Payne’s Prairie is a truly unique place to explore. Visitors can walk alongside alligators, see wild bison, and watch wild horses graze. The 23,000 acres that make up the park include a Visitor’s Center, a fifty-foot-tall observation tower, fishing, camping, and miles of hiking and biking trails.
The Payne’s Prairie Preserve Visitor’s Center has interactive exhibits that highlight the local flora and fauna, wildlife, and human impacts on the lands.
Several distinct ecosystems make up Payne’s Prairie Preserve. The most unique is the wet prairie or marsh. This type of ecosystem comprises over half of Payne’s Prairie, noticeable by the presence of shallow water year-round, though it experiences periodic flooding.
Maintaining the Land
Florida is the lightning capital of the U.S., and as such, much of its natural landscape is fire-dependent. To suppress large-scale wildfires which can burn out of control, places like Payne’s Prairie implement controlled burns to maintain the ecosystem and help sensitive plant and animal species thrive.
Upon arrival, we saw the recently burned landscape via the blackened areas around the base of the pine trees and the reduced understory. We’re used to seeing areas as they burn, and during the different stages in regrowth afterwards, and it never ceases to amaze me how the plant and animal life have adapted to it.
Where the Wild Beasts Roam
Florida doesn’t normally conjure up images of prairies and bison. But northern Florida was part of the bison’s historic range before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. For that reason, the park reintroduced a small herd of these animals in the 1970s after it became the state’s first official preserve.
But bison weren’t the only animals to lay claim to the prairie. The park brought in wild horses, believed to be the descendants of those brought to North America by the Spanish.
A Birder’s Paradise
There are hundreds of species of birds who inhabit and migrate through Payne’s Prairie. The Friends of Payne’s Prairie have a great website with a long list of the birds you can find at the park during the different seasons.
Take the quarter mile Wacahoota Trail from the Visitor’s Center to reach the 50-foot observation tower overlooking the prairie. The wooden tower is accessible by foot traffic only.
Jackson’s Gap Trail 1.2 miles
Jackson’s Gap Trail is a short, flat hike through the pine woodlands. During our February visit, we crossed the occasional muddy patch, but it was still an easy-going hike.
Remains of an old house near the trail.
Chacala Trail 6.5 miles
The Chacala Trail has several loops you can adjust to change the length of the trail to suit you, with the longest option being 6.5 miles. This trail wanders through several different ecosystems, including pines and hardwood hammocks, eventually visiting Chacala pond.
Bolen Bluff Trail 2.6 miles
Payne’s Prairie has several trails that aren’t accessible from the main entrance. Bolen Bluff is one of them one. A short drive down the highway, there’s a separate, well-marked entrance with parking at the trailhead.
The park named Bolen Bluff Trail after a pioneering family that once raised cattle on the land. Like all the trails in the park, it’s a flat, easy hike. Unlike some of the trails, however, this one is mostly shaded.
The trail winds through live oak hammock with giant trees. Almost half-way through the hike, there’s a spur trail which leads down into the prairie. It’s on this spur trail where we’ve seen the most wildlife on our hikes at Payne’s Prairie. This is the area where the wild horses and bison graze.
La Chua Trail < 3 miles
The La Chua Trail has a boardwalk with observation areas that allow visitors to see the wetland. This is where we spotted alligators and a large variety of birds. Payne’s Prairie’s website lists the La Chua as almost three miles long. However, because of the changes that water creates in this type of environment, part of the trail is no longer accessible (or hasn’t been in the last year).
Even though we took time to view the animals and enjoy the scenery, I don’t think this flat, easily accessible trail took us over thirty minutes to complete.
Camping (RV, Primitive, & Equestrian)
Camping options range from primitive and equestrian to spots with RV hook-ups. Visitors must arrive at the park at least two hours before sunset to reach the primitive and equestrian sites, which require a 1.85-mile hike, bike, or horse ride down the Chacala Trail.
For RVers, the park has sites with water and 30-amp hook-ups. A few sites have 50-amp service. They have a dump station and bathhouses available for registered campers. For more information about camping at Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park, click here.
The 300-acre Lake Wauburg has limited shore fishing opportunities, as well as a boat ramp. Check out the Florida Fish and Wildlife website for rules and license information.
There’s no shortage of places to ride your bicycle here. For a smooth, paved ride, hop on the sixteen-mile-long Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail. This former railroad line provides an easy-going ride through several conservation areas.
Multi-use trails at Payne’s Prairie which allow cycling are Jackson’s Gap, Chacala, Bolen Bluff, and Cone’s Dike. Though these trails offer little in the way of elevation change, they require fat-tired bicycles for the tree roots and loose, sandy terrain.
Know Before You Go
Different seasons bring unique experiences at Payne’s Prairie Preserve. We’ve visited in the summer and weren’t able to see as much wildlife from the flooding of the prairie and the increased vegetation. On our winter visits, we saw more animals. This doesn’t mean Payne’s Prairie isn’t worth visiting in the summer. Just keep in mind water levels change drastically throughout the year, altering trails and wildlife viewing.
Park hours are 8 a.m. to sunset. Visitor’s Center hours 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Park entrance fee is $6 per vehicle, paid at the ranger station.
La Chua Trail Fee $4 per vehicle, paid at the honor box at the trailhead.
Bolen Bluff Trail Fee $2 per vehicle, paid at the honor box at the trailhead.
The Visitor’s Center, restrooms, and the paved path of the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail are wheelchair accessible.
Due to the likelihood of encountering wildlife on the prairie, the park does not allow pets on the following trails: La Chua, Bolen Bluff, and Cone’s Dike.
There are restrooms available at the Visitor’s Center and at the start of the Jackson’s Gap Trail. A pit toilet is available along the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail on the way to the La Chua Trail. There is no restroom at the Bolen Bluff Trailhead.
Broaden Your Horizons
History of Payne’s Prairie: https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/paynes-prairie-preserve-state-park/history-1
Historic Range of the Bison: https://www.nps.gov/articles/bison-bellows-1-7-16.htm
Have you ever visited Payne's Prairie? Would you walk near the alligators? Leave a comment below. We'd love to hear from you!