Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park had been on our go-to list for three seasons before we finally got to make the trip! Previous trips had to be cancelled either due to kids’ school activities or weather, so we were excited when the stars aligned and we were able to go. The big draw for us was the fact that wild horses and bison roam the prairie. How exciting is that?!
We hiked the La Chua Trail which extends over a boardwalk and out into the prairie and offers an observation deck at the end. Along the way, we witnessed some spectacular alligator behavior. Having lived in Florida for 12 years, we’re used to alligators, but taking the time to watch the many gators in these ponds as they vied for domination and space was very interesting.
Who knew that there would be thousands of Sandhill Cranes on the prairie as well? We are lucky to have several Sandhill Crane families in our neighborhood and are happy to slow down for them and look forward to seeing them walk their colts through the neighborhood each spring. I have never seen or heard so many of these beautiful creatures in one place. Many were of the migrating kind and others are here year-round. It was clear they had a lot of catching up to do and it was a pleasure to watch them.
Unfortunately, the fog was thick over the prairie on the morning that we walked the trail so even when we made it out to the observation tower, the view of the bison and horses was a bit obscured but it was still exciting to see them!
Later we hiked the Bolan Bluff Trail and were thrilled to find a few wild horses grazing through the trees not far from us. With no other humans around, it was a little disconcerting and yet inspired awe and respect. Not an experience we can find just anywhere.
We also hiked the Lake Trail and Wacahoota Trail and we climbed the observation towers for a nice view of the prairie. We were fortunate to witness an owl hunting for dinner and catching a snake, which she carried off into the trees, as well as deer grazing at dusk. On one of these trails, we ran into a ranger and a ranger in training so we stopped to ask for some tips. She highly recommended going to the visitor's center because their history buff volunteer was there that day. I'm sad that I didn't think to catch his name but it was such a pleasure to talk with him! He was a retired teacher and clearly knew nearly everything there could be to know about this area and he made it INTERESTING! All 6 of us must have stood there for 45 minutes listening to his tales of historical figures in that area and the changes humans made to the prairie over time and the animals that made this place their home.
The campground offered some fishing opportunity (but it's pretty limited and we had no bites) as well as a playground and trails. The site itself (#12) was a little snug but nice and close to bathrooms.
Verdict: LaChua Trail is a wildlife photographer's dream. I have seen many absolutely fantastic photos from this location on the FL Wildlife Photographers group on Facebook so I was eager to see it for myself. I'd love to go back, hopefully on a clearer morning, for another opportunity to photograph the bison and horses. Next time we would bring bikes for more trail riding.