This will be an easy, 2 – 3 mile stroll out into the center of the Prairie, by way of La Chua trail, and back.
The cost for this one is $15. This includes your $2 park fee.
Before we start on the hike, I’ll spend about 10 – 15 minutes giving you a brief overview of the Prairie’s early history (12,000 years of history in 15 minutes – I’ll talk fast!). Then we’ll set of into the Prairie. When we reach the observation deck in the center of the Prairie, we’ll see what animals we can spot. There, surrounded by the sights, sounds and scents of the Prairie, I’ll spend another 10 – 15 minutes giving some of the more recent history.
The “natural wonders” we see when hiking on Paynes Prairie begin as soon as we stroll onto the forested trail toward the basin and immediately enter the shade of a massive live oak tree.
It’s appearance alone–wide, grey trunk, expansive, open canopy and massive limbs adorned with green, species-rich thickets of resurrection fern and other small plants–would be enough to bring me up short. But, more than anything, it’s this trees setting that fires my imagination. Perched on a bluff over Alachua Sink, with a wide view across the Prairie, I wonder what events this ancient sentinel has witnessed? How many times did Don Thomas Menendez, whose La Chua ranch house stood on this bluff in the 1600′s, stand in this same shade and gaze across the Prairie? Did pirates rest here after raiding the ranch? How many Indians, explorers, settlers, soldiers, missionaries, ranchers, cowboys, toe-headed school boys has this tree comforted with its cool shade? How many weary travelers tied their horses to it? Bartram? Cowkeeper? Who leaned against it to steady their rifles? binoculars? scopes? How many people hid behind it? From whom? How many people waited here for someone to arrive in their canoe? steamboat? powerboat? How many people have stood here in awe?
The time I’ve spent gazing up at this giant oak, watching the interactions of wildlife and conjuring scenes from the past, must certainly run into the hours. But, as far as the tree is concerned, I’m just another of the countless human specks that have blown across it’s roots over the centuries. Dreamers and schemers have come and gone, but this grand sentinel remains.
After passing the oak tree, the path descends the bluff and skirts the north and western lip of Alachua Sink. After passing another fine live oak (don’t get me started!) we enter onto the open Prairie basin. From here, the view is as variable as the Prairie itself. Shorter cycles, like time of day and season of the year, dictate what animals you might see and what plants will be blooming. But, all of these depend on a much bigger cycle that makes the Prairie so unique and such a Mecca for wildlife – the flood cycle.
With every phase of the flood cycle, the dominant plant and animal species change. At present, we are coming out of an exceptionally high flood. After two years, water levels on the Prairie have finally receded enough to expose LaChua trail. The last time I was out there, about 2 months ago, the trail was only open as far as the Sink, but I understand it is now open all the way out to the observation deck. According to Park Ranger Julie Tabone, the wildlife is loving the high marsh conditions and birding is great. Sandhill cranes are spending a lot of time in the Alachua Lake portion of the basin, near the observation deck.