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Sarah's Walking Club: Exploring Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Walking Club: Exploring Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
Posted at 5:42 AM, Dec 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-17 14:25:55-05

Many of us are looking for ways to remain active while also staying a safe distance away from others. That's why Sarah Phinney started 'Sarah's Walking Club’ to highlight some hidden, and some not so hidden, trails and parks across Tampa Bay.

A unique experience awaits you and your family two hours north of Tampa. Feel like you’re in the Wild West while watching wild bison and wild horses graze at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. It’s unlike anywhere else in the state.

Where is it?

There are multiple entrances to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, but the best place to begin is at the main entrance. The address is:

100 Savannah Blvd.
Micanopy, Florida 32667

Eventually, you’ll have to leave the main area to get to other parts of the park. More on that later.

“It’s kind of like the Grand Canyon, it’s pretty big,” said Heather Goston, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park Assistant Park Manager. “You can’t go through it, you gotta go around it, but at each of our entrances, we have little access points that you can kind of get a taste of that prairie basin feel.”

What should I do first?

After stopping at the ranger station, head back to the visitor center.

“If you’re a history buff, you love plants, you love animals, you love water… Whatever you’re interested in, you’re gonna find that story at the visitors center and then you can kind of choose your own adventure,” said Goston.

Don’t leave this area without climbing the observation tower. It’s 50 feet up and provides sweeping views of the prairie.

“It’s also just kind of a nice place to sit, be quiet, soak it all in, really get the magnitude of this place,” she said.

The observation tower is a great vantage point to look for wild horses, bison and more.

Goston says the herd size of the horses and bison number is around 50 each. The bison were reintroduced as a native species in the 80s. The wild horses were introduced around the same time.

According to Goston, it’s more common to see the wild horses because they travel in small family groups, whereas the bison tend to travel in two larger groups.

“There are people who have come here 10, 20, 30 times and they’ve never seen the bison because the park is 22,000 acres,” said Goston. “The bison have access to 16,000 of those acres so there’s no guarantee that you’ll see them.”

If you do see any wildlife, remember to keep your distance.

“It is always best to pause, observe from a distance and then go back the way you came,” she said.

What trails should I hike?

There are miles of trails at Paynes Prairie Preserve.

Two favorites are the Bolen Bluff Trail and LaChua Trail.

The Bolen Bluff Trail is 2.6 miles roundtrip (if there is no flooding). The trail winds through the woods to the prairie and ends at a small observation deck.

“It is an upland, loop trail so if you want to do a nice, gentle hike, that is a great place to start,” said Goston.

The LaChua Trailis three miles roundtrip (again, if there is no flooding) and leads to another observation tower.

It’s a very popular place to see wading birds, eagles and alligators. The address is:

4801 Camp Ranch Rd
Gainesville, FL 32641

When should I visit?

The park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset every day of the year.

“This place is amazing,” said Goston. “You can find something for anybody, even if you just come to the observation tower and soak it all in.”

Join Walking Club!

Post photos of your adventures, ask questions and learn about upcoming Walking Club stories in Sarah’s Walking Club group on Facebook!

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