Payne’s Prairie is a 21,000 acre open plain just south of Gainesville, Florida that has been preserved and is watched over by the Florida State Parks, and we were fortunate enough to explore the area while we stayed over for 3 days on our journey north. After we set up camp we had to drive north to Gainesville to deal with a mechanical difficulty with the RV, and along the way we passed through the northern portion of this prairie that stretched out for miles along both sides of the roadway. We were struck by the expanses of purple water lilies that carpeted large portions of the marshes.
After we returned to camp and completed some chores, we rode the bikes in the afternoon up to a beautiful visitor’s center nestled among the tall oaks and pines with their meandering limbs, the Spanish moss draped across them like so much tinsel. We learned that after being discovered during the mid-1700’s the marshy prairie was turned into a lake by some torrential storms in the early 1800’s, and medium-sized merchant vessels carried produce across it for years during the colonial days of Florida; then just as suddenly the waters receded and the area became a prairie once again.
We also learned that during periods of less rainfall the trees grow more and tend to dominate the landscape while periods of more rainfall allow the prairie grasses and smaller shrubs take back over again in a seesaw fashion in slow motion.
At the edge of the forest behind the visitor’s center the park has constructed a 50-foot observation tower and we joined a local enthusiast with his binoculars and a large camera rig watching the open plain for wildlife. He gladly shared his favorite vantage point with us and we saw the occasional deer and wild horses, along with flocks of Snowy Egrets, a Sparrow-tailed Kite, and an iridescent Blue Bunting feeding along different areas of the prairie through the heat of the afternoon. This local gentleman spends hours every week observing the prairie and we spent a pleasant hour or so just watching in silence as the afternoon crept by, wondering what the scenery might have looked like to the original discoverer of the prairie 250 years ago compared to today.
At the base of the tower a short trail circled through the woodland back to the visitor center and then we rode our bikes back to camp. While grilling dinner a thunderstorm rolled in from the coast with some strong winds and plenty of rain. Thankfully our RV was free from leaks and no tree limbs came loose during the storm, but the lingering rainwater held by the trees pelted us for hours after the storm actually passed.
There were several more trails to enjoy at this part but we could only stay for 3 nights. Maintenance on the forward wheel hubs took up much of the next day leaving us unwilling to venture out with the prospect of additional storms, so reading and some napping took up the balance of the following afternoon before moving on the next morning. There’s an argument here for not having reservations as we would have like to stay for another day or two to enjoy an unexpected find. Balance that with not being able to find a spot during seasons of heavy RV use, and you see one of the tricks of full-time RVing that we are figuring out.