Paynes Prairie- Gainesville, FL
It is hard for me to believe that in the 4 years I lived in Gainesville, I never saw Paynes Prairie…until I stopped on my way out of town (literally, I was moving away). I moved away to cookie-cutter suburbs and found myself longing for an outdoor place to explore and I kept the prairie in the back of my mind until I found myself living back in Gainesville again 3 years later.
This amazing place almost defies explanation as the expansive prairie (21,000 acres) opens up just miles from the Gainesville swamps. It looks like no other place in Florida and attracts migrating Mustang, Bison and Sandhill Cranes to the area to co-habitate with alligators, wild hogs and rabbits. Equally intriguing is the historical significance of this area. Archaeological evidence shows human activity here as early as 12,000 years ago. Fast forward to the mid-1600′s and Paynes Prairie would find itself home to Rancho de la Chua, the largest cattle ranch in Spanish Florida. The wild horses on the prairie which still remain today are thought to be descendants of the horses brought over from Spain during this period. As early as the 1770′s, naturalists, artists and writers like William Bartram, Marjorie Kinan Rawlings and James Audubon have been drawn to the areas beauty, uniqueness and ecological diversity. The following century found the prairie under water from heavy rains. The drain for the basin, called the La Chua sink, clogged and the basin flooded for nearly a decade creating what was then called Alachua Lake. Steamboats delivered lumber, goods and passengers on the lake until the early 1900′s when the basin dried up.
In 1971, Paynes Prairie became the first state-funded preserve in Florida. It is open year round for hiking, canoeing and limited camping. There are numerous different entry points to the preserve scattered around Alachua county which offer many different vantage points in which to take in the views. I recommend checking out the La Chua sink (where the gators sunbathe) and Sweetwater Branch Overlook (where you can look down over the whole prairie) as first stops and try to make it for sunset which is always spectacular. Both are located here off of the Boulware Spring Trailhead.
“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.”
-William Bartram, Travels (1791)
[On his feelings while gazing at Paynes Prairie for the first time]