I was recently told that there are wild horses in Florida on the mainland. As opposed to living on islands, which I had heard of. I was actually in Gainesville when my sister called and told me that there are herds at Paynes Prairie, which happened to be about 15 minutes from the hotel I was staying in. So of course, I went.
I got there early, right after they opened. Paynes Prairie is large, I went to the entrance with a rangers station. Got to get that state park stamp! If you drive the three miles into the end of the park to you will find a path leading to an observation tower. There we found a super friendly and knowledgeable volunteer who gave us all kinds of information and stories about the park. He also pointed out an eagle’s nest high above the walkway to the tower. Too high to take a picture, but neat to see.
Right before the tower is a welcome center. There’s lots of informational exhibits and a gift shop area that includes lots of books, t-shirts and novelties. I picked up a t-shirt because I ended up staying in Gainesville an extra day and what’s better than a park shirt? The entire back wall of the welcome center is a window. You can see out onto the prairie; the view is incredible.
Behind the welcome center is the observation tower. There are several places to stop on the way to the top, and the view is great even from the bottom level. It’s kind of funny that just grass and trees can make such a great picture.
The horses weren’t in sight that morning, I was meeting someone at 9:30 at Devil’s Millhopper so I didn’t have much time to explore. The little bit that I saw made me want to come back though. The gentleman at the welcome center said that the horses and bison (yes, they have bison too!) aren’t on any kind of schedule at all and there is no way to predict where they’ll be on a given day or at a given time. He told us some people have been there quite often and never seen either one, and other people have visited once and seen the horses. I wasn’t feeling like that was very fair until I came back later in the day and the horses were there. Strange enough, it suddenly seemed very fair.
When we went back later in the afternoon the horses were pretty far off in the prairie, but you could see them clear enough. I hoped they’d come closer, but no luck.
After taking a few pictures and watching them for a while we took the path to the right of the tower that led through a horse gate and onto a road on the prairie itself. The grass and other plants were high enough you only got glimpses of the far off horses, but there was evidence the horses used or crossed the road on occasion. The road is on the edge of the property and you don’t get very far before having to turn around due to water in the road. I think we were able to walk a mile and a half before turning back. We were told the road goes about 4 and a half miles when it’s drier.
If you are interested in bird watching Paynes Prairie has a lot of them. I saw about 40 sandhill cranes together in the grass, I have never seen more than 4 of them together before. I also saw a couple of cardinals. I don’t know enough about birds to tell you what else I saw, I’ll have to pick up a Florida bird book in the near future.