Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Back in August, relatively early in my current path to fitness, I wrote this post, in which I articulated some secondary goals related to my fitness.  These are not goals about the fitness itself – they are goals that address a theme I’d call “How I Want to Live My Life”.  For the record, though I couldn’t have done so when I wrote that post, I can sum the answer to that up in one word now – Adventure.

One of those goals is worth quoting in its entirety:

Start keeping track of bag nights.  I love to hike and camp, and I don’t do it enough because it can be hard.  I don’t have the energy, and the physical work is just exhausting.  It has been on the order of years since I’ve done even minor camping.  That has to change, if for no other reason than that I’m committed to introducing my kids to the outdoors.

And so last weekend I took my oldest son on his first camping trip.

Several weeks ago I was inspired to commit to a bunch of these kinds of things (more on that in a later post), and I reserved a tent campsite for two nights at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park here in Florida.  Paynes Prairie is just south of Gainesville, and Interstate 75 runs through one end of the prairie.  The first time I drove through there I saw a hawk soaring, so I looked it up.  The website and everything you read talks about a dried lake bed, a big sink, and serious mega-fauna – alligators, wild horses, even wild bison.  The park is also off of the Lake Wales Ridge, which is where I live, and is essentially a big sand dune that is covered with scrub pine and landscapes that are cool and different but also monotonous and not the most attractive.  You’re not going to see many wall posters of a Lake Wales ridge scrub scene.  So, with the promise of wildlife and some interesting forest and scenery, I signed us up.

Before I get into this, I want to mention my conclusion, which is this:  nothing you can ever read or watch – no website, no brochure, no review, no book, no magazine, no documentary – can adequately give you the sense of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.  This is a place that simply must be seen and experienced.

I have a bunch of camping gear, including most all of the basics – tents, sleeping bags, camp stove, etc.  Most of that is designed for a single camper since I’ve always done my camping Star Wars style – Solo. (Thank you, thank you – I’ll be here all week.  Tip your waitress.).  So my five-year old and I left out on Friday morning with a car full of stuff and very high spirits, on our way to get a few odds and ends we needed to finish out the gear checklist and stock up on food for the weekend.  A few Tubmans later, and we were on our way into the park itself.

Paynes Prairie is an interesting geological place.  It is essentially a big lake bed, and as recently as the mid- to late 1800s the area was apparently a big lake.  But there is also a big hole in the bottom of that bed that drains the whole area into the aquifer.  That hole is called the Alachua Sink, and apparently gets clogged up every now and then and causes a lake to be formed.  According to a ranger we spoke with, the last time the lake was basically a permanent feature was in the late 1800s, and when the sink “unclogged” the whole lake drained out within a matter of just a few days.  What was left was a big basin that is now a grassy area that looks for all the world like you’d imagine a prairie to look.

Observation Tower at the Paynes Prairie Visitor's Center
Observation Tower at the Paynes Prairie Visitor’s Center

The entry ranger station, the campground, and the visitor’s center, though, are all in the woods that ring the prairie itself.  We got in around 1pm on Friday, and since our campsite wasn’t available until 3pm, we headed to the visitor’s center to poke around.  The center is buried deep in the woods on the approach, but out of the back window is a panoramic view of the prairie.  There is a little museum inside, with a few activities for the kids, a very small gift shop, and spotting scopes lining a back window looking out into the prairie.   After looking through the few exhibits (apparently there was a recent remodel done and the place is not as full as it will one day be) and putting a puzzle together, Noah and I headed down a side trail towards a 50-foot observation tower.


So here’s the thing about a big wilderness area like this – from a distance, unless something happens to be happening right in front of that tower, big wilderness areas can look awfully boring.  In this case, grass and dirt and little trees, but not much else.  An awesome view, and I appreciate it much more now that I’ve actually been out in the prairie and know more about what I’m seeing … but initially, it doesn’t seem like much.

And the prairie stretches before us...
And the prairie stretches before us…

We headed back over to the Chacala Trail near the visitor’s center, and did our first hike of the weekend – about 2 miles through an oak stand and a lowland pine forest.  No wildlife to speak of on this hike, except the anthill that Noah stepped on and then was fascinated by.  And some lichen that was inexplicably quite interesting.  But it was a great hour or so outside, and then we headed over to the campground to set up camp.

