There are a handful of places that stand out as excellent locations for wildlife watching in Florida – Circle B Bar, the Anhinga Trail, Shark Valley, Green Cay Wetlands, Orlando Wetlands Park – but the place to see alligators is in the home of the Gators, Gainesville.
Paynes Prairie is a massive landform in North Florida visited and written about by William Bartram in 1774, with an unusual twist for a prairie—it has a drain. That drain is called Alachua Sink, and every once in a while it clogs up, turning the prairie into a lake. In times of drought, water collects at this end of the prairie, as do the alligators. Located at the north end of the prairie, the La Chua Trail provides an excellent place for wildlife watching, with an elevated boardwalk and lengthy dike out to an observation tower.
Length: Up to 3 miles
Lat-Long: 29.610250, -82.304264
Fees / Permits: $2 per person
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: portable toilet
Because of the persistent alligator population here, don’t bring dogs along with you. With small children, please stay on the boardwalk. If you leave the boardwalk to hike out to the observation tower, carry a hiking stick and be fully aware of your surroundings. Bison and wild horses roam freely, as do the alligators.
Learn more about Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
From the park’s main entrance on US 441 north of Micanopy, drive north, crossing the vastness of the prairie to reach Gainesville. At the first traffic light, SR 331, turn right. Keep to the right and drive 2.2 miles to SE 4th Street. When this road ends after 0.9 mile, keep right to turn onto SE 15th Street (CR 2043). You’ll pass Bouleware Springs Park just before coming to a bend in the road. At 1 mile, take the right turn off the bend, and head straight into the park entrance, Camp Ranch Road. The gate is locked at 5 PM.
Your hike starts at the parking area for the La Chua Trail. There is a kiosk here with information and trail maps. Follow the paved path as it winds between ancient oaks and clusters of plum trees. It reaches and crosses the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail, where the park entrance is marked by another kiosk and an iron ranger for depositing the park fee. As the trail continues through more plum trees, look off to the right at the powerline. You’ll see a large osprey nest atop the poles. This trail provides excellent opportunities for birding, so don’t forget your binoculars!
Passing beneath an old archway – while it has no interpretive information, I believe it is a remnant of the railroad line that once followed the north edge of the prairie – the trail turns left and enters an old stable with stalls still intact. Warning signs advise you not to get too close to the alligators, and that the prairie is a free range—there are bison, wild horses, and cattle roaming freely where you’ll be walking, if you step off the boardwalk.
The paved path continues towards the drain of the prairie, Alachua Sink, which is rimmed by hardwood forest on its north side. A bench is at the first spot you can sit and take in the view. It’s here the boardwalk begins. There are two sinkholes visible. The one near to you is a karst window, looking straight into the Floridan Aquifer. It’s probably full of water, given it’s cutting into the water table. The upper sinkhole is the drain. You can hear the rushing of water, and depending on water levels, you may actually see a waterfall dropping into the sink. The boardwalk works its way around the upper sink, providing various angles of view. Off to the right, you can see the expanse of the prairie. As you get to the spot where you can best see the water vanish into the earth, look uphill. The connector between sinkhole ponds is a natural sluiceway, water racing downhill from ponds you can’t yet see.
The boardwalk follows the curve of the sluiceway, where moorhens and ibis pick through the shallows along the edges of the fast-moving water. You may see alligators along this waterway as well, especially smaller ones, as you follow the curve uphill to your first glimpse of the upper ponds. Yes, those dark objects moving through the water are alligators. There are sometimes dozens in plain sight, close to the covered observation platform. On my first visit here, there was no boardwalk, just peering down the bluff to see alligators lying below, and that was a scary sight. With the relative safety of the boardwalk, now you can take the time to scan the shorelines. Look closely. You’ll be amazed at the sheer number of alligators before your eyes. Even in Bartram’s day, this portion of the sink was a gathering place for alligators. “In and about the Great Sink, are to be seen incredible numbers of crocodiles,” Bartram wrote, “some of which are of an enormous size…if permitted by them, I could walk over any part of the bason and the river upon their heads…” These denizens of Paynes Prairie are strictly alligators, however.
The boardwalk ends here, providing a nice 1-mile round-trip for easy wildlife watching. If you want to see more wildlife, you have to get out into the prairie itself. Given the volume, size, and proximity of alligators I’ve encountered along this trail, I strongly suggest you carry a big hiking stick and avoid taking young children with you. Beyond the boardwalk, the trail follows a channel upstream. Like the previous channel, the water in it is flowing downhill at a rapid rate—in fact, so fast at times that it can create rapids, complete with hydraulics. You wouldn’t want to kayak here, however tempting it looks, since monster-sized alligators tend to lie in wait along the waterway for unsuspecting wildlife to tumble past on the water.
At the top of the waterway is a fenced culvert. Decades ago, water in the prairie was channelized by cattle ranchers, and this is the meeting point for two of the old canals. Off to the right, you can see for quite a distance down the narrow canal. Pass through the gate. You’ll be following the broad canal up ahead. A water monitoring station sticks out over the canal, which is held back by a dam. It’s here the alligators mass in earnest, piled atop each other as if you were visiting an alligator farm. They come in all shapes and sizes, from newly hatched to Godzilla. Ponderous and gray, the older alligators – some more than ten feet long – lie still with mud piled up on their backs to keep them cool. And there isn’t much separating you from the seething mass. They make meals of each other. They mate with roars and splashes. It’s quite the sight. You wonder how the turtles and birds that move among them survive—and then, one becomes lunch for a hungry alligator.
As the trail curves to the left to follow the marsh, you see more alligator trails and tracks laid in the soft mud. With gleaming yellowish-black skin, young alligators cruise the shallows, twisting sideways to snatch small fish. The shallows are also where the birds feed. It’s here we saw roseate spoonbills feeding. A red-winged blackbird fusses from its precarious perch atop a waving dog fennel, defending its territory. Two sandhill cranes pick their way across the marsh.
At 1.3 miles, you reach a right-hand turn in the trail, as it leaves the marshy canal and parallels a different canal towards an observation platform. Several chicken turtles sit at the bottom of the dry canal channel, keeping cool by burying all but the tops of their shells into the muck. The trail ends after 1.6 miles at the observation platform. From the top, you can see US 441 slicing across the savanna. On the left, the broad sweep of the savanna goes on to the east. You see several large forms in the distance—American bison, wandering wild and free across the prairie.
Turn around and retrace your path back along the marsh to Alachua Sink, with a stop near the dam for one last look at the seething mass of alligators. Continue through the gate and back along the waterway to the boardwalk, where you can stop and rest in the cool shade of the observation deck, a breeze lifting off the water of the massive dark pond. See the strangely shaped rock on the far side? That shows up in postcards from the early 1900s and illustrations of the prairie, since this sink has always been a curiosity for visitors.
Follow the boardwalk back to the stables, and the paved path back to where you started. You reach the parking lot after a 3.1- mile hike. If you parked at Bouleware Springs, walk down the paved road to the rail trail, and turn left to head back to the parking lot, completing a 4.3-mile hike.