This is probably the most popular trail in Payne’s Prairie Preserve. It’s only about three miles round trip, and it’s very easy to walk. Along the way we spotted a lot of wildlife; it’s a terrific spot to visit.
The parking area for the trailhead is shaded by giant oak trees that line the first portion of the trail. The trail starts as a sidewalk that winds through these enormous oaks and bringing us to an railroad overpass that was created to allow ranchers to move their cattle from the prairie to get them to market.
After going under the RR overpass, the trail goes through an old renovated barn with informational placards on the inside. The placards describe, among other things, how the ranchers were able to use the natural building materials and breezes to keep the animals cool during the hottest part of the summer, including laying the blocks in such a way to allow the wind to come through the building.
The boardwalk to Alachua Sink begins at the end of the paved walkway. The sink is a major water inflow to the Floridan aquifer and is a gathering spot for several types of wetland wildlife. There were too many plants in the water this day to see any alligators at the sink, but there were several herons and other water fowl along the edges.
The boardwalk continues for about 1/4 mile with two shaded pavilions along the way. Looking off the east from the second pavilion, there is a small island that appears to be a limestone outcropping with trees growing on it.
Leaving the boardwalk behind, the trail is grass – it is still an easy walk, and this is probably one of the most interesting parts of the hike. On the east side of the trail, the water has fewer plants, and is filled with alligators.
There are enough alligators where they sometimes get a little too close to each other for their own comfort. We saw more than one little ruckus while we watched these guys swimming about. This seems to be a popular spot because the water from the prairie flows into this spot bringing fish (and other food) with it.
The one gator that held my attention was right next to the shore at the bottom of the berm; this guy was huge. If I had to estimate his size, I would say that his head was at least fifteen inches across. As you can see, he was well shaded by the plants floating above him, so I couldn’t guess his length.
Beyond the alligators, the trail continues through the wetlands where it wasn’t long before we saw the wild Spanish horses that roam the prairie. This was a small group of only three (I don’t know if that qualifies as a herd), and they were just casually looking around and posing for pictures as people passed by along the trail.
The trail continues through a field of lilies in full bloom that were growing along with seed pods that I’ve only seen in craft shops before this trip. The grass portion of the trail is about a mile long where it ends at an overlook platform that has a view of the prairie.
The top of the overlook is a great place to linger. The views are amazing and the cool breeze blowing over the water makes it a very comfortable place to just soak in the views.
If this is on your list for spots to visit, I would recommend bringing bringing a telephoto lens for your camera and maybe even a pair of binoculars. The prairie is pretty big, and they came in handy for us.
(Many more photos available on our Panoramio Page)
Shaded Parking Area
Oaks along the trail
Gator on the shore
Overlook at the end of the trail
Flowers by the trail