Ants. We’re very lucky these didn’t swarm his foot.
Lichen. I want to have curiosity like a child again...
Lichen. I want to have curiosity like a child again…
Shenanigans on the Chacala Trail

I grew up camping.  I’d load up a 4-wheeler as a 14- or 15- year old and head out for the weekend.  My grandparents fished and stayed at a campground on a Corps of Engineers lake in Arkansas, and we’d spend weeks out there with them.  I love camping.  But I haven’t been in years, for a couple of reasons.  First, priorities are an issue.  I’ve learned to say this differently – the issue is not that I don’t have time, the issue is that I didn’t make it a priority.  I wanted to, but I guess I didn’t want to bad enough to actually do it.  The second problem, a contributor to the first, was that I got so big that the physical effort and work of it was challenging.  But I remember loving it, and I know that I wanted my kids to have some of the same experiences.  Noah was excited for this trip, and that helped make me excited.

He helped me pitch the tent.  He helped me set up our beds.  He helped me build a fire.  He helped me make dinner.  He helped me eat the hot dogs.  He especially helped me eat the smores.  He danced.  He kicked my ass at Uno.  And then he slept like a log all night.  I’m not sure I could come up with a “father” moment that can top how that evening made me feel – proud and happy and accomplished and, and, and…  I’ll have my bad days and my bad moments, but I felt like a good Dad that night.

Campsite 22
Pawpaw always says that the food is better outside
Dance party!
He really did kick my ass at Uno
He slept better than I did

And then Saturday morning we went on a hike that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life.

If you spend much time reading about Paynes Prairie, you’ll quickly come across descriptions of a hike on what is called the La Chua Trail.  The La Chua Trail runs through a few hundred yards of basic trail, through an old barn, and then out onto a boardwalk that runs right around the actual Alachua Sink – the hole that drains the entire thing.  The boardwalk then winds around a bit and then ends on a kind of berm or dike that parallels the creek that runs into the sink and heads straight out into the prairie itself.  After a mile and a half or so it ends at a big observation platform raised up on stilts so that you can get a view of the surrounding prairie.  At that point, you hike back to the start for a good day outside.

Sounds pretty basic, no?

This hike is anything but basic.  About the time you round the first curve on the boardwalk you see your first alligators. And then you round another one and you see a few more.  And then you reach an overlook on a small pond and it turns out that there are dozens of alligators surrounding this pond.  And then you get off the boardwalk and walk, well – out with the alligators.

And these are not small alligators.  These are the ones that eat the small alligators.  15-footers.  Monsters.  Dinosaurs.

"Not a zoo. Not a theme park."
“Not a zoo. Not a theme park.”

Now, these things are not a surprise – you are very definitely warned.  The sign above was my favorite – “This is not a zoo.  This is not a theme park.”  I’d seen warnings that you shouldn’t take small children on this hike.  I talked to the ranger when we checked in, and she said they’d be in the grass on the side of the trail – she wouldn’t recommend me taking Noah.  Others wave that off, but there was some concern.  My wife, for example, was concerned.  And her opinion counts.  But, we decided that we’d go out there and see what it was about, and if we ever felt uncomfortable, we’d turn around.  The biggest thing in our favor when we got there is that the trail was absolutely packed.  We barely found a parking spot at the trailhead.  Now, usually this would be disappointing.  But today, I found comfort in numbers – with that many people around, it was going to be very hard for a 15-foot alligator to hide in the grass on the side of the trail and not be seen.

The first two on the way in. These were safely below the boardwalk.
Ten steps later.
Near the end of the boardwalk
Most definitely not on the boardwalk. These guys were kinda right there.
Pictures don’t do this justice. EVERYWHERE.
The benefits of not being able to read.
The benefits of not being able to read.
Oh, I’m sorry – are we BORING you?

I also changed the rules a bit on the boy.  Normally when we hike, he gets behind me.  We use walking sticks, and he’ll poke things, or wave it around, and generally lollygag.  I rarely say anything to him, I just keep going at a reasonable pace and eventually he runs and catches up.  Or I’ll sometimes stop and wait on him.  Regardless, he gets a little independence.

Not on the La Chua Trail.

He was to stay in the dead middle of the trail.  He was to be within arm’s length of me at all times.  He was to be in front of or beside me at all times – I had to be able to see him.  No wandering toward the sides.  No running.  Nothing that might end with a tumble down into the creek or the wetlands on the other side.  Because, yeah, that would end poorly.

