Location: Gainesville, Florida
Webpage: Florida State Park
General Description: The prairie south of Gainesville, Florida, was the stronghold of the Seminole Chief Ahaya the Cowkeeper in the 18th century and named for his son, Payne during the period of time that northern Florida was under control of the Spanish and the Seminole tribes were formed centered around the raising of cattle in northern Florida. In 1776, it was visited by William Bartram, who mentioned the grazing of cattle. It is misnamed a prairie, as it is really a complex system of freshwater marshes in a large sink in the limestone. The only natural drainage is an underground outlet on the north end, that maintains a low water depth throughout the marsh. In the past, this drainage has become blocked, especially during periods of heavy rain, and the prairie becomes a shallow lake. The last time this happened was in from 1871-1886. During this time steamboats were a common sight on Alachua Lake transporting oranges and other crops from the south to the railhead in Gainesville. There have been attempts in the past to drain the marsh to create grazing area for cattle, but without much success. However, the dikes still exist and are used for hiking trials in the Preserve. Today nearly the entire sink is owned by the state with Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park covering 21,000 acres. The major objective for the Preserve is to restore the historic condition of the area and protect the water resources entering the park. With regards to this effort, the Preserve re-introduced a herd of bison from Oklahoma in the 1970s. After reaching a peak of 70 animals in 2011, the Preserve has began culling the herd and sterilizing the males to keep a healthy herd of around 50 bison. They also re-introduced a herd of Florida Cracker horses and Florida Cracker cattle to the Preserve. Visitors can enter the Preserve and walk the old dikes in search of these animals and other wildlife, including many birds and alligators. There is also a Visitor Center with a short walk to an observation tower that gives a great view of the prairie from the south end. The northern end can also be accessed by a nature trail off of US 441 that leads to a wildlife viewing tower about 3/4 miles into the Preserve along another dike.
1) In amongst the pine flatwoods of northern Florida, Paynes Prairie is a surprising place. It is a VERY large freshwater marsh, with at least 15 distinct plant communities depending upon the water depth and duration. The habitat changes every year depending upon rainfall or drought conditions.
2) The Visitor Center is relatively small with a few exhibits about the natural environment and local history. They have a nice 20 minute film about the history and some great aerial shots from helicopters flying over the Preserve at different times of the year.
3) Unfortunately, the wildlife viewing tower at the Visitor Center was closed for repairs when we were there, but I can imagine the view is spectacular. We did take the short hike through the hardwood hammock and saw the fringes of the Prairie.
4) We walked about 1.5 miles out on Cone’s Dike Trail that begins at the Visitor Center. This trail is where most of the bison sightings occur and a visitor we met coming out stated he thinks he saw some bison at a distance. Therefore, we were hopeful, but did not see any bison or horses along this trail. We did see plenty of bison and horse scat and a number of large bison wallows in the side of the dike.
5) There is a short boardwalk out into the prairie from a pull out along US 441. It gives travelers a quick opportunity to take a moment to appreciate the freshwater marsh that is the prairie.
6) We also walked the Bolen Bluff Trail which is a 2.6 mile loop that travels through a hardwood hammock on the side or bluff of the prairie and a 3/4 mile hike on one of the dikes out into the prairie to a wildlife viewing platform. We did see one of the Florida Cracker horses near the trail in the hammock.
7) We camped in the campgrounds in the Park and found them to be everything you would expect in a State Park. The sites are very spacious with lots of trees. We could just see our neighbors through the trees. We camped right across the road from the restrooms, which were clean and rustic in construction. If they are heated, then the heat was not turned on. This may seem surprising that this would be an issue in Florida, but when a mild cold front came through in early March, a little heat would have been nice. All of the sites are back-in which can be a challenge for big rigs, especially with all the trees. Hookups were 30 amp electric and water, only.