Following the flow of sand-bottomed Paynes Creek downstream to its confluence with the Peace River, the Peace River Loop at Paynes Creek Historic State Park is a gentle nature trail with numerous scenic overlooks along the creek, the river, and oxbow ponds.
Location: Bowling Creek
Length: 1 mile
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: at trailhead
The picnic area at the end of the park road is the ideal place to access the trail system in Paynes Creek Historic State Park, with trails branching north and south. This is one loop out of a larger trail system spanning more than 4 miles, but is the loop you’ll want to hike if you only have time to visit one.
Paynes Creek State Park is located in Bowling Green, south of Lakeland, off US 17. Look for the signs for the state park and follow them back to the park entrance. Drive in and park near the picnic area at the end of the park road.
Start your walk by following the path out of the picnic area to Paynes Creek. You reach a broad open grassy area above the creek that is a junction of trails, with the Historic Trail to the right and the Peace River Loop to the left. Turn left and follow the broad forest road paralleling the creek in partial shade. The first nice overlook on the creek starts jusy beyond a bench. As the trail goes slightly uphill, you reach a T junction, the start of the loop. Turn right.
The burbling tannic waters of Paynes Creek slip by in a ravine to your right, which you catch glimpses of now and again through the vegetation and trees. An overlook at a quarter mile has a bench above the creek. While it doesn’t deep enough for it, this sand-bottomed creek is frequented by alligators. You’re more likely to see ibis picking through the shallows.
A bench sits above the confluence of Paynes Creek and the Peace River, which rises from the Green Swamp and flows south towards Charlotte Harbor. You can tell the river is prone to sudden rises and falls thanks to the scour marks on the sides and the sand along the shores. Picnic tables are set in an oak and palm hammock overlooking the river. It’s always breezy here, so it’s a lovely place to linger.
Leaving the confluence, the trail – still a broad forest road – begins to parallel the Peace River upstream. You catch glimpses of the river through the cabbage palms before turning away from it at 0.6 mile. Two benches overlook a marsh on the left, part of a series of oxbow ponds that once had massive cypress trees, as evidenced by the size of the stump growing out of a clump of land in the pond.
Passing a series of interpretive panels about wildlife – which we always get a kick out of, since how often do you actually see the wildlife near the interpretive sign? – you come to an overlook built above a cypress swamp. And it was here, right behind the interpretive sign for the American alligator, that a mama gator and her babies were sunning in the marsh. Now that was a real surprise, and made me thankful that the overlook is well above the pond.
Reaching a T intersection with a sign that says “Nature Trail” to the left, turn left. A few moments later, you come to the end of the loop portion of the trail. Turn right to exit, paralleling Paynes Creek back to the clearing where the trails meet and a series of steps leads down to the creek itself. Turn right and follow the paved path to the picnic area, restrooms, and parking.