Bison in Florida? Yes! You can find them grazing alongside wild horses at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. With its diverse ecology and vast wildlife-lots more besides those bison and horses—this 22,000-acre wilderness could be called the Yellowstone of Florida. If you ever traveled on I75 through northern Florida, you have driven through this amazing place. We’ve spent some time there now and can happily say it’s a must-visit for you Tent Lifers. Our visit was in celebration of our 22nd wedding anniversary; it also happened to be Easter weekend-a long weekend with optimal weather for some outdoor fun.
We rolled into Paynes Prairie about 2:30 pm, found our site, got set up, and biked to the visitor center to acquaint ourselves with the park. The ranger was just closing up by the time we got there-the visitor center is only open until 4:00 pm every day —but he gave us some great information about the trails and pointed out an active eagles’ nest just above us. (We did not get to see any eaglets but it was cool nonetheless.) The ranger highly recommended the La Chua trail for optimal wildlife viewing. It’s on the north side of the prairie so we planned to travel there by truck the following day. To take advantage of the remaining daylight, we struck out for the 50-foot observation tower overlooking the prairie. We heard and then saw two wild horses, saw a whooping crane, and enjoyed a delicious breeze off the prairie. When we had our fill, we headed back to our bikes and geocached around the visitor center. I’ll talk more about geocaching in a minute, but for now I’ll just say that we found all the prizes we could outside and planned to go back the next day to find the promised treasure behind the locked doors of the visitor center.
The campground at the park is not huge— only 46 sites total, a mix of RV/camper sites and tent-only sites. The tent sites are walk-in sites, which means you park in a parking area and carry your stuff in. That’s the route we took, of course (have we mentioned that we’re Tent Life?). The walk isn’t far, maybe 100 feet, and it’s kind of nice not having your vehicle right there when you are out in nature. All the tent sites are nice with trees and under brush and mostly shaded, some sites are more private than others. They all have water and electricity and the bathrooms were close and clean.
After our look around the visitor center, we went back to the site to grill burgers and have a nice fire. The air temp was just great for sleeping outside and there were no bugs or mosquitoes to deal with, so we didn’t have to worry about insect repellent. We weren’t even pestered by a raccoon. Our daughter serenaded us with her ukulele and the clear sky gave us the opportunity to enjoy the stars— so many more than we get at our home in the city. It was a great time. Sigh.
Day 2 as planned we drove to the other side of the park to the north entrance to check out the La Chua trail. Just a couple of days earlier, this trail had made news when a video of a horse trampling an alligator had gone viral. We headed out early to beat the crowds and the heat; this hike heads into the prairie so there isn’t much in the way of shade. (There is shade, however, in the parking area, where we left our truck under the majestic oaks.) We brought our bikes because the same area of the park has a 16-mile paved rails-to-trails bike path. This part of the park was at one time a functioning cattle ranch, Rancho la Chua, and there is plenty of historical information about it in the empty, concrete-block stable you pass through to get to the boardwalk. There we learned that the bison were reintroduced to the area in 1976 after having been hunted to extinction. A body of water formed by a sinkhole is viewable from the boardwalk and this is where we spotted our first two gators. As we continued on around the bend we got to the main body of water where there were well over two dozen gators along the banks alone, most were medium to large in the 6- to 10-foot range. Eventually the boardwalk ends and the trail becomes a raised, grassy path. The Friends of Paynes Prairie park volunteers have an information tent set up on weekends with lots of reference materials. We checked out the dry erase board to see what wildlife had been viewed that day and chatted with a volunteer who told us that we’d come to the trail end in about a mile and a half. There we could climb a 10-foot observation platform to see bison.
As we made our way to the platform, we passed countless alligators, big ones too. The ranger told us that someone had recently counted more than 200 in a single day, and that seems pretty accurate to us. We’ve never seen so many alligators at once, even in Everglades National Park. The general rule is to allow 20 feet between yourself and an alligator; on land they can run pretty fast with the use of their four legs and they can propel themselves forward with their powerful tails. Most were hanging out in and around the water in the low lying areas beside the trail. They looked like huge tractor tires strewn about soaking up the sun. We encountered a huge one that was on the trail as he was crossing over towards the water. Our daughter was uneasy, so we waited until he’d made it into the water and then we went on our merry way. Reptiles weren’t our only companions. An array of birds, including red-winged black birds are plentiful along the trail and when we reached the observation deck a group of 20 or so bison were in the distance along with some horses. (Note to self: Bring along binoculars next time)
We had a tailgate lunch at the truck before exploring the bike path. Since we decided to upgrade to the premium geocache subscription that morning, it presented many, many more geocaches to find. Our daughter found her first one that day near an overlook off the bike path. Geocaching is a great activity for kids especially while hiking because it keeps them interested in continuing on. It also hones map reading and problem solving skills.
We headed back through “Gatorland” and stopped to talk to another volunteer who told us that one of the seven wild horses we were watching had just been born a few months ago in December. The volunteer said that this was the group of horses that came to fame in the viral gator video. He also told us that sometimes during wetter seasons, portions of this trail are closed due to high water. We were grateful for the dryness Florida had been experiencing as it allowed us to see the bison. When there is a lot of standing water, the bison move to other areas that aren’t always viewable from paths. As we headed back toward our truck and bikes, we spotted a small coral snake meandering through the leaves. (For such brightly colored snakes they sure can blend in well!)
