Bolen Bluff Trail, which is part of the Paynes Prairie trail system, packs a lot into a three-mile trail.
There is easy access to the trailhead (right off US 441 between Gainesville and Micanopy), so it’s great for an afternoon hike. I had never been, and considering I live only a few minutes away, that seemed like a problem that needed fixin’.
The main trail is a 2.6-mile loop, with a bluff about halfway that (supposedly) looks out over the prairie. From the bluff, there’s an additional half-mile spur that juts out, in straight line, into the prairie.
The trail is mostly flat, but there are interesting (at least for Florida) drop-offs next to the trail, which, just for a second, might make you forget you’re in Gainesville.
I made my way into the park (the trail is managed by the State Park staff) and whistled my way out to the bluff. I could see the clearing up ahead and was prepping myself for the big reveal – a breathtaking expanse of prairie that would transport me to the African Savannah or the Great Plains.
What I saw, though, was nothing. Turns out, the park service hasn’t been cutting down trees to preserve my view. From the bluff, you can’t really see a thing except for thick foliage in all directions – although a covered park bench, a relic from a long-forgotten time, sits a few feet away, a great spot to sit and take in the non-view.
I’m kidding, of course, and I don’t want the park service to cut down trees for me, but I was looking forward to the sight of all that prairie land stretching out in front of me. Glum, I headed out on the Prairie spur – a straight, sun-drenched half-mile to nowhere.
I hiked down to the start of the spur and took out a few spiderwebs with my spiderweb remover (my face). But then, out of nowhere, the hiking gods sent me a gift.
Two breathtaking, all-black wild Spanish horses came ambling out of the woods and right in front of my path. I froze.
(Native Floridians aren’t used to large land mammals waltzing out of the woods. We don’t have elk or moose, herds of buffalo or rogue grizzly bears. We have a very small number of small black bears; we have deer that sprint away at the sight of humans; we have raccoons and possums at night; and we have cockroaches that you could saddle – but none of those things can prepare you for a pair of full-grown, adult horses walking out of the woods right in front of you.)
So, remaining as still as possible, I did what any rational person would do. I took pictures. I’m no rodeo star, but I’ve been around horses enough to feel comfortable with them. But a wild horse is a different animal, and I wasn’t sure of the protocol for wild-horse encounters.
The horses didn’t seem to mind me, so I continued on. They grazed nearby for about 15 minutes before sauntering off.
A quick history lesson on the horses: These horses, known as Florida Cracker Horses, were first brought to this part of the world by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. These horses have been repopulating ever since and have become a genetically unique group. Native American tribes living in Florida have herded these horses, and early European settlers used these horses to work cattle. Populations have been declining since the 1930s, when this breed of horse lost favor to bigger, more powerful breeds. Now, wild cracker horses have critically low populations (less than 2,000 in the state) – and there’s only a few places in the state where you may run into one. To help protect their numbers, the horses were introduced into Paynes Prairie in the 1970s and have been wild ever since. For what it’s worth, the Florida cracker horse is the official horse of the state.
After the thrill of seeing wild horses roaming the trails, I hiked back, grabbing a few Geocaches along the way (there are several on this trail). It was a few hours well spent – and for a $2-per-car admission fee, it was money well spent.
And while the trail was only a few miles long, it reminded me why I love the outdoors so much. When you are out on a hike, or paddling downstream in your kayak, you never know what you’re going to see. Sometimes, it’s just you and trail. But every once and a while, it’s you and the trail and the horses. Or you and the kayak and the monkeys. And those are moments that will never happen if you stay home.
The Bolen Bluff trailhead is located on US 441, on the Micanopy side of Paynes Prairie, about two miles west of the observation deck. The trail can be hiked in an easy hour, but there are many other Paynes Prairie hikes nearby.
And one last note for fellow history nerds: The first battle of the Second Seminole War, known as the Battle of Black Point, happened on land that is now Bolen Bluff. Cool, huh?