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.
Length: 4.7 miles (shorter loops possible)
Lat-Lon: 29.596357, -82.228401
Fees / Permits: free
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate to high
Restroom: a portable toilet is a quarter mile east along the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail
The preserve is open dawn to dusk. Dogs, bicycles, and equestrians are welcome.
From Interstate 75 exit 374, Micanopy, drive east on CR 234 towards US 441. Turn south on US 441 and take it to the blinker in Micanopy at Pearl’s Store. Turn left on CR 234. Follow it north 6.8 miles to where it crosses the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail. Turn left and park in the parking area adjoining the rail trail. The trailhead is just across the rail trail.
There are three entrances to the trail system. This hike starts at the one with the best parking, the Witness Tree Junction trailhead along the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, where there is a picnic table and a kiosk at the entrance to Prairie Creek Preserve. In spring, you may see wild azalea in bloom at the trailhead. Pick up a map at the kiosk. Each of the trails in this trail system has different color blazing, and some are shared with equestrians. Bicycles are not allowed. Watch your feet, as the footpath gets very rooty.
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. Birdsong echoes throughout the forest. This pine forest is marshy, with wax myrtle and gallberry in the understory yielding to marsh ferns and tall grasses.
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 on the left, which can spill over into these wet flatwoods, nourishing the spaghnum moss below. 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, a sign announces a new boardwalk trail under construction into the cypress dome to the right. 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 headquarters of the Alachua Conservation Trust, the nonprofit that acquired this property and worked with Alachua County to make it a preserve. Keep right to follow the white blazes, which leads into the higher ground of a pine plantation with lots of saw palmetto in the understory. The footpath is damp in places, which lets wild bachelor’s button thrive. A cypress strand parallels to the right, and the White Trail stays close to it. You can see a long way off through the understory, but don’t forget to look up: we spotted a bald eagle flying over us.
Just after the trail curves between a sink and the open water of the cypress swamp, you reach the junction of the White Trail with the Yellow Trail at 0.5 mile. Turn right to start down the Yellow Trail to start the loop. The idea is to take the uplands trails first, so if there is a need to wade through the floodplain, you’ll do that later in the hike. The Yellow Trail is a mowed, grassy forest road through the pines. Here, they’ve been thinned out so they don’t look as much like a pine plantation and will fill in the forest nicely. Along this straight, broad path with trees blazed yellow, 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.
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. You see a grassy wetland off to the left, where a small herd of white-tailed deer was startled by our approach. The taupe color of the grasses contrast strongly against the new green growth in spring. A dull thrum of traffic is growing; it echoes through this part of the forest from SR 20, which lies to the north of the preserve. The canopy closes in overhead. Passing a large clump of blackberries, you can hear marshland noises off to the right, the croaks of frogs and chirps of crickets in the shadows of cypress trees. 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. You start to see cypress knees on both sides of the trail, and a small depression in the footpath has planks adjoining it for use if water is flowing across the trail. Giant grapevines dangle from the canopy.
Surrounded by native bamboo, the trail rises up and you can see a kiosk up ahead. Passing under power lines, the trail enters the next stretch of lush hardwoods where dayflower blooms near the base of a large dahoon holly. At 1.2 miles, you reach Kelly Crossing, the northern trailhead for the preserve, at a picnic bench and kiosk along the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail. The Yellow Trail and Orange Trail meet here. Turn left at the kiosk to follow the Orange Trail – which has a sign designating it the “Jane Walker Trail.” If you visit in spring, you may notice the fluffy-looking white blooms of a Florida fringe tree off to the right at the base of a large oak. Although native to Florida, it’s not a common tree, so it’s nice to find one here.
The Orange Trail has a distinct downhill trend into the floodplain of Prairie Creek as you walk beneath ancient oaks and tall cypress. Draining Newnans Lake to the north – where, more than a decade ago, cypress dugout canoes were found buried in the lake mud – into Paynes Prairie, the creek is surrounded by an expansive floodplain forest, which this trail now enters. 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 each spring at the base of a tree right before the junction with the White Trail. You’ll return back to this junction after completing the walk down the Orange Trail to Prairie Creek, provided that the trail is passable. Depending on water levels in Newnans Lake and the effects of recent rainfall, you may find this trail partially under water. Duck under a large, dead oak tree covered in resurrection fern as the Orange Trail continues to wind its way through the floodplain. The pines throughout this forest, primarily loblolly, are of significant size. A cluster of logs look like they were set up on end as seating. Not long after a bent oak and a bent palm, a small plank bridge crosses a drainage ditch.
Big steps lead up into an abandoned tree stand as the trail gains a little elevation and works its way between the oaks. Dahoon holly is prominent in this part of the understory. By 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. If you encounter standing water here, you may wish to turn back. We saw stacks of lumber indicating plans for a boardwalk or bog bridge through the cypress strand at some future date. Meanwhile, a few planks are laid down to get you through and around the muckier spots among the cypress knees. The drier spots may be thick with poison ivy.
Transitioning into a grassy area beyond the cypress strand, the trail makes a sharp turn to the left in front of a large cabbage palm and rises up onto higher ground, with water oaks and laurel oaks. You hear the cry of a red-shouldered hawk above as you step into a clearing at the end of the Orange Trail, 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. Rafts of water spangles drift along on the black water. Yes, mosquitoes like this particular spot.
You’ve hiked 2.5 miles, and this is the turn-around point for the Orange Trail. 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 forest, you return to the junction with the White Trail after 3.5 miles. Turn right.
The White Trail is your return route to the parking area. It quickly returns to the uplands, a mix of pines and cabbage palms. Looking off to the right, you can see marshes with cattails just beyond a screen of trees. A clearing on the left has a picnic table under the tall oaks. Rainlily emerges right from the footpath. Side trails lead off into the woods, likely created by the deer that roam this preserve. Stick to the obvious path, following the white blazes. The woods draw close to provide shade. Just before the trail rounds a curve to the right, skinny cabbage palms tower overhead. Massive, whorled trucks of live oaks are swaddled in resurrection fern, resplendent after a rain. Bluestem palm grows throughout the understory.
The habitat transitions into an upland hammock with highbush blueberries, sparkleberry, and horse sugar beneath oaks and sweetgum. The trail twists and winds through it, leading up to the pine plantation. A series of bog bridges cross a low swale where water can drain at times; however, they’ve floated off to one side. Perhaps someone will anchor them in place. The White Trail winds its way through pine plantation, reaching the junction with the Yellow Trail at 4.1 miles. You’ve completed the loop. Continue straight ahead to retrace your steps along the White Trail back along the edge of the cypress strand. Past the Blue Trail junction, you’ll cross the plank-and-log bridge again. Keep right, and begin the boardwalk soon after. You emerge from the trail at the kiosk within sight of the parking area. Cross the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail to exit, completing the 4.7 mile hike.