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Boardwalk at La Chua Trail, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Micanopy, Florida.

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 will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, in 2021.

Keep an eye on the sky at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park for great potential pictures.

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. We’ll write about Micanopy for our next blog article and include a link here. You can easily combine a day or two visit to both Paynes Prairie and Micanopy.

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.

Although not visible in this picture, this is a prairie area where the bison roam at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Florida.

What to Expect When You Visit Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

With its massive size, Paynes Prairie has a lot to offer, including:

–Hiking

–Camping

–Fishing

–Biking

–Wildlife viewing

–Boating

–Birding…and more.

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.

A deer spotted at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

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 (but see our tips below regarding how to plan your visit, as you may or may not spot them). On the trail, you also encounter a platform that overlooks Alachua Lake.

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. 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. Additionally, there is a trail that will take you closer to the prairie.

The observation tower near the Visitor Center at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

The park’s main entrance includes the campground, several other trails, and Lake Wauberg, where you can can fish and boat.

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, 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.

A view inside the Paynes Prairie Visitor Center.

6 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. Still there are a few tips to follow to help you plan your visit.

  1. 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.
  2. 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. After two visits, we have yet to see these animals at Paynes Prairie. Well, we saw the buffalo during our first visit, from the Visitor Center and Nature Center. They were so far, not even our telephoto lens on a nice camera captured a good shot. That said, we spotted a deer right away during one visit, and we’ve seen many types of birds. Sometimes, it’s just dumb luck to see the animals you want to see.
  3. Also 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, where we barely got past the elevated boardwalk before signs said the trail was closed. due to high water levels. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. If you are fortunate enough to spot alligators, bison, or horses, leave them alone.
This sign at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Florida says it all.

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