Just south of Gainesville, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park has a well-deserved reputation as an excellent site for wildlife viewing. The site boasts almost 300 species of birds, along with many other species including deer, otters and many large alligators. You can start an adventure to the park by grabbing a bird list and checking out the interpretive exhibits and video at the park’s visitor center, then taking a short walk to the 50-foot tall tower overlooking the prairie and basin marsh. Venturing out from the center of the park, there are ample opportunities for hiking and biking on more than 30 miles of trails including the 16-mile paved Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail. The 6.5-mile, multi-loop Chacala Trail has nice uplands, flatwoods, fields, wetlands and ponds with potential for Bald Eagle, wading birds. and woodpeckers, while the La Chua trail offers access to the prairie wetland, where you may see Limpkin, Purple Gallinule and Sandhill Cranes. You may also see some of the bison and wild horses that roam free on the preserve!
If you still have time after exploring the state park, it is well worth checking out the nearby Sweetwater Wetlands Park, a man-made wetland designed to improve water quality in Paynes Prairie and the underlying Floridan aquifer. You can walk along the 3.5 miles of well-maintained boardwalks and paths for excellent views of many wetland species (this is a great spot for photographers).
Dogs are not allowed on many trails due to potential confrontations with hazardous wildlife. We recommend you check online or call ahead before your visit, as flooding or drought may affect access and wildlife viewing opportunities, especially along the La Chua Trail.
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
Address: 100 Savannah Blvd., Micanopy, 32667
Hours: Daily, 8 a.m. to sunset
Cost: $6 per vehicle
Sweetwater Wetlands Park
Address: 325 SW Williston Rd., Gainesville, FL 32601
Hours: 7 a.m. to sunset
Cost: $5 per vehicle