Perfect Gainesville Florida weekend

Thursday night rolled around and I didn’t have any plans for the weekend! I knew this had to be remedied immediately.

I started searching for somewhere that I didn’t think wouldn’t be packed with spring breakers, didn’t cost $400 plus a night for lodging and offered some type of hiking and adventuring. Some of the spots we had been wanting to go were coming up short; way too much for a last minute, budget trip.

We recently went to Disney World and I remembered all the state park signs on I-75 between Lake City and Gainesville, I had also seen some springs on Instagram, so I checked out Gainesville for hotels. I found Hotel Indigo in Celebration Pointe, Gainesville for… READY FOR THIS? Under $100 a night!!

I actually went to college for two semesters at University of Florida in Gainesville but spent all my time partying so I completely missed out on the goodness this part of the state offers.

Gainesville Here We Come!

My itinerary was very vague. I wanted to hike at Payne’s Prairie State Park and kayak at Gilchrist Blue Springs or Ginnie Springs. Also had found the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens and Devils Milhopper Geological State Park that I was interested in as well. My husband and I both have ties to Gainesville and University of Florida, so we wanted to check out the campus as well. And of course, check out the food scene!

We arrived Friday night to Gainesville and were pleasantly surprised with our accommodations. The staff was very helpful, hotel was new and very clean, there was a beautiful hanging garden in the lobby, up to date decor and a hotel bar that was open! We were pooped though, so we showered and hit the hay, knowing that we had an early morning in order to ensure we made it to the park before it filled up. With COVID-19 still affecting everything, state parks limit visitors in order to maintain social distancing.

Saturday morning, we woke up, grabbed Starbucks and headed to Payne’s Prairie State Park.

Payne’s Prairie State Park

Payne’s Prairie State Park is located at 100 Savannah Blvd., Micanopy FL 32667; just south of Gainesville. There is a $6 entry fee per vehicle to enter the park. The park is normally open from 8 am to sundown.

Far from the Far West, herds of wild horses and bison roam the prairie in this surprisingly diverse preserve south of Gainesville. Paynes Prairie is unique in many ways. Nowhere else in Florida can visitors experience wild-roaming bison and horses. Nearly 300 species of birds also frequent the park along with alligators, deer and many other animals. The park’s eight trails, including the 16-mile paved Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, allow one to explore the park’s interior and observe wildlife, while a 50-foot high observation tower provides for panoramic views. You can hike the La Chua Trail, Bolen Bluff Trail, Wacahoota Trail, Cone’s Dike Trail, Chacala Trail, Lake Trail, Jackson’s Gap Trail, Gainesville Hawthorne Trail, and Savannah Boulevard.

La Chua Trail – Pets are NOT allowed on this trail.

During drought conditions, vegetation may limit wildlife viewing opportunities along the LaChua Trail. This is part of the natural fluctuation of water levels. Abundant water and alligators sightings will return when Mother Nature provides a wetter rain cycle.

The LaChua Trail is three miles round-trip from the north rim of the prairie to the observation tower. This trail provides scenic views of wet-prairie and marsh habitat including Alachua Sink and Alachua Lake. Main access is at 4801 Camp Ranch Road. LaChua Trail opens at 8 a.m., seven days a week. For safety and wildlife disturbance reasons, the trail closes one hour before sunset. Alternate access is from Boulware Springs at 3500 S.E. 15th St. (Boulware Springs is also the starting point of the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail).

  • Foot traffic only! Pets are not allowed on this trail.

Bolen Bluff Trail – Pets are NOT allowed on this trail.

The 2.6-mile round-trip trail is named after a family of pioneer settlers who lived on the south rim or bluff of Paynes Prairie. The trail leads to a wildlife viewing deck after it passes beneath the shady canopy of a hardwood forest dominated by large oaks – the most impressive of which are Southern live oak. Other species of oaks as well as sweetgum, hickory, palm, magnolia and holly trees flourish along the trail. In Florida, communities of broad-leaved evergreens or hardwood-dominated forests are called hammocks. This name probably originated from early Native Americans who inhabited the region. Hammocks grow on high well-drained soils and thus provide an ideal habitat for a large diversity of animal species including Virginia white-tailed deer, wild turkey, bobcat, gray fox, barred owl and raccoon.

