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Paynes Prairie State Preserve

When It comes to visiting Florida, relaxing on white sandy beaches, theme parks and good shopping might be the first things that come to your mind. I would like to invite you to check out what many call the "real Florida." Florida consists of some amazing natural habitats and diverse ecosystems with an abundance of exotic creatures to enjoy. One such location I recommend is Paynes Prairie State Preserve.

Paynes Prairie State Preserve is a Florida State Park, encompassing a 21,000-acre savanna in Alachua County, Florida, lying between Micanopy and Gainesville. It is a great place for hiking and biking as it contains 30 miles of trails, including a 16-mile paved section that is a rail to trail. The entry fee into this park is less than $10 a vehicle, but be sure to have cash on hand.

Wildlife that you may encounter on your adventure of the park includes free-roaming alligators, bison, wild horses, and more than 270 species of birds. I personally recommend visiting the visitor center for more information about the park and its wildlife. There you will also find maps and good general information.

Not far from the visitor center, you'll note the observation tower. It is a view worthy of the climb so I do highly recommend it. However, I learned that most wildlife, like wild horses and bison, are just beyond the natural eye view. So, bring those binoculars to get a good glimpse of them from this vantage point.

The view from the observation tower reminded me a bit of North Dakota, flat but beautiful nonetheless. We could barely make out some wildlife in the distance.

Bring bug spray! I had made a mental note of this before we departed on our trip in December, but totally forgot during the hustle and bustle of packing. The Florida mosquitoes enjoyed eating us alive as we supersonic hiked these trails back to the car. Florida swamp skeeters are like some kind of crazy hybrid, some prehistoric miniature pterodactyls of the insect world, not like my usual mountain mosquitoes. We ended up stopping to get the tiniest bottle of repellent at a random gas station which was more than the price to enter the park.

On the trails, you'll see lots of signs warning of various poisonous snakes, and other dangerous wildlife. You should just assume everything in Florida will kill you. We did visit in the winter months and didn't see any wildlife at all at the park other than birds.

When it comes to camping at the park, there are a few things to note. The campsite near Lake Wauburg accommodates tents, trailers or RVs. The RV sites are back-in, and the tent sites are a short walk from the parking area. The campground is heavily shaded, which will be a nice break from the Florida sunshine. The sites include a fire ring, a grill and picnic tables, and water and electricity are also nearby. For reservations, visit the Florida State Parks reservations website or call 800-326-3521 or TDD 888-433-0287.

Primitive camping is available in the park along the Chacala Trail. The site accommodates up to 20 people. Campers must arrive two hours before sunset, as this site requires campers to travel 1.85 miles along the Chacala Trail, which is open to access on foot, by horse, or by bicycle. Amenities include three tent pads, a waterless restroom, campfire circle, two grills, horse hitching area, picnic shelter with two tables, and a hand-operated pitcher pump with non-potable water. Well-behaved pets are allowed. To primitive camp, reservations must be made 48 hours in advance, in person, or by calling the ranger station between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. at 352-466-3397.

Any firewood used at any of the camp locations is to be bought at the ranger station. Firewood collection from park grounds is prohibited. There is no internet access at the park.

Bringing your beloved pooch along for the adventure isn't a problem, just note pets are not permitted on the following trails:

La Chua, Bolen Bluff, and Cones Dike Trail

For those not looking for a long hike, the Wacahoota trail is a great short walk. The trail starts at the visitor center and is roughly a quarter-mile round trip. Although the path is easy, it is not paved. The observation tower is along this route. If you enjoy plant life, this is a great path to walk.

There will be some amazing flowers blooming here in the spring. Just remember the mosquitoes! It is also worth noting the other trails at the park do have a risk of encountering wildlife, so please respect nature and keep a safe distance. You will see many signs alerting you to such, take them seriously. You are entering at your own risk.

Although we didn't get to spend as much time here as we would have liked on our road trip through Florida, we have seen and experienced enough to say this is a fantastic park and the opportunity to see these really cool animals living in the same space is pretty epic.

There are some crazy videos online about this park that includes the wildlife. Remember nature isn't always so friendly!! View at your own risk! Nature be crazy!

As always friends, Stay Safe, Stay wild, stay curious.

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