Florida on a Tankful: Paynes Prairie perfect for winter stroll

By Scott Fais , Feature Reporter
Last Updated: Thursday, February 16, 2017, 6:37 AM EST

Just south of ‘the swamp’ in Gainesville, you'll find another swamp, one designated as a National Natural Landmark.

"It's a little bit like going out west, where we say, “You're on the open range,” said Amber Roux, a Florida State Parks park services specialist. “It's like what it is when you get on the prairie."

Micanopy is home to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

The 23,000 acres of the park is so vast, the northern portion can be accessed using the “La Chua Trail,” just south of Gainesville.

Amber believes this "National Natural Landmark" is a part of Florida that time forgot, with winter the season to see it.

"This is the perfect time to visit the prairie, the vegetation has changed just enough so it almost looks like winter,” Amber explained, adding the brush is thin and devoid of leaves.

“The animals are out. There are not as many mosquitoes and the cranes are here from up north,” she said.

The one thing most notably missing here: trees.  here’s no palms, no pines in the La Chula Trail region that stretches across I-75 and Florida’s famed U.S. Route 441.

Where are all the trees here? The answer can give a sinking feeling.

"It's actually a whole bunch of sinkholes that have collapsed over a great period of time. We call it a ‘sinkhole valley,’” Amber said.  “What's made it so unique is that it's actually lower than everything else, although it doesn't look like it when you're out on it."

These 16,000 of Paynes Prairie acres are home to plenty of giant alligators. An elevated boardwalk helps keep visitors safe from the scores of alligators found sunning themselves. Yet, the boardwalk ends at a grassy pathway that leads to natural areas. Here, the brush is beaten down, where gators can be found just steps away.

"They are completely wild and they are not fenced. So, they are liable to come up on the trail or be close to the trail,” Amber warned.

You're in the alligator's natural territory here. Therefore use caution.

"[Stay] at least 20 feet from an alligator,” Amber cautioned.

In all, there's more than 20 biological areas within Paynes Prairie Preserve. Many are home to wild horses, water birds like herons, raptors like bald eagles and if you look close, you may just find  bison hiding in the bushes.  All of which live off the land.

"You kinda get this feeling you're in this big bowl,” Amber saidd.

A big bowl, only found in Alachua County, Florida.

Parking and Access:
There are several entrances to Paynes Prairie.  The location where Scott Fais entered, known as the “La Chua Trail,” where you can access the elevated boardwalk and sinkhole, is located south of Gainesville.  Set your map and GPS units to this address:  4029-4271 SE 15th St, Gainesville, FL 32641 

When driving to the La Chua gate, pass the county park at the former water treatment plant (it will be on the right side of your car).  The north entrance to Paynes Prairie will be straight ahead.  Do not follow the bend in the road on 15th Street.  Rather, drive straight into the entry.   

For more precise tracking, use this Latitude and Longitude:
29°36'37.1"N  82°18'15.5"W

Admission is $2.00

Tankful on Television:
Catch Florida travel stories like the one above on Television four days a week across Central Florida. The award-winning Florida on a Tankful with Scott Fais airs on News 13 Thursday-Sunday. See new segments in the Bay Area as well on Bay News 9. Stories air beginning at 6am on both channels as a Spectrum exclusive.