Payne’s Prairie State Park became Florida’s first state preserve in 1970 when the state purchased the land from the Camp family; and located at the north entrance of Payne’s Prairie is the charming La Chua Trail.
While Gainesville is known for its alligators, the La Chua Trail is home to such local wildlife as wild horses, bison, snakes, turtles, birds, and other animals like rabbits and squirrels.
Although La Chua Trail might be a bit hard to find the first time you visit, once you get there, it is very convenient for visitors with a parking lot right at the entrance. From the parking lot, visitors can make their way by foot down a concrete sidewalk, and then veer off either to the Gainesville-Hawthorne bike trail or continue to the La Chua Trail. Although bicycles and pets aren’t allowed on La Chua trail, they are welcome on the bike trail.
Next to the bike trail is a small wooden shelter with a map of the park and information for visitors.
Just beyond the shelter along the path is an old concrete horse barn which gives visitors a chance to learn about some of the history of Payne’s Prairie. Visitors are often shocked to learn the prairie was once used for cattle ranching and was once the biggest cattle ranch in Spanish Florida. In fact, organized cattle ranching in the area dates back to the 1600s.
Up ahead, just past the barn, is an old train trestle that dates back to the 1880s and is a remnant of the old Florida Southern Railroad. Although trains no longer use the tracks, and most of the tracks are gone, the trestle is a quaint reminder that Floridians, and their cattle, have been travelling through the area for many years. The trains that once rumbled overhead played a major role in the founding of Gainesville and as a station to load cattle.
The Gainesville Hawthorne Trail follows a stretch of this old train line which wraps around parts of Payne’s Prairie for over 15 miles.
Past the tracks lays the boardwalk which begins the real journey along the La Chua trail.
But don’t let the wooden boardwalk fool you, this three-mile round trip is a true wilderness experience.
Visitors can enjoy beautiful views of swamplands from lookout points along the boardwalk with Spanish Moss-covered trees providing shade along the way.
Just remember to be on the lookout for wildlife. You never know when you’re going to see alligators, snakes, turtles, wild horses, bison, or other wildlife basking in the Florida sunshine.
The boardwalk also marks the beginning of the Alachua Sink which is the largest and deepest sinkhole in Payne’s Prairie. The sink drains Payne’s Prairie, and without it, the prairie could flood and create a lake.
At first, you could walk past the start of the Alachua Sink and not even know it. The sink extends for a half-mile right where the boardwalk starts. When the aquifer is full, you’ll know because there will be water on the prairie. If the aquifer is low, the prairie basin underneath the boardwalk is dry.
Near the end of the boardwalk is large wooden shelter with a few places to sit and relax. The covering also provides a nice bit of shade on a hot day. But it also serves as the best marker that you have arrived in Gator country as the shelter ends right next to Prairie Creek where visitors can watch alligators swimming, eating, and relaxing.
The trail then opens up along the creek and visitors can walk the grassy path all the way to the Alachua Lake Overlook which is a wooden platform that provides the best view of Alachua Lake right into the heart of Payne’s Prairie.
During our visit, the first portion of the La Chua trail was open, including the boardwalk, but the trail was closed where Prairie Creek becomes easy to recognize due to high water levels which submerged parts of the trail.
We didn’t get the chance to make it out to the overlook but with admission at four dollars per vehicle, and two dollars for pedestrians and bicyclists, we’ll be going back soon.
La Chua Trail really is a hidden gem in the familiar Payne’s Prairie. But remember, wildlife is everywhere on the trail, including the concrete sidewalk where we came across this baby rattler walking back from the trail.
Who knows what we will see next time, but we are excited to find out.