Located halfway along the loop-trail is an open, grassy knoll – Bolen Bluff. The bluff affords the visitor a scenic vista of the low-lying freshwater marsh, wet prairie and open water of Alachua Lake. From the bluff a 0.5-mile spur-trail heads out onto the prairie basin along an old earthen dike. During the 1920-30s, the Camp family constructed an extensive system of dikes and canals into the vast wetland to reduce the flooding and thus create drier conditions for cattle ranching. In 1970 the Camp Ranch was sold to the state of Florida, establishing the first state preserve in the Florida Park System.

  • Today, upland areas once cleared for agriculture and cattle grazing are slowly returning to their previous hammock state.
  • The trailhead is accessed off U.S. 441 south of Gainesville. Open daily 8 a.m. to sundown. Foot and bike traffic.

Wacahoota Trail

About a quarter-mile round-trip. Begins at visitor center and loops through hammock to a 50-foot observation tower along the edge of the prairie.

  • Closes at sunset.
  • Foot traffic only!

Cone’s Dike Trail – Pets are NOT allowed on this trail.

This trail is an 8.25-mile round-trip hike from the visitor center parking area trailhead. The earthen dike trail travels into the center of the prairie creek waterway. The flat terrain of the basin is quite open and has limited shade for hikers or bicyclists.

  • Closes at sunset.
  • Foot and bike traffic.

Chacala Trail

A series of loop trails encompassing 6.5 miles in length, Chacala Trail is named after a small freshwater pond just outside the preserve boundary. The level trail winds through several distinct biological communities, including pine flatwoods, hardwood forest or hammock, baygall, open ponds and old fields. A quiet hiker might observe a diversity of wildlife, including Virginia white-tailed deer, bobcat, wild turkey, pileated woodpecker, bald eagle and various woodpeckers.

  • Horse, bike and foot traffic.

Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail

The trail is 16 miles in length. Access from Boulware Springs at 3500 S.E. 15th St. Boulware Springs is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. November through April, and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. May through October. Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, however, is open 8 a.m. to sundown daily. Horse, bike and foot traffic. 

Lake Trail

A little less than a mile in length from Lake Wauburg parking area to Savannah Boulevard.

  • Foot and bike traffic.

Jackson’s Gap Trail

This 1.3-mile trail passes through shady hammock and pine flatwoods to connect two of the longest trails within the preserve, Cone’s Dike and Chacala Trail.

Jackson Gap Trail was named after a pioneering cattle rancher from the turn of the 19th century, Archie L. Jackson, who moved cattle through a gap in the fence where the trail passes near Chacala Pond.

Jackson Gap Trail connects with Cone’s Dike Trail 0.15 mile down the trail. Wetland wildlife in the area includes sandhill crane, American alligator, egrets and herons, and rails. Occasionally, the Spanish horses or American bison may be seen grazing in the marsh.

Savannah Boulevard

Visitors also can enjoy walking down the paved park entrance road.

Our Experience at Payne’s Prairie State Park

When we got there, we checked out the observation deck, hiked a short Wacahoota Trail, and then began the Cone’s Dike Trail (8.25 miles). With such a light breakfast and no water with us, I figured we wouldn’t make it very far…maybe 2 miles in and then 2 out.

As we walked into the trail, we saw wild horses in the distance. There is a sign warning not to approach the horses, bison or gators. This trail takes you right out in the prairie and then through what I would call a swamp with tons of moss lined Cypress trees and gators, lots of gators. We saw plenty of birds and even a bald eagle. We made it all the way to the end of the trail. The weather was cool and we were enjoying it so much, we made it all the way. But now what? We had over 4 miles to get back. We decided to sit down up against the gate marking the end of the trail and take a break. After about 20 minutes, we were recharged and ready to head back. We saw very few people on the trail past the two mile out point, so it was very serene and peaceful. On the way back, we actually even got to see the Bison in the distance!

Make sure if you head to Paynes Prairie to take water and even a small snack, granola bar or something. We were very fortunate the weather was cool Saturday and we got an early start. Also a lot of the hike on Cone’s Dike Trail is not shaded; be sure to use sunscreen and a hat. Also bring some bug spray! We didn’t encounter any bugs, but I can imagine when it gets even warmer the mosquitos could be bad in the swampy area. Research the park and make sure you chose a trail to your fitness level and the current weather conditions.

We were almost to the point of being Hangry. I found a brewery, but my hubby didn’t like the reviews, so he found one. We got there and found out they don’t serve food, so plan B. He found a Thai restaurant; we made the drive there and they were closed. Strike Two. So I recommended we just go back to the hotel area and find food there.

