Located at the north end of Paynes Prairie, the La Chua Trail is an excellent wildlife watching site, with an elevated boardwalk and lengthy dike out to an observation tower.
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.
When Paynes Prairie floods, the dike portion of this hike is closed for your safety. The boardwalk remains open, providing a great perch for alligator sightings.
Length: Up to 3.1 miles round-trip
Trailhead: 29.610250, -82.304264
Fees / Permits: $4 per vehicle or $2 for cyclists and hikers walking in
Restroom: portable toilet
Land Manager: Florida State Parks
Because of the 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.
This trail provides excellent opportunities for birding. Don’t forget your binoculars!
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.
The trail entrance is marked by another kiosk and an iron ranger for depositing the park fee.
As the trail continues through more trees, look off to the right at the power line. You’ll see a large osprey nest atop the poles.
Passing beneath an old archway, 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 cuts into the water table. The upper sinkhole is the one that drains the prairie.
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.
William Bartram noted in 1774 that this 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…”
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. That is only possible when the prairie isn’t flooded.
On our last visit, the trail was accessible. Currently (summer 2019) it is not. If you are able to hike the trail, keep in mind the size of the alligators along it. Carry a hiking stick and don’t tackle this with small children.
Beyond the boardwalk, the trail follows a channel upstream. Like the previous channel, the water in it is flowing downhill at a rapid rate. Sometimes it can create rapids, complete with hydraulics.
These are the rapids of your nightmares, however. Along the whitewater stretches are monster-sized alligators lying in wait 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. Pass through the gate.
The trail follows the broad canal. It’s in here you’ll see the most wildlife, especially alligators. When the water is low they will pile atop each other just like at 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.
There isn’t much separating you from them. In April and May, they mate with roars and splashes. Larger ones make meals of smaller ones. You wonder how the turtles and birds that move among them survive. Sometimes they don’t.
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.
The shallows are also where the birds feed. It’s here we saw roseate spoonbills sifting the mud. Red-winged blackbirds cling to waving dog fennel, and sandhill cranes pick their way across the marsh.
After 1.3 miles, you reach a right-hand turn in the trail. It leaves the marshy canal and parallels a different canal towards an observation tower.
The trail ends after 1.6 miles at the observation tower. 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.
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 to the boardwalk.
Stop at the covered observation deck. 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 paved path. 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.
See our slides of the La Chua Trail
Learn more about Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park as well as other outdoor destinations nearby.
The City of Gainesville’s very first nature park, Bivens Arm surrounds a marshy “arm” of Paynes Prairie, where trees tower above the network of nature trails.
Recounting some of our visits over the years to Alachua Sink and its alligators
In the heart of Gator Country, a deep sinkhole swallows the waters of Paynes Prairie at its northeastern rim in Gainesville: La Chua Sink. A brand new boardwalk now provides a closer look.
More Places to See Alligators
In addition to the La Chua Trail, there are other excellent destinations to see alligators in the wild throughout Florida. Learn more here.