North Central Florida offers very few distractions when there are no college sports being played. Some of the nicest beaches in the world aren’t too far away but that isn’t always an option. One of the somewhat hidden treasures that the area offers is Paynes Prairie. The preserve is huge but very accessible thanks to tons of well marked trails and its proximity to Gainesville, Florida. And it is definitely worth visiting. If you don’t have much time to stop there is a boardwalk right on the side of the highway that lets you wander out a couple hundred yards into the preserve, just far enough away from the road that the din of the traffic is muffled.
For folks with more time, however the trails offer great variety and access to forest, swamp and grass-lands. We hiked the Bolen Bluff Trail. It is a hair under 3 miles and is mostly shaded with a bit in the middle that takes you our into the middle of the prairie where there is an elevated look-out tower. The hike provides a great mix of old oak trees and palms covered in Spanish Moss and some phenomenal views of the wild animals relaxing in the sun. Tons of birds – from woodpeckers to eagles – to be seen and a number of larger animals, too. There are herds of wild horses and bison living in the park and we saw a number of the horses from the lookout tower.
Having grown up just around the corner from the Prairie it is often hard for me to remember just how beautiful it is as a destination rather than as just something you pass through on the road between the airport and mom & dad’s house. It most definitely is worth a visit, for a few minutes or a full day.
A few more photos in the gallery here.
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