In search of the Paynes Prairie Bison

There are many ways into Paynes Prairie, and I’ve been on a quest to explore them all in hopes of finding the elusive prairie bison.

There’s the Bolen Bluff entrance, off of U.S. 441 near Gainesville, and there’s the La Chua Trail entrance,  off the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail.

I’ve hiked each of these several times, but despite my passionate finger-crossing, I’ve yet to spot the bison.  So, I went to the only park entrance left – the main one. (Scroll down for an interactive map of the park entrances.)

Paynes-Prairie-watch-tower

The three-story watch tower looking over the prairie.

The main park entrance, which is along U.S. 441 near Micanopy, provides access to the park’s campground, ranger station, observation deck and several trailheads.  I went for the trails and the tower, hoping to spot the bison before the herd is no more.

I went twice, on consecutive weekends, to no avail.  But I did get to check out the trails on that side of the prairie, and I had another encounter with the Spanish horses that roam the park, which was a nice consolation prize.

The two main trails that leave from the park entrance are Cone’s Dike and Chacala Trail.  Cone’s Dike is a four-mile, one-way trail that heads straight (literally) into the prairie.  It’s beautiful scenery, but the hike itself isn’t terribly enjoyable.  Cone’s Dike Trail is four miles and exactly three 90 degree turns.

Cardinal-Paynes-Prairie

The view from Cone’s Dike Trail (and a solitary cardinal).

Built on the route of an old ranger service road (still apparent, as the first two miles of the trail are gravel), the trail runs in a straight line for a half mile before making a sharp right, where it goes for another half mile.  Eventually, and this is exciting, the trail turns left.  In two miles, another right.  Eventually, it dead ends, and you walk back.

So it won’t win any awards for quality hiking, but Cone’s Dike does offer some great views into the prairie.  When the wild grasses are low, you can see quite a ways, and your chances of spotting the big mammals go up substantially.  Many people on the trail had binoculars for looking into the prairie, which I think is a good idea.

The other major trailhead leaving from the main park entrance is Chacala Trail, which, at about six miles, connects with Cone’s Dike, making for an uninterrupted 10.5-mile hike.

This trail is much more pleasant to hike – interesting terrain, lakes, swamps and some very old, abandoned cracker homes.  It’s only mildly hilly, but at times trudges through very soft sand.  Still, it’s an interesting hike, especially compared to Cone’s Dike.

sandy-trail-Paynes-Prairie

A sandy portion of Chacala Trail.

Hiking-trail-Paynes-Prairie

Chacala Trail in Paynes Prairie.

Unfortunately, this trail winds through the non-prairie part of the state park.  There are no prairie vistas or wide-open expanses (and no chance of spotting the bison), but it’s nice all the same.

The 6.5 miles are broken into several loops, meaning you can choose the length of your hike.  Doing a short two miles will give you the feel of the place, but hiking the full length will give you a better understanding of the park.

Keep an eye out for bald eagles, foxes and alligators.

But alas, the real reason for this post:  Another batch of wild horse pictures.  I’ve written about the history of the wild horses before, but as a quick recap: These horses are descendents of Florida Cracker Horses, which were brought by the Spanish in the 1500s but abandoned in favor of bigger horses a century later.  There are about 2,000 left in Florida – and a sizable portion of the population is in Paynes Prairie.

This time, I saw a bigger group – about seven, including a colt.  Enjoy (I did):

Paynes-Prairie-wild-coltwild-horses-runningWarning-sign-Paynes-Prairiewild-horses-eating

Scenic-overlook-paynes-prairie

The view from the three-story observation tower.

Spanish-moss

Spanish moss provides shade for much of the hike, even when the leaves are off the trees.

Admission at the main gate is $5 per car, and the ranger will give you a trail map if you ask for one.  The observation tower, trailheads and the small visitors’ center are all at the end of the main road into the park.  The park entrance is only a few miles from the Bolen Bluff entrance, and you could easily visit both in the same day.

The great bison quest will continue…

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Comments

  1. Great job with the story. I think we’ll head over tomorrow and see if we can find them!
    Thanks

  2. That last picture of the tree with the Spanish moss is amazing: a quintessential Florida shot.

  3. Another amazing write up! I plan on making a trip back here very soon. I haven’t seen all the areas here so thanks for posting about it!

  4. I’ve seen the bison at Bolen’s bluff and on La Chua Trail. Have you been to Bird Bridge which is on Lake Wauberg – have seen eagles and white pelicans as well as an otter and the usual group of herons and egrets? La Chua trail right now isn’t worth the $2/person – unless you are wanting to see some real life BIG alligators. La Chua sink itself is clogged with water hyacinths. Didn’t see any of the cranes, although you could hear a few faint calls. Besides the very large gator that was sunning right on the edge of the trail, the only thing of real note was a vermillion flycatcher down at the observation tower and an immature red rat snake at the edge of the swamp on the north side of the trail on the walk back that was searching for frogs. Bison are still in the park, http://www.wcjb.com/local-news/2013/04/paynes-prairie-bison-one-year-later, and one small herd of horses with a white mare has been hanging around the la Chua trail (saw the fresh evidence – but not the horses when I was there last weekend).

  5. Gorgeous photos! Thanks for sharing your experiences. Alas, I too have never spotted the elusive bison!

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