Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is a unique Florida state park just outside of Gainesville. The park encompasses over 21,000 acres of Florida wetlands and prairie, miles of hiking trails and a campground.
Wildlife Viewing and Hiking
One of the most exciting things about Paynes Prairie is the wildlife. Visitors can experience wild-roaming bison and horses up close. Yes, wild bison in Florida!
La Chua Trail is a very popular trail because huge alligators commonly lay across the path. Note after Hurricane Irma in 2018, most of La Chua Trail has remained closed due to flooding until further notice.
On the other side of the park, there’s an observation tower where you can climb 50 ft high above the prairie and observe wild horses and bison. You can spot them most often in the mornings and before dusk. Note that it’s pretty rare to see the herds – although you probably have the best chance from the observation tower.
Despite La Chua Trail being closed, there are other trails to get up close to the Payne’s Prairie wildlife. Cone’s Dike Trail allows you to walk on the edge of the prairie where you could encounter animals like the wild horses, bison, alligators, deer, birds and more in their natural habitat.
You can get a good view of the animals if they are out and about near the trail. You can tell they’ve been in the area, because you might run into their droppings on the path. This is truly a taste of Real Florida where you could find yourself face-to-face with wild animals. Please remember to use caution and always be respectful of the wildlife and their environment. This is their home, too!
This trail is 4 miles long one-way, but we could only hike about 2 miles before the trail was too mucky to continue. Note that the trail is on the wide-open prairie so there is not much shade after the first 1/2 mile and there are no facilities, benches, etc.
There are eight trails in total to explore, each with varied ecosystems and things to see. This park is huge, so we feel like the best place to start is at the visitor’s center and observation tower. Both are just a short walk from the parking lot.
Other Things to Do at Payne’s Prairie
There are a ton of things to do at this park. If hiking isn’t your thing, many of the trails are also open to cyclists. You can access the paved 16-mile Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail from the park. Also the 6.5 mile Chacala Trail is a multi-use trail that is open to bike, horse and foot traffic.
The campsite near Lake Wauburg accommodates tents, trailers or RVs. There are also primitive campgrounds available along the Chacala Trail.
Fishing is permitted in the park on Lake Wauburg, however areas for fishing along the bank are limited. Access to the lake is available from the public boat ramp located on the east side of Lake Wauburg. Please note gas-powered engines are prohibited. Unfortunately there are no canoe rentals available in Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park at this time.
Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park is a must for anyone in North Central Florida. Go out and discover what’s in your own backyard!