22,000 acres of extraordinary wilderness with distinctive features providing habitat to a diverse array of plant, bird, and animal species. The wilderness now called Paynes Prairie has always attracted adventurers and explorers alike. From the early Spanish explorers to the native American Indians, from hunters to modern-day nature enthusiasts, for over 12,000 years Paynes Prairie has proved to be a natural resource of great importance.
The Prairie basin formed when a number of close together sinkholes merged creating the Alachua sink. The vast wetland, with lush grasses and flowering plants that cover the basin, serves as a filter for the Floridan aquifer.
In 1971 Paynes Prairie become the first state preserve and today with its unique and diverse landscape, it represents natural Florida at its absolute best.
There are more than 30 miles of trails through a variety of ecosystems for hikers, bicyclists, and equestrians to explore. I would recommend starting at the visitors center to pick up trail maps and information on the plant and wildlife you might get the chance to spot on your journey. Included in the wildlife that calls Paynes Praire home is free-roaming American Bison and Wild Spanish Horses.
A herd of Spanish Horses were reintroduced to Paynes Prairie in 1985 as a permanent display of living history. When the English raided the Spanish ranches in the early 1700s, all of their cattle and horses were left to roam free. When the Seminole Indians began moving down to Florida shortly thereafter, they found the horses that the Spanish had left behind. The Spanish Horses that roam free within the preserve today are a living link to Florida’s Past.
Behind the visitor center is a prairie observation deck and a short trail that leads you to a 50-foot observation tower. John and I got a fantastic surprise when we started our visit at the visitor’s center!! A few of The wild Spanish Horses just happened to be hanging out right out back!!
Believe it or not, American Bison are indeed native to Florida and were a part of this area’s historical natural ecosystem. Their population diminished long ago when hunted to extinction; however, in an attempt to restore the prairie back to its original state, the Florida Park Service reintroduced the Bison in 1975.
The herd in Paynes Prairie is small (approx 40), and they roam free in 6000 acres of the preserve, so there is no guarantee that you will be able to spot them on every visit. If you are lucky enough to spot or come near the herd, one should use extreme caution and keep at a safe distance; however, the experience to view one of these magnificent creatures will be truly memorable.
The Park Ranger told us that the herd could sometimes be hard to spot but occasionally roam near the visitor center, Cones’s Dike, the Platform at Alachua Lake, or Bolen Bluff Trail.
Because the Bison were spotted at Bolen Bluff Trail the day before, that is where John and I decided to hike on our visit. The Bolen Bluff Trail is a shady 2.5-mile loop through the prairie’s wooded edge that slopes down and connects to Sunny Spur Trail. The Sunny Spur trail is a grass trail through the open marshy prairie that leads to an observation tower giving one a 360-degree view of the vast vista. With no trees to shade our hike and the temperature soaring to 95 with a heat index of 113, John and I, unfortunately, had to turn back before we made it to the observation tower. We were disappointed that we did not get to view the Bison on this trip but delighted with the fact that we now have just another reason to make a return visit.
One of the most surprisingly breathtaking sights for me was the water lilies in the prairie’s naturally flooded plains. Coming down out of the shaded wooded area of the Bolen Bluff Trail onto the bright sunshine of the lower Sunny Spur trail, my eyes were immediately focused on the contrasting endless sea of yellow. It was amazing and awe-inspiring, and I have no words for how the sudden blast of color that seemed to appear out of nowhere as we took the last turn of the trail onto the prairie below.
There are a total of 8 multi-use trails with a ranging variety of lengths from less than 1 mile to 16 miles, so there is something to fit everyone’s hiking skill level. Horseback riding is popular along the Chacala Trail, which is a multi-use trail with a series of loop trails encompassing 6.5 miles in length.
Paynes Prairie State Park has a recreation area complete with playgrounds, picnic facilities, and restrooms. Fishing is also a favorite pass time at the park and a boat ramp is provided with access to Alachua Lake.
RV and Tent camping is also available, with RV sites providing electric and water service and at only $18.00 per night!! Restroom facilities are also available within the campgrounds.
Admission to the main entrance of Paynes Prairie preserve State Park is $6.00 per vehicle with the Bolen Bluff Trail being an additional $2.00 per carload and the LaChua Trail an additional $4.00 per carload. The preserve is open 365 days a year from 8 am to sundown.
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is located 10 miles south of Gainesville, in Micanopy, on the east side of U.S. Highway 441
John and I were in the Gainesville area for another adventure and decided that we would try our luck again to see if we could spot the Bison before we headed for home. We figured the best chance we had would be the Bolen Bluff trail since we had recently read a post on Facebook that said they were spotted there.
Unfortunately, we did not see any Bison, but we did have a very close encounter with two of the wild horses.
John and I found the Bolen Bluff Trail to be an even more enjoyable hike in the cooler month of December, and we recommend it as a winter adventure. If you enjoy a moderate hike in the woods and seeing wildlife, this hike is a must-do, but remember, if you do spot a horse or a bison, they are wild animals, so even if they seem calm and harmless, please enjoy viewing them from a distance.
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