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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A Fitness Hike in Newnans Lake Conservation Area (Terri Mashour Guest Post)

I’m happy to have Terri Mashour guest posting today about a fitness hike she led at Newnans Lake Conservation Area, near Gainesville.  Read on to hear about her encounter with a water moccasin, an unfortunate split in her hiking group and (I never knew this) how the land management staff uses horses to assist in prescribed burns.

Terri owns Gainesville Ecotours, a company that offers interpretive and informative hikes in some of Alachua County’s most interesting parks and preserves.  Before running her own show, she worked in land management for over six years, specializing in prescribed forest burns, among other things.

But now, her focus is on hiking.  You can catch up with Gainesville Ecotours on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and GainesvilleEcotours.com.  Check Terri’s calendar to join a hike!

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Newnans Lake Conservation Area is owned and managed by the St. Johns River Water Management District and is located in Alachua County, just outside of Gainesville, Florida. It is 6,500 acres found in three disjunct parcels with around 16 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian multi-use trails divided amongst the three. Mostly mesic flatwoods habitat with some sandhills, the northern most tract, Hatchet Creek, has some floodplain systems via Bee Creek, Little Hatchet Creek, Hatchet Creek, and Gum Root Swamp that allow for some beautiful hiking minutes from Gainesville.  That was the setting for our hike on this adventurous day.

Wild Azaleas

The beautiful wild azaleas.

The hike started out with a brief meeting with the on-site resident for the Rotary Club outparcel.  Mr. Sullivan noted that there was a Florida black bear sighting at the entrance the week before. Checking for any food-related care packages, I’m sure! OK, as a veteran of the woods, but a relatively new hiking guide, I could handle that: talk loud and keep a good look out. The group of five – four long time Gainesville residents/friends and me, the fearless guide set out on the main hiking trail at the Newnans Lake Hatchet Creek entrance on the north side of SR 26, five miles east of the Gainesville Airport.

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A hike through Bivens Arm Nature Park

I drive by Bivens Arm Nature Park in Gainesville several times a week, but I had never stopped to check it out until last week.

What I found was interesting – a small park with an interesting, though short, hiking trail.  It’s not the type of place to spend a day, or even an afternoon.  But it’s the type of place where you can get outside, clear your head and still be home in time for dinner.

Bivens Arm Nature Park trail

The park is about 60 acres, and the trail just over a mile.  You pass through some interesting ecosystems in that mile, though.  Past imposing oaks and creeks that, despite the lack of rainfall lately, are still flowing with some gusto.

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The mangrove trails at Weedon Island are the coolest ever

A few months ago, I posted a Friday photo from Weedon Island Preserve, in St. Petersburg. The photo was a few years old, but I revisited the park recently to kayak the trails for probably the tenth time.

There’s lots of great kayaking in Florida, and lots in the Tampa Bay area, but nowhere comes close to Weedon Island.  Watch the video for a good summary:

Weedon is located in on the Tampa Bay side (as opposed to the Gulf side) of St. Petersburg.  Even though it’s been open to the public for the last 80 years, you’d be surprised how many people in the Bay area have never even heard of it.

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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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