Our original plan for last Sunday was a trip to Lake Griffin for some kayaking. As it turned out, Chris was in Gainesville with other obligations for the weekend (dropping off his rowing club's shells for transport to the World Rowing Masters Competition, it wasn't logistically feasible to go back and forth to home to transport kayaks as well), so we decided to stay in that area for our park visit. Bright and early we made the two hour drive and met up with Chris, Xandra, Randy, Rob's former coworker Mandy, and her son Josh at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park a little after 8am. Paynes Prairie is huge...21,000 acres!...and has several trails and observation towers. What's to observe? Wild horses and bison that roam this 'Savannah of the Alachua.'
As soon as we drove in to the park, probably the first visitors of the day, we were greeted by a flock of turkeys. We all had a good laugh watching them run down the road. Rounding a curve, we then spotted a herd of white tailed deer. I managed to snap a few pictures before they got scared and ran off. Oddly enough, we then came across a second flock of turkeys, and then a second herd of deer! Things like that are why I love what we're doing with our weekends.
After we were all together and ready to hit the trails, we found our first geocache of the day. There are several in the park. After signing the log and returning the cache to its hiding spot, we walked around the Wacahoota Trail to the observation tower behind the visitor center:
We didn't have any binoculars with us, but it didn't seem like there were any bison or horses on the savannah. So, we headed into the visitor center for a little education and to see where the best place to see them would be. The docent, a confused little old lady (sorry, but it's true), said the La Chua Trail was the best place. No problem! I was ready to head outside and hit the trail when she said no, it's 7 miles down the road. Huh? Yep, the La Chua Trail was at the other end of the park. So, we got directions, got in the cars, and drove to the trailhead.
We stopped by the honor box to pay the fee to use the trail (Hey, I have no problem paying to use our great state parks, but my feeling is that when you pay the entry on one end of the park, like we did, then it should cover all entry fees...but it did not. *grumble*), and then we started walking. It's a half-mile down a boardwalk around the Alachua Sink, and then a grass trail goes for another mile to another observation tower. A few highlights:
Once we got to the gazebo in the above picture, we saw an alligator in the water. A *huge* alligator! And nearby the alligator we saw? Another one!
From the gazebo we started down the trail, but hardly got ten paces when we saw something else:
See a pattern? Gators everywhere! Hehe, the mascot of the University of Florida in Gainesville is a gator for a reason!! A few other trail highlights:
The kids had a great time playing together. The trail had been freshly mowed and was easy enough to navigate. There was marsh on either side and we could hear gators croaking. We could also see little breaks in the grass on either side of the trail where they cross over. Thankfully none of them came up to block our path! A few more trail highlights:
Finally, we made it to the observation tower. Eager with anticipation, we climbed the stairs to the top. The docent had assured us this was the best place to see the bison. This is what we saw:
Gorgeous, yes? Full of bison? No. Granted, 21,000 acres is a lot of ground to cover. But still, I would have hoped to have seen the bison in the place promised to be the best place to view them. Oh well. I'm not exactly complaining. I did get to spend a great day with my family and friends. The scenery was gorgeous, too. The weather, I'm sure you can tell from the clouds, threatened to pour all day, but we had only a small shower at the beginning of our walk. I guess I just hadn't comprehended the absolute scale of this park, and without planning for its size, I feel as if our trip there was incomplete. Our walk back to the trailhead was uneventful, where we parted ways, grabbed some lunch, and headed home. But we'll be back. We have to see the bison. We have to!