Paynes Prairie State Preserve

Paynes Prairie State Preserve

Looking Across Paynes Prairie State Preserve

Description: Day hiking through wild and historical Paynes Prairie. You're likely to see alligators and other wildlife. Bring your camera.

Starting Point: North Rim Interpretive Center. Take State Road 20 to SE 15th Street in Gainesville. Go south on SE 15th Street about 2.4 miles on the right. There's a big brown sign off to west side of the road, but it's hard to see from SE 15th Street. N 29.61487 deg, W 82.30600 deg

Alternate Starting Point 1: Boulware Springs. Take State Road 20 to SE 15th Street in Gainesville. Go south on SE 15th Street for about 2 miles. Boulware Springs is on the west side of the road. N 29.62128 deg, W 82.30602 deg

Alternate Starting Point 2: Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. About 7 miles south of Gainesville and about 3 miles north of Micanopy, on U.S. Highway 441, on the east side of 441. N 29.61487 deg, W 82.30600 deg

Finishing point: Same place you started.


Spend the day exploring this historic 21,000-acre wilderness just south of Gainesville. Paynes Prairie was, during the late 1600s, the site of the La Chua Ranch, the largest cattle ranch in Spain's Florida. William Bartram passed through here in 1774, dubbing the place the "Great Alachua Savannah."

Heavy rains beginning in 1871 slowly flooded the prairie, converting it, by 1873, into a body of water known as Alachua Lake. Steamboats ran on the lake for a while, but in 1891 the lake drained dry like a giant bathtub when the Alachua Sink somehow opened up, siphoning off the water. By 1903 cattle were once again grazing on the prairie's grasses.

In my lifetime, I've seen Paynes Prairie dry, and I've seen it flooded enough to have white caps on it on a windy day.

Where to start

picture of a cottonmouth water moccasin on Paynes Prairie

One starting place is from Paynes Prairie State Preserve, near Micanopy.

There are a variety of trails you can walk.

My favorite is the Cone's Dike Trail because I tend to see more wildlife there. During this time of high water, keep a watchful eye out for water moccasins and alligators on the trail. They're not really a problem, just be aware they might be there. Alligators may appear lazy and slow-moving as they lie still sunning themselves, but they can rise up on all fours and run up to 30 miles per hour over a short distance. Think of how quickly a lizard can move, and imagine an alligator moving with the same speedy agility, because it can. Use that thought to tell you how much distance to maintain between you and an alligator.

Other Starting Places

The North Rim Interpretive Center is also a good place to start. From here it's just a short walk down the La Chua trail to Alachua Lake.

Gators, Gators, and More Gators!

Alligators on Alachua Lake

During times of normal water levels, Alachua Lake is the best place I've ever seen to photograph alligators. To say they are numerous might be conservative.

When you're near the water, be careful where you step in the tall grass. I once walked to within about 10 feet of a large, sleeping alligator before I saw it. Luckily, the creature paid no attention to me. But that was too close for comfort.

The most delightful (and in some respects, spine chilling) photograph of alligators in this area was taken by my friend, fellow Floridian, and outstanding photographer, John Moran.

When it comes to capturing the heart and soul of Florida in pictures, nobody, in my opinion, does it better than John. It's been said that if Florida had a photographer laureate, it would be John Moran.

Check out this INCREDIBLE nighttime photo. You just will not believe it's possible for one small lake to have that many alligators. Aptly named, it's called The Night Has a Thousand Eyes Besides some choice opportunities to photgraph alligators, I've also gotten some good chances to take pictures of water birds--herons and egrets, for example.

The interpretive center is only open during regular business hours Monday through Friday, excluding holidays. At other times, the office and gate are closed, making this starting point inaccessible.

Start at Boulware Springs

When the North Rim Interpretive Center is closed, you can get to Alachua Lake by starting at Boulware Springs off SE 15th Street in Gainesville and walking the mile or so down the Gainesville-to-Hawthorne Trail to the Interpretive Center, then on to Alachua Lake, and beyond.

Contact Paynes Prairie State Preserve 352-466-3397

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