Sometimes, you have to go inland to see “The Real Florida.”
To see the “Real Florida” at its very best, visit Paynes Prairie, stretching 2 miles on both sides of U.S. 441 in Micanopy, a hamlet south of Gainesville.
The 50-square-mile prairie is protected within Paynes Prairie State Preserve. Even speeding past to a Gator game, or heading north for vacation, you’ll know it’s something special.
Blue skies and billowy clouds arch high over tawny grasses swaying in the breeze. Fish leap from ponds. Shorebirds stand tall in swampy marshes. The sun rises on one side of the prairie and sets on the other.
If you’re lucky, you may see flocks of migrating sandhill cranes, grazing bison, wild Spanish horses, roaming cattle, and alligators slipping into tranquil waters.
The 22,000-acre park offers a world of exploration, whether you hike, fish, birdwatch, horseback ride, camp, boat or kayak.
It’s a photographer’s paradise, with 300 species of birds, river otters, bobcats, Florida black bears, wild pigs, white-tailed deer, coyotes, marsh rabbits and hundreds of other critters.
Hiking through canopied forests on the prairie’s edge and staring out over prairie grasses, I thought about the pachyderms, bigger than our elephants, that lived on this land 2.6 million years ago. They shared it with camels, llamas, tortoises as big as bulls, bison, horses and nearly 20-foot-long sloths.
We felt lucky to see American eagles, Great Blue Herons, snowy egrets, turtles, moorhens, limpkins, coots and woodpeckers.
When visiting, you may want to bring binoculars. We were glad we had them when we needed to use them to see the bison, wild horses and cattle far out on the prairie.
We took peaceful hikes through forests of palms, giant oaks, pines, magnolia trees and palmettos bordering the prairie. Often, we were alone and trails were silent, but for the crunch of leaves under our feet.
The great naturalist William Bartram, who visited the prairie in 1774 when it was called the Alachua Savanna, wrote about seeing those same types of trees.
He said emerging from the dark forests to the wide open prairie made him feel “on the borders of a new world! On the first view of such an amazing display of the wisdom and power of the supreme author of nature, the mind for a moment seems suspended, and impressed with awe.”
Bartram met with Seminoles and their chief, Ahaya the Cowkeeper, who lived nearby and ran cattle on the prairie. The “Siminoles,” as he called them, slaughtered cows, prepared a feast for him and let him hunt for plants on their land.
They called him Puc-Puggee, which means “the Flower Hunter.” Today, the park’s campground is named Puc Puggy. The prairie was named for the Cowkeeper’s eldest surviving son, Payne.
The ancient prairie was formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock and the merging of sinkholes. Its waters drain into a sinkhole at the northeast region of the prairie and into Orange Lake to the south.
Back in 1871, that sinkhole – called the Alachua Sink – clogged up and water rushed over the prairie, forming what locals called Alachua Lake. It was so deep steamboats ran on it, carrying passengers, lumber, oranges and other cargo between Micanopy and Gainesville. In 1891, the sinkhole opened up, the lake drained 8 feet in 10 days and became a marshy prairie again.
Today, it’s wetter than some years, and some trails were partially closed on our visit due to flooding.
The best way to see the prairie is to head to the park’s main entrance at its southern end, where you’ll find the Visitor Center with exhibits and a video on the history of the prairie, an observation tower, hiking trails, the campground, picnic area, playground, boat ramp and access to Lake Wauberg.
Farther north, off U.S. 441, look for a sign for the 3-mile, roundtrip La Chua Trail, a boardwalk/grassy trail around Alachua Sink and marshes to an observation platform. (This was partially closed on our visit).
A fishing pier north of that trailhead offers panoramic views of the prairie and some good fishing. On our visit, a fisherman looked at a huge catfish he just caught and said proudly, “That’s the first fish I’ve caught in years.”
North of the prairie, off Williston Road in Gainesville, find Sweetwater Wetlands Park, which offers 3.5 miles of gravel and boardwalk trails over wetlands, ponds and grasses dotted with turtles, moorhens, Great Blue Herons, limpkins, anhingas and other birds.
The 125-acre Gainesville city park was created to protect the quality of water that drains into Paynes Prairie and the Florida Aquifer by filtering out pollution and harmful nutrients.
Its use is more restricted than the state park’s because of the filtering processes. No boats, fishing, bikes, horses, drones or pets are allowed. But, it’s a wondrous place to walk for watery views and birdwatching.
Tips for the Trip
Note: Visiting Paynes Prairie is worth the trip, but it will have to wait awhile. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced March 22 that it would be closing all state parks effective immediately to ensure social distancing in light of concerns about potential spread of coronavirus diease-2019. It is uncertain when the state parks will reopen. Before heading that way, be sure to call ahead.
Paynes Prairie State Preserve is at 100 Savannah Blvd., Micanopy.
Hours: 8 a.m. to sundown daily; Visitor Center open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., daily.
Fee: $6 per car with two to eight passengers; $2 for one passenger, and for walkers and bikers.
Events include: Coffee with a ranger; talking to naturalists about William Bartram; gazing at stars with members of the Alachua Astronomy Club; birding with members of the Alachua Audubon Society.
For the events schedule and other information, see FloridaStateParks.org, and click onto Paynes Prairie State Preserve, or call the ranger station at (352) 545-6000 or the Visitor Center at (352) 466-4100.
Sweetwater Wetlands Park is at 325 SW Williston Road, Gainesville.
Hours: 7 a.m. to sunset daily.
Fee: $5 per car; $2 for walkers and bikers.
Contact: SweetwaterWetlands.org; (352) 393-8520.
By Karen Haymon Long
Published March 25, 2020