PAYNES PRAIRIE STATE PRESERVE, FL — For a short hike with guaranteed wildlife sightings, you can’t beat the La Chua Trail at Paynes Prairie State Preserve south of Gainesville.
This trail (3 miles round trip) is just teeming with critters: dozens of alligators, a myriad of birds, even an occasional herd of wild bison or Spanish horses. The hike begins at the North Rim Interpretive Center and drops down onto the prairie where a raised platform and a path along a dike takes you to an observation tower on Alachua Lake.
The tower is a good place to see the prairie’s most famous winter visitors, the sandhill cranes. At least 1,300 sandhills are on the prairie now, according to Ranger Howard Adams. “At night they come out and roost in Alachua Lake. They have sanctuary there from predators such as bobcats, because the visibility is 360 degrees around.” During the day, the birds often fly off to local pastures, where the feed on grain and cattle feed. (For an up-close look at the sandhills, try the farms south of Evinston, which is just south of Paynes Prairie.)
Even before you approach the prairie, you can sometimes hear their call. Because of their 5-foot trachea, these birds can be heard two miles away. “Paynes Prairie is an area they’ve been coming to for thousands of years. The habitat is what they like,” Adams says. “There’s a lot of food.” Sandhills seem to eat whatever is available, whether it’s plant or animal. The sandhills arrive at the prairie beginning around Thanksgiving and stay as late as March. “Then they’ll migrate back to the Great Lakes and Canada,” Adams says. A subspecies, the Florida sandhill cranes, do not migrate. Between 25 and 30 Florida sandhills live at Paynes Prairie.
The sandhills usually remain at a distance, Adams says. “They’re a very aloof bird because of their size. They’re kind of shy. They want to stay away from individuals and things they consider predators, because they’re not fast taking off. They like their privacy let’s say.”
In addition to the birds, there are about 1,500 alligators at Paynes Prairie. On a good day, its likely you’ll see dozens of them sunning themselves on the banks of Alachua Lake. The trail is closed during nesting season and periods of high water, when the alligators are more likely to sun on the trail.
Paynes Prairie State Preserve Info:
The LaChua Trail at the North Rim of Paynes Prairie State Preserve is located at the North Rim Interpretive Center at 4801 Camp Ranch Road. From US 441 in Gainesville, take SR 331 East to SE 4th Ave, then right at SE 15th St. and follow the road a mile past the Boulware Springs Park. (There’s also a trailhead at Boulware Springs, which ads a mile to the hike. The additional segment is part of the Gainesville-Hawthorne Rail Trail.) The LaChua Trail is open 8 a.m. to one hour before sunset daily. Pets are strictly prohibited, as close-up wildlife encounters are practically guaranteed.