Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park – FL’s First State Preserve
All photos by Kelsey Walters
If you’ve ever visited the Gainesville area, or even just driven through, you may have noticed a huge expanse of undeveloped land.
Things to Do Outdoors in Florida
The sleepy little town of Micanopy, located just south of Gainesville, is home to an array of antique stores and quaint cafes…as well as a herd of wild bison. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is a 21,000-acre savanna that is at the heart of the area’s Paynes Prairie Basin and home to over 300 species of wildlife, the most notable being the wild horses and bison.
Contrary to the old western tune, “Home on the Range,” buffalo don’t actually roam the wild west, or Florida in this case. Buffalo is actually a popular misnomer given to the American bison. Buffalo are only found in Asia and Africa, while bison roam North America and parts of Europe. What’s the easiest way to tell them apart? Think of bison as American hipsters sporting thick, wooly beards (but without the man buns and flannel).
Where to Find Wildlife in Florida
Avery doesn’t care what kind of beards they have, they’re all “buffawo” to her, and she was thrilled to visit the prairie in the hopes of seeing them. Most days it’s wise to get to the park as soon as it opens for the best chance at seeing the most wildlife. We, however, have a toddler that takes roughly three months to get out the front door, so an afternoon trip was in store for us. The horses tend to roam freely while the bison are more elusive and are most active early in the day.
After hiking about two miles into the Cone’s Dike trail, we were lucky enough that heavy rains the days before had flooded out some of the area, containing them to a higher and dryer portion of the prairie. They were soaking up the afternoon sun on a cool day and spectacular to see in their natural habitat.
The bison ended up here back in 1971, after a wild herd was released into the area as part of a conservation effort, making Paynes Prairie Florida’s first state preserve. Years later and the huge fuzzy beasts are still thriving here.
Things to Do at Paynes Prairie Preserve in Micanopy, Florida
By the end of the day, we had spotted eight horses and four bison, most of which were in the same spot, as well as countless birds. Due to the flooding, we stumbled across a huge marsh filled with hundreds of large sandhill cranes feeding in the waters. Sandhill cranes are a protected species in Florida, so it was really exciting to see such large numbers of them.
The prairie has eight different trails, each offering their own unique terrains, sights and even wildlife. Some have the promise of wild turkeys, some make it easy to spot gators and one has a 50-foot observation tower providing a panoramic view of most of the area. From here you can spot groups of horses and bison to plan your trails.
Upon arrival, I recommend asking the incredibly helpful park rangers at the entrance where they have been spotted that day to better your chances. Trails that are not in designated wildlife areas (AKA the bison trails) allow bicycling and horseback riding.
There is also a visitor center that is a great spot to start your trip to the park and has easy access to several of the trails. Here you’ll find educational exhibits on the history and wildlife found in the park as well as floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the prairie.
We stayed at the park until sundown, but could have easily spent days exploring and still have more to see. If a daytrip isn’t enough time for you, tent, RV and equestrian camping are available, as well as several educational programs and lecture series to learn more.
Visiting this park has really made a huge impact on our little explorer, Avery. Since seeing the “buffawo,” she can’t stop talking about them to everyone she meets and asks daily to go back and see them. She even got her own stuffed bison for her recent birthday, which she has hilariously named Bum.
I can’t blame her for her obsession – they were quite the sight to see, and I can’t wait to go back either!
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
Open 8 a.m. – sundown
$6 per vehicle