boardwalk back to the parking lot for a 1.4-mile round-trip.
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
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
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.