Want to see where wild horses and buffalo roam? You don’t need to buy a ticket to go out west. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville boasts a population of more than 50 wild bison as well as wild horses, alligators, and almost 300 species of birds. Here’s the scoop on its history and what to know before you visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.
History of Paynes Prairie Preserve — and How Did the Buffalo Get There?
As far back as 1774, naturalist and artist William Bartram wrote about the land that is now Paynes Prairie Preserve, calling it “the great Alachua Savannah.” Yet even before his writing, Native Americans (including members of the Seminole tribe) called the land that is now Paynes Prairie home, dating back 15,000 years. The land also was valued by Spanish explorers. The landscape that makes up Paynes Prairie has always attracted such interest because of its unique mix of marsh land, wet prairie, and open water, according to the park website. It 21,000 acres is also home to 430 vertebrate species. The park has 20 unique biological areas.
In 1971, Paynes Prairie became the state’s first official preserve. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2021.
Although Paynes Prairie is in the Gainesville area, it’s officially in the town of Micanopy (mick-a-no-pee), which has a charming small downtown area and was recently named one of Florida’s most charming small towns by Travel + Leisure. You can easily combine a day or two visit to both Paynes Prairie and Micanopy. Find out more about Micanopy here.
But what about one of the preserve’s most famous inhabitants, the bison? They were actually introduced to Paynes Prairie in the mid-1970s, after the land became a preserve. The wild horses are said to be descendants of the horses brought to the area by Spanish explorers. And the alligators? As you likely know, they are long-time residents in many, many areas of the Sunshine State, but places like Paynes Prairie give you a closer-up view.
What to Expect When You Visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
With its massive size, Paynes Prairie has a lot to offer, including:
–Hiking along its 10 trails
–Camping near Lake Wauburg
–Biking along the 16-mile Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail
–Horseback riding along the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail
–Spending time at the nature center
The trick is knowing where to go depending on what you want to do. The park’s many trails do not all branch out from the same location, which is why you may want to decide in advance what you want to do. Here is a link to a map of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park to help you plan ahead.
Alligator Spotting at Paynes Prairie
If your focus is wildlife photography, particularly alligators, the best recommendation is La Chua Trail, located beside a smaller residential community. The trail is 3 miles round trip. La Chua takes you briefly through a small stable (no animals in it; it’s a nod to the area’s cattle and horsing heritage), followed by a long boardwalk that goes over a marsh area. Then, the Alachua Sink is home to alligators sunning themselves. On the trail, you also encounter a platform that overlooks Alachua Lake. In recent times during our visit, part of the trail has been closed due to flooding or other reasons.
On our first two visits to La Chua Trail, both in late August, we actually didn’t see any alligators. Yet on a recent June visit during alligator mating season (from April to June), we saw literally dozens. They were sunning themselves in the water and occasionally jamming each other out of the way while we humans remained on an elevated boardwalk. A whole gaggle of them (perhaps 10 in one area) hanging out while we humans–either photographers or birdwatchers–stayed mesmerized by them. They were close to us but at the same time distant as we were elevated above water level. Yet watching them naturally interact and seeing so many at a time was truly memorable.
Observation Tower and Visitor Center
If you want to really learn more about Paynes Prairie and try to see the wild bison, then go to the park’s main entrance. You’ll pay $4 to $6 at the ranger station, and drive a couple miles back to the Visitor Center. The rustic and recently renovated Visitor Center has historical information, exhibits, and “home on the range” type views that look out on to the prairie where the bison are often found. We strongly recommend the Visitor Center because of several cool features, including a gorgeous film that gives background on the park. If you have just arrived at the park, you’ll get your bearings at the center and you can check out the huge map of the park there. If you watch the film after walking around, the film gives you a short respite to cool off. The Visitor Center also has a visitor log (so you can see where people are from) and a nature log (where people can note the type of animals they have seen). From the Visitor Center’s back patio, you can take in the view and make your way down to Cones Dike trail to go toward the prairie.
