Earlier this week, tropical storm Betty rumbled over northern Florida, delivering some much-reeded rain to our perennially dry summer coffers. But then it kept raining and raining and raining. Some estimates have the rainfall as high as 25-30 inches in parts of north Florida.
In Alachua County, a lot of that rainfall drains into Paynes Prairie – a 22,000-acre preserve with a variety of ecosystems and wildlife.
One of the things I’m always looking for are places where you can forget that you’re living in the 21st century, even if only for a moment. I cherish the moments where I can look out into the horizon and not see any roads, billboards, drugstores or golden arches. In Paynes Prairie, there’s plenty of moments like that.
Paynes Prairie is, in my opinion, one of the gems of the Florida state park system. The diversity of wildlife (wild horses and a bison herd, among others) and the sheer scope of the prairie make it a wonderful place to spend the day.
After a storm such as Debby, the prairie is even more impressive. I hiked the La Chua trail for the first time this week, and it was almost entirely surrounded by water – a bit like walking on a 2-mile peninsula into the park. I spoke with some park regulars, and they put the water at about 10 feet higher than usual. At times, the prairie can be pretty dry. It’s still a beautiful sight, but I’ll take the water any day.
The La Chua trail is pretty mild – only about 3 miles round trip, with a wooden boardwalk for the first (and last) quarter mile. The boardwalk was nice, as boardwalks go, looking over the Alachua Sink – which, not surpassingly, is so chock full of alligators you could easily mistake it for a gator farm. For those for whom a natural ground hike isn’t possible (the elderly, for example), the boardwalk is fantastic. Lots of shaded benches and beautiful scenery.
The trail also passes under an old concrete railway truss, which used to prop up the only railway through the prairie. The tracks are long since gone, but the tress is a nice reminder of a bit of Florida history. A stable building, the centerpiece of the cattle ranch that occupied the prairie during the 1940s, is also open and on the trail.
From the boardwalk, the trail winds a mile and a quarter out to an observation tower. The tower looks promising – from the top (it’s only 10 feet or so off the ground), you could easily see miles in every direction. When I visited, the tower had been commandeered by a swarm of angry hornets, which made it a no-go for me. Still, from the ground next to the tower, there’s plenty of great views all around.
The hike follows the same route back, but with all the wildlife around, that’s not really a bad thing. We saw more alligators than I could count, plenty of soft-shelled turtles, a water snake, rabbits and some unbelievable flowering plants. The bison and wild horses eluded me once again, but I’m told the La Chua trail is the place to see them.
It’s a level walk and a great one if you just need to get away for a couple of hours. A couple things to note before you head out: Bring sunscreen and water. As with all hikes into the prairie, there is virtually no shade. In the middle of a summer afternoon, it doesn’t take long to get a nasty sunburn.
Bring bugspray. The prairie is filled with winged creatures, including mosquitos, and ticks can pose a bit of a problem too.
There’s two main ways to get to the trailhead: It connects with the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail, so while you can’t take bikes on La Chua, you can ride them to the entrance and lock them to the bike rack. There’s also a small parking area near the trailhead, and you can park for free.
Admission to the park is $2 a person. There isn’t a ranger on duty, but a metal box is more than happy to collect your fee. To get to the park by car, take the Williston exit from 1-75 toward Gainesville. Take a right on Southeast 4th Street. Turn right onto Southeast 15th Street. This road will dead-end at the trail’s parking lot. On bicycle, the trail head is all the way on the Gainesville side of the Gainesville-Hawthorn trail. Starting from the Gainesville end, it’s on your right side – you won’t miss it.