Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is much more diverse than I thought. Everything I read praised the park, but left me with the impression of a big, open prairie with beautiful vistas and a chance to see wild bison and horses. All that is true, but there are also miles of gorgeous forest trails, several scenic lakes/ponds, wetlands that stretch to the horizon, and most likely the world’s largest sinkhole.
The park is named after the prairie, so that’s where I started…almost. I parked at the visitor center, hopped on my mountain bike and headed to the Cones Dike Trail/Jackson’s Gap trailhead. Cones Dike is the prairie trail, while Jackson’s Gap takes you to points south. To my surprise, theses trails run through lush, mature forest. Granted, it’s a short ride through the woods to the rim of the sinkhole that forms Paynes Prairie, where you travel down a slope that’s been a victim of erosion for quite some time, before coming to a gate/fence at the bottom of the rim. Presumably, this is to keep the bison and horses inside…but it’s not entirely biker-friendly. However, to the right of the gate the fence has been crushed down a bit to make lifting your bike across slightly easier. There’s a nice little walk-through for hikers.
Here the forest opens on a sinkhole that covers 25 square miles! It’s special enough to be designated a National Natural Landmark. Cones Dike Trail runs 4 miles out across this vast prairie on top of a shallow dike, so a round trip is 8 miles, if you hike or bike the entire trail. If you’ve very lucky, you’ll spot a wild bison or horse. If not, you’ll see some beautiful scenery — oceans of pickerelweed were in bloom during my visit. I did not see the bison or horses, but evidence of their recent visits was everywhere. Take note that this trail is almost entirely exposed to the elements, so prepare accordingly.
Having biked out and back, I was anxious to explore the unexpected forest. So I rode back up and out of the sinkhole, thankful for the shade. Jackson’s Gap Trail led me through a lush wood with nice elevation changes, connecting me to the Chacala Pond trail system. I found myself enjoying the ever-changing forest even more than the prairie. From sprawling ancient oaks draped in Spanish moss to arrow-straight, towering pines, these woods were a very pleasant surprise.
From the Chacala trails I biked the Lake Trail to Lake Wauberg, the second central feature of the park. Again my preconceived ideas about Paynes Prairie were shattered. Lake Wauberg is a scenic recreational lake with full facilities, from an amphitheater to a campground. While there is no kayak/canoe concession here, there is a boat ramp (electric motors only). Across the lake is the University of Florida’s Lake Wauberg recreational facility.
My last stop would be where most people start, because it’s the most likely place to view the bison and horses, especially early in the morning. It’s best that you have binoculars or a scope, since these animals roam a huge area. On the short Wacahoota Trail (hiking only) stands a 50 foot observation tower overlooking the prairie. Here you get a true sense of just how huge this crater-like sinkhole is. Acting like a funnel for the surrounding watershed, up to a million gallons of water drain into the Floridan aquifer here every day…water Floridians desperately need.
Just a prairie? Please. This natural wonder includes more than 20 distinct ecosystems, 270+ bird species, miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding (horses not included), plus a scenic lake for paddling or trolling (electric motors only). Conveniently located just off of I-75 outside of Gainesville, this park is much more than I thought it was.
Know Before You Go! Check out the Photo Gallery, WonderMaps, and links provided. You just may want to stay for more than a day. For more of Florida’s Natural Wonders, check out our Bucket List and Where-to-Go. This land is your land, so get out there and enjoy it!
Paynes Prairie mountain-biking WonderMap. Tip >> Click on waypoint flags for GPS location photos.
Paynes Prairie, Garmin version.
Paynes Prairie State Park, 100 Savannah Blvd, Micanopy, FL 32667 Phone: (352) 466-3397