At Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, bison and wild horses roam free amid one of the state’s largest and northernmost grasslands, a shallow basin cradled in a park more than 22,000 acres in size.
Some seasons, it is ablaze with wildflowers. At other times, much of the low-lying prairie basin becomes a massive lake.
Resources for exploring the area
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Location: Micanopy and Gainesville
Fees: $4-6 per vehicle
Main Address: 100 Savannah Blvd, Micanopy
Land Manager: Florida State Parks
The main entrance is open 8 AM until sunset daily. Some gates, such as the one at the La Chua Trail and Bolens Bluff, may close before sunset for your safety. Alligators are most active at dawn and dusk.
Leashed pets are welcome except on the three trails that lead out into the prairie: Bolens Bluff, Cones Dike, and La Chua. Because of the alligator population, this is for your safety and your dog’s well-being, too.
The park’s main entrance is off US 441 north of Micanopy and provides access to the campground, Visitor Center, boat ramp, picnic areas, and several trailheads.
There are also four official trailheads in Gainesville, plus access points off the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail. See our maps and links below for details.
Visiting Paynes Prairie Preserve
In 1774, botanist William Bartram was on his second exploration of Florida in search of plants. While most of his travels centered around the St. Johns River, he headed overland to the village of Cuscowilla to meet the great Chief Cowkeeper.
Looking across “the great Alachua Savannah,” Bartram noted Spanish cattle and horses being raised by the Creek people who lived along the prairie’s south rim. It is Bartram’s descriptions in his Travels that defines Paynes Prairie today.
Later settlers ran cattle across the basin. During the Civil War, Confederate cattle drives would stop here to fatten up the cattle before pushing them north to the Georgia border.
When the state purchased the land in 1970 to preserve Paynes Prairie, it was a cattle ranch. Canals, weirs, dikes, and fences still stand as a part of that legacy of the former owners.
While sightings of bison and wild horses used to be less common, you’re more likely to see them when the prairie turns into Alachua Lake. This transformation happens when water won’t drain down out of the prairie at Alachua Sink.
It’s not a new phenomenon. At the Visitor Center, a film about the history of the region recounts the story of the steamship Chacala. It carried oranges from the groves near Micanopy to the Gainesville shore, until the lake suddenly drained and left it stuck in the mud.
Rainfall in the region, as well as seasonal changes in the weather, can affect how much – or how little – water funnels through the prairie. In conditions ideal for wildlife, it is more marshland than lake or dry land.
It took us three full days to tackle all of the trails in the park, and that didn’t count bicycling down beautiful Savannah Drive, which is canopied through the floodplain forest.
When you make plans to visit, reserve a campsite well ahead of time. Since campgrounds are limited in this area and Gainesville is a college town, Paynes Prairie tends to be a popular camping destination.
The South Rim
If you haven’t visited this state park before, we suggest you start with the Visitor Center along the south rim of the prairie.
Enter the park from the Savannah Blvd entrance off US 441 just north of Micanopy, and follow that road straight back to where it ends at a parking area. Take the sidewalk past the picnic area to the Visitor Center.
Sitting on a small bluff, the Visitor Center seems to grow out of the hill. It provides a view of the prairie from its front porch.
Inside, interpretive displays and a film help you understand the complexity of the prairie ecosystem and its human history. Run by volunteers, it has shorter hours than the park itself, generally 9-4.
Wacahoota Trail and Observation Tower
The Wacahoota Trail starts just outside the Visitor Center. Less than a mile long, it loops through a lush hardwood hammock with massive oaks and Southern magnolias.
Most visitors take the accessible leg of the trail directly down to the prairie’s edge to climb the observation tower. It’s from the top of this tower that we’ve watched the wild horses and bison graze.
The trail continues past the tower as a natural footpath before looping back up the hill to the Visitor Center.
Cones Dike and Jackson Gap
These two trails are accessed from the picnic area you passed on the way to the Visitor Center. Walk behind the restrooms and you’ll see the signs.
To the left, the Cones Dike Trail has you out on the prairie in a little less than a quarter mile. If the gate is locked, it means the trail is flooded and unsafe to hike.
Otherwise, it’s a ramble through the open savanna, where you might encounter the horses or bison, and most definitely the alligators that like to sun along the banks of the dike.
It’s an out-and-back walk of whatever length you care to do, with no shade. We’ve done a 8-mile round-trip out into the prairie and back. A hiking stick and a hat are definitely recommended.
The Jackson Gap Trail is the complete opposite of Cones Dike, not just in direction but in feel. A 1.3-mile linear connector to the Chacala Trail, it tunnels deep into the hardwood forest along the prairie’s rim.
