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. This park has two entrances: the main entrance with the majority of trails and activities, and the La Chua Trail & Alachua Sink entrance.
One of the most exciting things about Paynes Prairie is the wildlife. Visitors can experience alligators, birds, and wild-roaming bison and horses up close. Yes, wild bison in Florida!
History of Paynes Prairie
Like many of our Florida State Parks, Paynes Prairie has a rich history. Archaeological findings date the site back more than 10,000 years when it was home to Native Americans. In the 1600s the prairie served as the largest cattle ranch in Florida, named La Chua Ranch, owned by Spanish Floridians. In the 1880s, railroad tracks were laid nearby, allowing for imports and exports of cattle, cotton, and and timber. The railroad played an important part in the founding of the city of Gainesville. Now, the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail follows the historic stretch of rail line. Eventually in 1971, the state purchased the land and it became the first state preserve. The prairie is prone to periods of dryness and flooding due in part to Alachua Sink, a large sinkhole. The “drain” on the sink seems to open and close at will, sometimes leaving the prairie dry or flooded for years at a time.
La Chua Trail
La Chua Trail is a very popular trail because huge alligators commonly sun right next to the path. On a good day, you’ll lose count of just how many alligators you spot.
Note that La Chua Trail seasonally floods and will close intermittently for safety reasons. Depending on the season, you may be able to walk only on the short boardwalk portion of the trail.
Hiking & Wildlife Viewing
At the main entrance 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.
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 Real Florida experience 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!
The out-and-back 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 also access the paved 16-mile Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail from the La Chua Trail entrance. 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. 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!
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This post was revised and republished on Oct. 26, 2021. Originally published April 2020.