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.

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Unusual wildlife on La Chua trail in Paynes Prairie

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.

Tropical Storm Betty

Tropical Storm Betty dumped more than two feet of water on 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.

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