While it can be accessed from the Jackson’s Gap Trail, there is also a large trailhead for the Chacala Trail not far from the park’s main entrance.
With a little more than 6 miles on its outer loop and spur to a scenic overlook on Chacala Lake, it stays in the uplands. This is a great trail for a day hike. It is also open to cyclists and equestrians.
Less than two miles in from the trailhead, the Chacala Trail has a primitive campsite that can be reserved in advance. Call ahead at 352-466-3397 at least two days in advance of your planned night in the woods.
Lake Wauberg and the Lake Trail
A beauty spot for day use, Lake Wauberg is also known for its alligator population. You are allowed to paddle here, but you must bring your own watercraft.
The University of Florida maintains a student watersports center on the far shore.
Boaters can use the launch adjoining the picnic area to explore the lake. Fishing, with a valid Florida fishing license, is permitted.
Starting from the east end of the lakefront parking area, the Lake Trail is a popular destination because of its boardwalk that stretches out across a marshy cove.
No matter the time of year, you will likely see alligators or turtles here. The 0.7-mile linear Lake Trail continues through a lakefront picnic area before heading out on a forest road to Savannah Blvd. Cyclists often use it as a connector to make a loop from the campground.
A final stopping point along the south rim is the trail at Bolens Bluff. A fee of $2 applies if you park here. A loop leads you through the forest to the bluff before emerging at a spot where the trail drops off the bluff and into the prairie.
From here, a dike leads out into the prairie for an immersive view. It’s a mile round-trip from the bluff to where we used to look out from the observation tower here, a twin to the one at the La Chua Trail. The full loop and spur is 2.7 miles.
Both Interstate 75 and US 441 cross Paynes Prairie. During damp years, showy wildflower blooms surprise motorists crossing the prairie with the intensity of their colors.
Southbound on Interstate 75, stop at the rest area on the bluff above the prairie for a sweeping view south across it. A paved walkway leads to a snaking overlook that, viewed from below, looks like a snake.
Those warning signs? They aren’t kidding about the snakes. Stick with the paved paths and avoid the grass.
University of Florida zoology professor Archie Carr actively studied the roadkill along Paynes Prairie. He noted 765 snakes on one visit to US 441.
His studies led to the development of an ecopassage. Completed in 2000, it elevated US 441 atop conduits that allow alligators, snakes, otters, turtles, and other creatures to get under the road.
A pulloff along US 441 provides access to the Ecopassage Observation Boardwalk, with a sweeping eastward-facing panorama of the prairie. Look down, and you are highly likely to see an alligator or a banded water snake.
The North Rim
On the north rim of Paynes Prairie, the bluff is more pronounced. We noticed serious uphills along the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail to reach two of the scenic overlooks.
La Chua Trail
Most visitors to the north rim head straight to the La Chua Trail, and we can’t blame them. It’s earned its reputation as one of the best places to see alligators in the wild in Florida.
The La Chua Trail trailhead also provides direct access to the 15.2-mile Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail. Beloved of cyclists as one of Florida’s earliest paved bike paths, it’s surprisingly challenging heading east out of this trailhead.
To the east, it’s a 3.6-mile round-trip via paved trail to the Alachua Lake Overlook. This platform juts out off the bluff to provide a look across the prairie to the south.
Also along the bike path to the east, 3.8 miles each way, is the Prairie Creek Boardwalk. It’s near Kates Fish Camp along US 441 and part of the state park. This short boardwalk provides an up-close look of this tannic creek.
To the west of the La Chua Trailhead, it’s a 1.4-mile round-trip to the Sweetwater Overlook, which provides a panorama to the northwest.
Visitors can also use the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail trailhead at nearby Boulware Springs to visit these stops and other nearby preserves along the north rim of Paynes Prairie.
Articles about Paynes Prairie Preserve
In spring, alligators become more active as the days warm up. It’s also mating season, so alligators are on the move. Expect to see them anywhere and everywhere along Florida’s trails.
Resplendent in the royal purples of pickerelweed, Paynes Prairie is a showy place as spring fades to summer
Alligators are in abundance along the La Chua Trail at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that we saw some of them mating.
A wander along Lake Wauberg to the symphony of Archie Carr’s favorite frogs brought memories flooding back of gentler times.
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 Public Lands along Paynes Prairie
As it is such a massive landform that was formerly under a patchwork of ownership before the preserve was formed, Paynes Prairie is not entirely encompassed by the state park.
You can explore other parts of the prairie from these nearby public lands.
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.
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
Reserve a Campsite Official Website