Hotel Indigo is located in Celebration Pointe. There are a lot of options for food and shopping. You can see what Celebration Pointe has to offer here – Celebration Pointe. We decided on The Keys for our linner. It is a piano bar & restaurant that has an island vibe, tasty cocktails and delicious food. We started with the gator bites and cocktails; I must say this was the best gator we’ve ever had. I ordered the Cuban and my husband had The old man and the sea sandwich (basically a Cuban sandwich with shrimp). We were both pleased with our choices. Full bellies and tired feet took us back to shower and see what we were going to do next.

After a short rest, we decided to get ice cream at Kilwins. We have enjoyed Kilwins in Highlands, NC and Charleston, SC, so we knew it wouldn’t disappoint.

While we were enjoying our ice cream, I spotted Le Macaron, a French pastry shop. Since our trip to France in 2015, I have enjoyed French pastries especially macarons. The sign out front said they had wine too, so we decided to check it out. No room for anymore dessert, but there’s always room for wine.

I had a glass of Champagne and my hubby had some red wine. We checked out all the macarons and pastries and decided we would head back to eat breakfast there Sunday morning.

After the 9+ mile hike and having a full tummy, we were just ready to call it a night.

Sunday morning we packed up and loaded the car.

Breakfast at Le Macaron

Then we headed to Le Macaron for Pan Chocolate (chocolate croissants). We arrived before they opened, but as soon as we walked in, the worker was packaging up a large order of pastries; no more pan chocolate or croissants. While we waited for a new batch of pan chocolate to come out of the oven, my hubby enjoyed his coffee and we tasted a few macarons. The pan chocolate was amazing right out of the oven.

University of Florida

My husband wanted to go see one of his childhood homes. We explored the University of Florida campus and checked out Lake Alice. He got to see where he lived and went to daycare. I also got to see one of the dormitories I stayed in while there.

Gilchrist Blue Spring State Park

Gilchrist Blue Springs is located at 7450 N.E. 60th St., High Springs FL 32643. There is an entry fee from $4-6 per vehicle to enter the park. They are open daily from 8 am to sundown.

Gilchrist Blue Springs is the newest addition to Florida State Parks!

The park contains a collection of natural springs, including a large second-magnitude spring that produces an average of 44 million gallons of water per day. This spring, known as Gilchrist Blue, has outstanding water clarity and discharges water through a shallow spring run about one-quarter mile to the Santa Fe River.

The other named springs on-site are Little Blue Spring, Naked Spring, Kiefer Spring and Johnson Spring, which provide scenic vistas and photographic opportunities.

The most significant ecological habitats include the spring run stream and floodplain communities. The main spring run is renowned for a diversity of wildlife species, including turtles, fish and invertebrates. Redbreast and spotted sunfish, largemouth bass, bluegill and channel catfish can be observed in waters with unparalleled visibility. 

Paddling, snorkeling and swimming are all popular at the park. Pavilions are available, and a concession stand provides food and beverage service plus paddling equipment rentals. Other popular activities include camping, hiking, nature study and picnicking. 

Our Experience at Gilchrist Blue Spring State Park

We stopped at Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park. Luckily they had room for us to enter and even still had kayaks to rent. We kayaked through the spring and up the Sante Fe River. Paddling up stream was tough, especially for my hubby as I was not much help. When I did paddle I sent us the wrong direction. We decided to head back downstream and just go relax in the spring floating in the kayak.

After our kayaking, we hit the trail. It’s marked with the blue blaze and is a little over a mile. There are some gems along the path, that are must sees. A smaller spring that is being preserved, that doesn’t allow swimming or kayaking was so undisturbed and absolutely stunning. There are also some massive cypress trees along the hike. The hike is very easy, but not one you want to miss.

By the time we finished exploring there, it was 3 p.m. and once again we forgot to even eat lunch, so we were starved. We also had a three hour drive to get home. There were some local spots, but with it being Easter Sunday, some places were closed. We decided on a quick stop at Five Guys for a burger and fries.

This was an absolute perfect weekend to get out in the convertible, hike in some new places and explore this beautiful world we live in. We will make plans to go back to explore some more of the area. Gainesville and surrounding areas really has a lot to offer; it’s not just a college town.

Where are you exploring and enjoying?

XOXO

-S