Protecting 500 acres along the floodplain of Prairie Creek – which drains Newnans Lake into Paynes Prairie – this beauty spot east of Gainesville has a loop trail system with a long connector trail to the creek.
It is owned and maintained by the Alachua Conservation Trust, a private conservancy in North Florida, and a connector trail from the trail network leads to their headquarters at Prairie Creek Lodge.
There are three entrances to Prairie Creek Preserve. In addition to the connector trail from the lodge, two trailheads are along the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail. This hiking route starts at the northeastern trailhead near Rochelle.
Length: 4.7 mile loop
Trailhead: 29.596357, -82.228401
Fees / Permits: free
Land Manager: Alachua Conservation Trust
The preserve is open dawn to dusk. Leashed dogs, cyclists, and equestrians are welcome. While there is not a restroom on site, a vault toilet is a quarter mile east along the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail.
Since much of the preserve is in the shade, expect mosquitoes and prepare for them. If Prairie Creek is flooded, you may not be able to follow the trail out to the creek.
Each of the trails in this trail system has different color blazing, and some are shared with equestrians. Cyclists should prepare for off-road conditions including slippery mud, tall grass, and tree roots.
Follow it almost 7 miles north to where it crosses the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail. Turn left and park in the parking area adjoining the trail. The main trailhead for Prairie Creek Preserve is on the opposite side of the bike path.
Starting at the Witness Tree Junction trailhead, pick up a map at the kiosk. Follow the white blazes into the woods.
You soon discover this isn’t just the White Trail, but it’s also the Wright Trail, dedicated to Susan Wright. All of the trails in this preserve honor local conservationists.
Starting out in a mix of pine flatwoods and planted slash pines, the trail traverses the lumpy rows left behind in the pine plantation. Wax myrtle and gallberry yielding to marsh ferns and tall grasses as the forest gets marshy.
Just a tenth of a mile in, you reach a substantial boardwalk lifting the trail over the potential flooding from a marsh and cypress strand.
After the boardwalk ends, the trail plops into a pine plantation, zigzagging between the rows. It’s a little higher and drier here, as indicated by the density of bracken fern rising from the pine duff.
The forest closes in, creating a canopy of shade by a quarter mile. Floodplain trees, like sweetgum and loblolly bay, give away the fact that the trail is surrounded by wetter ground.
At a T intersection, turn left and cross the outflow of this swamp on a long plank-and-log bog bridge, one plank wide, past some rather large cypresses.
After the bridge ends, a sign announces the “Kathy Cantwell Trail,” a blue-diamond blazed trail that leads to the left. Primarily used by equestrians, it’s a long linear connector to the Prairie Creek Lodge.
Keep right to follow the white blazes, which lead into the higher ground of a pine plantation with lots of saw palmetto in the understory.
Just after the trail curves between a sink and the open water of the cypress swamp, you reach the junction of the Wright Trail with the Yellow Trail at 0.5 mile. Turn right to start down the Yellow Trail to start the loop.
Along this straight, broad path, there are mounds of blackberry bushes edged by wax myrtle. Butterflies visit the purple blooms of terrible thistle along stands of dogfennel and shortspike bluestem. Follow the yellow blazes.
As the Yellow Trail meets a four-way junction with an unmarked trail, continue straight. The trail jogs a little to the left and continues down a straightaway of pines. Traffic noise seeps in from SR 20, competing with the croaks of frogs and chirps of crickets in a cypress strand.
Entering a hardwood hammock where cabbage palms grow among pines and oaks of significant size, it becomes obvious that the trail is following a tramway once used for logging.
Surrounded by native bamboo, the trail rises up before passing under power lines into another stretch of hardwood forest.
After 1.2 miles you reach Kelly Crossing, the northern trailhead for the preserve, at a picnic bench and kiosk along the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail.
Turn left at the kiosk to follow the orange-blazed trail, which has a sign designating it the “Jane Walker Trail.” In springtime, a Florida fringe tree blooms nearby.
Distinctly dropping in elevation, the Jane Walker Trail leads you towards Prairie Creek beneath a majestic canopy of ancient oaks and tall cypress.
The trail makes a 90 degree turn at an orange arrow to stay atop an old dike in the floodplain. Through tall grasses, you walk beneath the power lines again, returning to the swamp forest on the other side.
The trail follows a long straightaway on the old logging tramway. After crossing a small bridge, you see a rather large cypress off to the right with a sign on its trunk: “Boundary, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.”
By 1.5 miles, the tramway ends but the trail continues, meandering through the ancient forest on a clearly-defined path in the floodplain. A cluster of rainlily blooms in spring near the junction with the Susan Wright Trail.
Turn right to stay on the orange-blazed trail. This is where it gets tricky, and you might need to turn around if Prairie Creek has sloshed out into its floodplain.
The pines throughout this forest, primarily loblolly, are of significant size. Not far past a bent oak and a bent palm, a small plank bridge crosses a drainage ditch.
At 2.1 miles, the trail reaches a pair of log benches. Beyond the benches, the trail drops down and enters the cypress floodplain. The watermarks on the cypress trunks tell the story: this area can be two feet deep in water at times.
Trail’s end is along a small bluff above Prairie Creek. A picnic table provides a place to sit and enjoy the tannic creek, which flows slowly beneath a canopy of cypresses, rounding a bend.
Turn around here. You’ll notice another trail dedication marker for the Jane Walker Trail as you leave the creek and head back towards the cypress strand. Retracing the orange blazes through the floodplain, return to the junction with the white-blazed Susan Wright Trail after 3.5 miles. Turn right.
Stay with the white blazes for your return route. The trail climbs into an upland forest of pines and cabbage palms. Side trails lead off into the woods, likely created by the deer that roam this preserve. Stick to the obvious path.
The habitat transitions into an upland hammock with highbush blueberries and sparkleberry beneath oaks and sweetgum. A series of bog bridges cross a low swale where water can drain at times.
Passing through the pine plantation again, you reach the junction with the Yellow Trail after 4.1 miles, sealing the loop. Continue straight ahead along the white blazes to retrace your original route, passing the Blue Trail junction, to reach the Witness Tree Junction trailhead after a 4.7-mile hike.
See our slides of Prairie Creek Preserve
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