I was flying home to Orlando one evening under clear skies, our plane low enough for approach that I was trying to pick out familiar landscapes from the air. While I don’t sit at window seats often, this time I was glad I did.
One thing I’ve observed, crossing Paynes Prairie thousands of times, spending more than half my life living south of it, is that it is rarely ever the same.
You expect seasonality, the blooms of purple pickerelweed in late spring, the unfolding of American lotus in summer, the yellows of swamp sunflowers in fall, the crimson and eggplant hues of red maple and sweetgum leaves in winter.
What’s less predictable is the rise and fall of its waters, sometimes gentle, sometimes sudden. Their seepage creeps up on the landscape, transforming grasslands to marshes to an ever-expanding lake.
As that transformation occurs, different birds appear. I’ve seen them by the hundreds, sometimes thousands. Red-winged blackbirds in migration. Sandhill cranes, honking and clattering. Flocks of white pelicans, ibis, and roseate spoonbills.
And the loners, of course. Limpkins picking around the edges looking for apple snails. Little blue herons fussing when you startle them. Bald eagles, more likely in pairs, building their nests and raising their young each spring.
For five straight years, I drove across the prairie along US 441 each way, commuting to work. I learned that dusk and dawn washed the prairie in its best colors, but covered my car in splattered bugs.
I pulled off more than once to savor a sunset or a sunrise. I pulled off one day because a pair of whooping cranes appeared. I wasn’t the only one who stopped, awed by their presence.
If you asked me to describe this landscape – nearly 20 square miles of flatness, surrounded by bluffs – in one word, it is ever-changing.
Discovering the Alachua Savanna
In 1774, botanist William Bartram left his exploration of the St. Johns River to travel overland to trading stores near Lochloosa Creek, Lake Tuscawilla, and Chacala Pond. He and his companions reached a large village, Cuscowilla, in what is now Micanopy.
Chief Cowkeeper, leader of this village, called Bartram “Puc Puggy,” or Flower hunter, and gave him “unlimited permission to travel over the country for the purpose of collecting flowers, medicinal plants, &c.”
As was his duty and passion, Bartram explored the area around the village looking to identify trees, wildflowers, and plants, hoping to find something new. “…At once opens to view, the most sudden transition from darkness to light, that can possibly be exhibited in a natural landscape.”
He has reached the rim of the great prairie. Bartram writes, “THE extensive Alachua savanna is a level, green plain, above fifteen miles over, fifty miles in circumference, and scarcely a tree or bush of any kind to be seen on it. It is encircled with high, sloping hills, covered with waving forests and fragrant Orange groves, rising from an exuberantly fertile soil. ”
Bartram spends more than twenty pages of his journal describing the savanna, its inhabitants, its wildlife, its many wildflowers and shrubs, and its unusual drainage system into the Great Sink.
At this sinkhole, he discovers “incredible numbers of crocodiles, some of which are of an enormous size…so abundant, that, if permitted by them, I could walk over any part of the bason and the river upon their heads.”
Decades later, after Chief Cowkeeper’s son, Chief Payne, moved the village closer to the prairie, both the town and the savanna became known by his name.
Preserving the Past
I had been told, many decades ago, that the Florida Park Service used Bartram’s descriptions to develop their management plan for Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park after it was established in 1971 as Florida’s first state preserve.
The Great Sink, Alachua Sink, remains the home of astounding numbers of alligators for a simple reason that Bartram explained: the waters draining from the prairie brought all of the fish to them. You can see this phenomenon along the La Chua Trail, the park’s most popular destination.
Bartram mentions the “horned cattle and horses bred in these meadows” as well as a host of native wildlife, from cranes to turkeys and deer, and a standoff between wolves and a bald eagle over a carcass.
I have yet to walk the trails of the park without spotting both turkey and deer. The reason you see cattle and wild horses meandering across the vast plain goes back to Bartram’s descriptions.
Bartram describes the Alachua people – who no longer existed at the time of his 1774 visit – as living along the prairie rim. The people he interacted with were Creeks who’d moved south into Florida, becoming known as the Seminoles.
They’d moved to the village of Cuscowilla, away from the Alachua Savanna, because of “the stench of the putrid fish and reptiles in the summer and autumn, driven on shore by the alligators, and the exhalations from marshes of the savanna, together with the persecution of the musquitoes.”
When the village moved again, it was to the shores of what is now Lake Wauberg. Destroyed by Federal troops during the Second Seminole War, Paynes Town joined its predecessors in vanishing into the historic record.
The Alachua Savanna drew a great deal of attention during this war to drive the Seminoles out of Florida, because ranchers wanted the grasslands for their cattle.
So it’s not surprising that when the State of Florida purchased the bulk of it to make up Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, it had been carved into ranchland.
Ditches dug to drain the marshes, dikes built to hold back waters, and barbed wire fences to hold in cattle can still be seen throughout the prairie today.
Prairie, or Lake?
On one of my early visits as an adult, at the park’s visitor center, I watched the film describing the history of Paynes Prairie. It surprised me to learn that a steamboat shuttled passengers and oranges across “Alachua Lake.”
The remains of its landing are at the base of Bolen’s Bluff, where the trail drops down to prairie level to lead you out along a causeway, and once went to a short observation tower.
The lake hadn’t been seen in years at that point. But during those daily drives I made for work, it appeared.
A friend and local river guide, Lars Andersen, was intrigued by this transformation. He asked for permission to paddle on it, and ended up writing a book about it.
In winter, William Bartram wrote, the savanna became a lake. In my lifetime, the lake has come and gone, come and gone, without any particular care for the season. But Bartram didn’t spend years living near it.
It is a vast solution basin, its water absorbed into the limestone bedrock below by means of crevices, cracks, and sinkholes.
When I wrote my book Sinkholes two decades ago, I was fascinated by this concept. It’s not common across an area this size, at least not in the United States.
You’re more likely to see them in Croatia. In Eastern Europe, the landform is called a polje. In Cuba, a hoyo.
Paynes Prairie is both a prairie and a lake. The water table affects its water levels, as does rainfall.
State Park Trails
While the park itself has many interesting trails, these particular ones provide direct access to the prairie rim or meander into the prairie itself. During times when Alachua Lake appears, parts (or all) of these trails may be closed.
Other Public Lands on Paynes Prairie
In addition to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, the following public lands protect parts of Paynes Prairie.
Paynes Prairie Heritage
While not directly on the prairie, these public lands in Micanopy play a part in its cultural heritage.
Disclosure: As authors and affiliates, we receive earnings when you buy these through our links. This helps us continue to provide public information on this website.