We had a tailgate lunch at the truck before exploring the bike path and getting down to some serious geocaching. We Tent Lifers tend to prefer to actually be in nature while we’re out in nature, but we’re fans of any technology that will keep our kids eager to stay out as long as we want to explore. And don’t tell the kids, but geocaching hones map-reading and problem-solving skills. Geocaching involves using your smartphone’s GPS to find a hidden container that most times contain physical prizes. For example, magnets, coins, and other trinkets kids love. We upgraded to the premium geocache subscription that morning and it presented many, many more geocaches to find. Our daughter found her first one that day near an overlook off the bike path.
We rode for just a little while and headed for our next hike on Bolen Bluff, which is a nice shady loop followed by a sunny stretch that takes you out into the prairie. This trail had a series of four geocaches and our daughter found them all. We made it back to the visitor center just in time to find the geocache that was inside.
Now it was time to relax at the campsite, decorate some Easter eggs, and rinse off all the dirt and sweat. We opted to dine in town (Gainesville, an easy 15-minute drive) to celebrate our anniversary. After the delicious food at Leonardo’s 706 we made our way back to camp for some Prosecco, a fire, and a fun Easter campout treat: roasted marshmallow peeps which are like crunchy creme brûlée exterior with gooey marshmallow inside. We slept like logs that night.
After a fun Easter egg hunt in the woods the next morning, we set out to explore Lake Wauberg. It’s adjacent to the campground on an easy paved path. It’s perfect for a day trip, as it has large picnic pavilions, bathrooms, a playground, and a boat launch for kayaks and canoes. Guess what we found? Well, yeah, gators of course. But much to our daughter’s delight, we found three more geocaches!
We ate a quick breakfast, packed up our gear, and headed for one more hike— the Chacala trail, which is a set of trail loops linked together. It totals 6.5 miles, but you can adjust the length of your hike depending on your schedule and energy level. This trail was our richest geocaching opportunity yet.
Paynes Prairie gave us everything we wanted in terms of wildlife viewing, beautiful flora, well-tended trails, and a comfortable camping area. It had the added bonus of a wealth of geocaches. (We found 18 in all—everything from coins to our first trackable cache. If you geocached at Paynes Prairie shortly after Easter, you may have scored a Tent Life sticker!) Hunger and thirst led us to check out First Magnitude Brewing back in Gainesville; it’s a fun place with indoor and outdoor seating, many games, and a food truck. Such a great way to cap off our trip.
Camping and Thanksgiving just Go Together in Florida. If you ever want to experience this, you want to plan ahead and make a reservation somewhere because it is a popular time. Or, if you want to risk it and be spontaneous, just show up somewhere and you may get lucky. Our plan was to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner at home and then OptOutside for the rest of the weekend. We returned to one of Florida’s oldest state parks, Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring, Florida and luckily secured the LAST primitive site as a walk-in. We were happy to have it and as we drove in we saw a deer in an open field. The main campground was so full that we enjoyed the peacefulness of the primitive camp area. These sites were not the type you have to hike to so we were able to drive right up. They did not have electricity or running water and the bathroom was a composting toilet/hand sanitizer combo but we did have use of the main campground bathroom when we needed to shower. These bathrooms also have a dishwashing station with a sink and counter which feels like a luxury. They even have laundry machines because this park is favored for long term RV stays.
Back to Thanksgiving and camping, one thing that was really great was the food planning was a breeze. We simply packed up a lot of our turkey day leftovers in foil pouches to reheat at camp. It was delicious and easy. For those that are camping for Thanksgiving dinner, you see some elaborate cooking set ups. Some bring smokers to cook their turkey which is quite tasty. Something else that makes for an easier time is doing food prep at home ahead of time and heating the dish up at camp. Many campers really get into the holiday spirit by decorating their sites; we saw pumpkins and mums. Some people even finished the weekend with some Christmas decorations!
This park has nine great nature trails. They all spur off of this scenic one-way paved loop that is great for biking as well. Most of the trail heads have a bike rack and a lot of the trails also have boardwalks. We arrived in time to have lunch at our site and then set up camp. We headed out to explore the trails. We first decided to check out a couple we have not been on before. They have some very impressive old oak trees at this park and they are now at the point of decline even after preservation attempts. Still a sight to behold though. We love trees; this park is know for its old growth hammocks and some of the oaks are pushing 1,000 years. One of the trails is called Big Oak trail as it features one of these majestic trees.
That evening we cooked at our site but the mosquitos were relentless at sundown. IF we had those mosquito face nets, we would have definitely used them. Probably the worst mosquito inundation we have ever experienced but fortunately they let up after the sun completely set and what a beautiful sunset it was! We did formulate a plan that we would go into town for dinner the next night to not relive that experience. The weather was really great for camping and usually is during Thanksgiving in Florida so we totally understand the draw.
We were treated to a spectacular sunrise with the moon also in view. After breakfast of day 2, we set out to explore more trails/boardwalks. We saw a lot of armadillos which were visible along the paved loop and in open fields. Our favorite trail in the park is the Cypress Swamp Trail. It is a boardwalk that forms a one-way loop taking you out over the tannic water and among the large cypress trees and knees. This is a great spot for bird viewing. For a good section of the boardwalk it narrows to what is known as “the catwalk” with railing on only one side. On our way back to the campsite we did see one alligator in some shallow water beside the road and stopped to observe it. There are also bears in this area of Florida; we did not see any this trip but saw one the first time we camped here. Their internal clocks lead them to the campground area around check out time on Sundays to scavenge. Leave no trace, please.
Morning of Day 3 we had breakfast and got our camp packed up. We decided that since it was on our way home, we would stop off at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales to have a picnic. It was a great way to get into the holiday spirit with their gorgeous botanical displays. The weather was beautiful and the carillon concert was festive. We may have found our new Thanksgiving family tradition.