And it was awesome.  Luck was with us and some wild horses were very near the trail.  When we got to the observation tower, some very nice folks let Noah borrow their binoculars and he got to see the bison out in the prairie.  An alligator experience unlike anything you’ll get outside of a zoo or a theme park.  And this doesn’t even mention the birds – holy crap the birds.

The wild horses of Paynes Prairie
Those brown dots? Bison. In Florida.
A Cooper’s Hawk looking for lunch.

In retrospect, as I show these pictures, I find it remarkable how non-Floridians react to these pictures.  This was, of course, a bit tense, but at no time did I ever feel that I or my child was truly threatened or in a dangerous position in any way.  But people look at this pictures and think we’re crazy – one friend actually called me “brave”.  I’m not sure about bravery, but I do know that if one of my life’s goals can be summed up with the word “adventure” … well, this was a day where we met some goals.

The sun on that hike was brutal, so we went back to camp and had some lunch and then just rested for a while.  We did some geocaching, and then had another great night in camp making hot dogs and playing games and sleeping in a tent.  I should say that he slept great, but me – not so much.  I did fine until I woke up in the middle of the night needing to pee … unzip the tent, slip out, walk to the bathhouse, pee, reverse all of that … and then I’d lay back down and find I was uncomfortable enough I didn’t fall right back to sleep.  My backpacking mattress was better than nothing, but not great.  I did OK, but I’ll invest in something more comfortable for future car camping trips.

On Sunday morning, which was my birthday, we broke camp and went over to another popular trail called the Bolen Bluff Trail.  The Bolens had at one time owned the land, and this area was on a hill at the edge of the prairie apparently near their old house place.  The trail winds through some beautiful, Spanish moss draped, oak hammocks, and then drops down to the bottom of the “bluff” (for you non-Floridians, you may read “bluff” as “small hill”) and turns and heads straight out into the prairie toward another observation tower.  No alligators along this trail, and we also didn’t see the horses or the bison.  The morning was foggy, so we couldn’t see that far – though the feeling of walking out into that prairie when you can’t see very far, and then losing contact with the tree line behind you, was a bit creepy.  There were lots of birds, lots of squirrels, and that’s about it.  We only saw three other people on the trail until we got back to the trailhead.  A very peaceful and beautiful hike. And then we loaded up and headed home.

Spanish moss on a foggy morning
The edge of the prairie

For his part, Noah didn’t want to leave.  He was disappointed when we broke camp, and he actually told his Mom that he wanted to stay camping forever.  He is already asking me when we can go again, and that makes my heart smile.  My children will never have an outdoor childhood like mine – I grew up in an area so extremely rural that it would make your head spin – but I consider it my responsibility to introduce them to the world around them and its beauty and do my best to instill in them a sense of wonder and awe and protectiveness over this, our one and only planet.  I did that with Noah, and will continue to do it.  I will also do it for Noah’s brother, when he is ready.  I even gave Noah some sense of responsibility for that – I told him we were going to become experts at camping and that, when his brother is ready, Noah will get to help me show him the way.  It makes me smile even now to think about how eagerly he accepted that task.  My little boy is growing up so fast.

For my part, I could not be more thrilled with how the weekend went.  We got perfect weather, and I was able to successfully pull off a happy first camping trip.  I also got to get out myself, and have some adventures and take some awesome pictures and spend a ton of quality 1:1 time with my son.  If I were trying to level up in a video game, I earned a lot of points in a lot of different categories.

Noah took a picture of me that, for the first time, makes me identify myself as one of the old ones.  I don’t mean, necessarily, that I’m old.  I mean that I remember how I looked up to the people that took me outside and took me camping – my father, my grandfather, my uncles.  I considered them the “old” people, sure.  But I also knew that they were the people that would guide my life.  They loved me, and I loved them.  I was never safer than I was when I was five and with my grandfather at a campsite or on a fishing boat.  I was never safer than I was when I was a child and working outside with my father.  And I’ve never been happier than I am now, realizing that I’m giving that gift to my own children.  It is an overwhelming feeling.

One of the old ones
One of the old ones

My tag line is that I live my life in a constant state of hunger.  That has a literal interpretation – which is what we mostly deal with here.  But it also has a more metaphorical interpretation.  I’m hungry for knowledge, for joy, for adventure … for a meaningful life.  This weekend I took a trip I’ll remember for the rest of my life as one that contributed to that meaning.

Take your kids outside.  Its awesome.


Author: woodymw

I live my life in a constant state of hunger...

2 thoughts on “Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park”

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