Less than a five-minute walk away is the observation tower, where you up your chances of getting a great view of the bison if they are on the prairie.
The park’s main entrance includes the campground, several other trails, and Lake Wauburg. Although we weren’t camping there, it was interesting to look around the camping area and its fishing pier, barbecue area, amphitheater, and other amenities.
As you get to know the park, feel free to explore some of the park’s additional trails outside of the main park area. In addition to La Chua, these include Bolen Buff Trail, the Ecopassage Observation Boardwalk (really more of a scenic view than a trail), and the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail. Of note, the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail is paved and goes on for 16 miles. It’s a historical railbed between Gainesville and Hawthorne and is popular with bikers. However, the trail also has a grassy area, making it great for multiuse.
We explored Bolen Buff Trail (2.5 miles roundtrip) once to take a chance at seeing wild horses or the bison herd. Alas, no spottings, but we did see recent animal dung from one of these famous inhabitants.
8 Tips for Your Visit to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
We absolutely recommend a visit to Paynes Prairie to see “wild” Florida or for wildlife photography or birding. Here are a few tips to follow to help you plan your visit.
- Have a few dollars on hand. We know, who carries cash? The park entrance areas outside of the main entrance request that visitors pay up to $4 per vehicle, placed in a blue envelope. Once you pay, you can take a tag to hang in your car. It’s an honor system. There may be a way you can handle this transaction online instead, but we didn’t see how. Hence, have some cash on hand. For the main park admission, you can pay online.
- Know in advance that the major wildlife sightings are not guaranteed. Our big motivation is getting those primo wildlife shots, such as alligators, horses, and bison. We saw the buffalo from far away during our first visit. They were so far, even our telephoto lens on a nice camera couldn’t capture a clear shot. That said, we spotted a deer right away during one visit, and we’ve seen many types of birds. As mentioned before, there was no luck spotting alligators our first two visits and then we hit the gator jackpot the third time. Sometimes, it’s just dumb luck to see the animals you want to see.
- Know that weather may affect what you can do. If you visit in the summer (aka, Florida’s rainy season), water levels may affect certain trails. That’s what happened twice for us on La Chua Trail. On Cones Dike Trail, in the main park area, the walk lasted just a couple minutes before it started to get muddy (again, from rain).
- Use the park’s map to help show you where to go. Seasoned hikers likely already know this, but here’s a tip for the less experienced among us. You can have a link to park maps on your phone but also take a screenshot of them. That way, if internet signal is not available, you still know where the heck you are going. As mentioned earlier, use the maps to plan your visit as the options at Paynes are diverse.
- Find out which trails allow you to bring your best canine friend and which ones don’t. Understandably, not all trails allow pets because of the wild animals living there. Per the park map we have seen, Cones Dike, Bolen Buff, and La Chua trails do NOT allow animals. The Lake, Chacala, Jackson’s Gap, Ecopassage Boardwalk, and Gatesville-Hawthorne trails allow your favorite Fido or Fluffy.
- If you are fortunate enough to spot alligators, bison, or horses, leave them alone. They are not Disney characters. This is real-deal nature!
- Bring water, sunscreen, bug spray, and maybe snacks. The first three items should be obvious for anytime you’re out in Florida nature. Snacks are useful if you plan to be at Paynes Prairie for a while. That’s also because your food options are limited unless you drive a few minutes into Gainesville in one direction or into downtown Micanopy in the other direction.
- Check out the Observation Boardwalk if you don’t have time for a full park visit. The Ecopassage Observation Boardwalk (area 8 if you’re looking at the map) is just minutes from Interstate 75. In fact, you can see I-75 off in the distance when you stop there. The boardwalk, located off of 441, offers panoramic views of Alachua Lake, where you may spot fish, gators, and birds. It’s a great way to take a scenic break, especially if your visit to the area doesn’t include a longer park visit.