There’s plenty of wildlife in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville, but the animals that visitors are most surprised to see in Florida are the bison and wild horses.
The bison are here because they used to live here – evidence suggests that when Spanish arrived, the great herds of American bison extended this far south.
As for the horses, the Spanish brought them, and the ones in the park are their descendants.
Paynes Prairie is a vast park (21,000 acres) that is special enough to be one of 18 Florida National Natural Landmarks. The broad savannah looks a little like the Everglades, spotted with wetlands and lakes. It is a great place for hiking, biking, camping and particularly wildlife viewing.
Because no roads cross the park, you access it from either its southern or its northern end, and each has its own attractions.
The northern end of the park has the justifiably famous La Chua Trail, where you can expect to see alligators. In winter, they’re piled in a heap in the marsh area at the start of the trail, near the Alachua Sink, a natural sinkhole that drains water collected on the marsh into the aquifer. They’re also lurking in the weeds along the trail. (Watch your step.)
The trail starts with a boardwalk with good views over the sink, the wetland and its wading birds. Beyond the boardwalk, a grassy trail extends 1.5 miles into the prairie with a wildlife viewing platform at the end. (In summer, you should take this walk only if well-prepared – there is no shade and temperatures can push 100.)
If you’re lucky, the La Chua Trail is also the best place to see the park’s wild horses. […]