Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

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The Trail You Can do Over and Over - La Chua at Alachua Sink

Tuesday Afternoon March 31, 2015
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
Micanopy, Florida



The previous post showed the parts of Paynes Prairie near the campground. Find it here if you’d like to see that. For this one we travel to the northern entrance of this 22,000 acre park to hike the La Chua Trial. This was one of the highlights of our last visit in 2013 even though we got rained out near the end so we want to make sure we can do it again.

The trail parking lot is also one of the ones for the Gainesville to Hawthorne bike trail which we did in 2013 and was one of the nicest bike rides we’ve done.  You can also start at the head of the bike trail just a short distance down the street at the Old Gainesville Waterworks.  The post from 2013 on the bike trail can be found here.   Not sure we will be able to do it again this year but we’d love to since it is a great ride.   Only short parts are along roads.

As you can see from the map, the hiking trail starts just north of the Bike Trail, crosses it and goes past Alachua Sink to an observation platform on Alachua Lake.

The trail is 3 miles round trip.  A paved sidewalk leads to a boardwalk around the Alachua Sink and then follows a sandy path through the prairie basin marsh to Alachua Lake and the observation platform.

Because the trail is unshaded except for two shelters, we start out in the late afternoon.  We had hoped to see the sunset over the prairie but the park closes at 8:00 and sunset is at 7:50 which would barely leave us time to get back to the car.  Also, we’d miss all the after sunset color which we really like.  But we’ll see what happens.   It’s 4:00 now.  I shouldn’t take us 4 hours to do 3 miles but you never know.

The first thing we see past the bike trail is a railroad trestle from 1892.  It is a remnant of the Florida Southern Railroad.  The Bike trail now follows this stretch of rail line.  Twenty four trains a day moved cattle, timber, oranges and cotton over this trestle.  We walk through it.







Once through the trestle we can see the path also goes right through a barn.  Organized cattle ranching began on the prairie in the 1600’s . Hacienda de la Chua on Paynes Prairie was the largest ranch in Spanish Florida.  It was the main supplier of beef to St. Augustine.  It was attacked and burned by English-led Creek Indians in 1705.  

In the 1890’s the Camp Family became the owners of most of what is now Paynes Prairie.  In an attempt to make ranching more profitable, they established a network of dikes and canals to control the flow of water on the prairie.  Each of the trails in the prairie basin is on a Camp Ranch dike.

In 1970 when the state purchased the ranch from the Camp Family, 10,000 to 15,000 cattle were grazing on the prairie.  This heavy grazing  had a devastating effect on the natural prairie.  Today a small head of cattle are kept and the basin has been returned to the wildlife.  All of this information is from panels on the walls of the Camp Ranch barn raceway.

Right before the doorway through the barn is this sign which I love.   Remember: this is NOT a zoo or a theme park.







Again they remind you that this is an open range.  Wild Bison, Cattle,  Wild horses and alligators may all be present as soon as you walk through this stile.




Next we come to the boardwalk where we find our first wild animal.





I already have Geico insurance and actually like it very much, thank you.




The boardwalk circles around the sink itself.   We see more wildlife both in the sink and on the boardwalk.








Not sure what this guy is selling but it’s a great pitch.



While standing on the boardwalk, we watch this little dinner drama play out in the sink by a great blue heron and an unlucky fish.  The heron keeps dropping the fish and picking him back up trying to turn him around for a down the hatch meal.  The poor fish must have been traumatized before he even became dinner.





And then we wonder what is the story of the sandal and the gator there in the water plants of the Alachua Sink.





Further along we come to the covered gazebos which over looks the water.  It’s a lovely place with information about the sink and the Florida aquifer.  It is where we came to get out of the rain on our first visit here.  Judging from the sky, rain is not in our future for today.







The boardwalk ends at the gazebo and the path out to the observation platform is all sandy with water on both sides.  What a beautiful day it is for this hike.  We hear the red winged blackbirds singing all around us and finally I am able to get a couple of pictures I like showing their lovely colored wing patches.











On the bank opposite us we see a gator right next to a bird whose posture looks like that of a night heron.  But I’ve never seen one this light in color.  I’m assuming he’s a juvenile black crowned but he is certainly different than any I’ve seen before.  Or maybe I’m totally wrong about this all together.  Let me know if you know who he is.   I guess he knows the gator has already had dinner.  Or at least I hope so.







The gators are out soaking up the sun.  They are in groups on the far bank and in singles here near the trail.







We watch this guy for a long time and he never closes his mouth.  So I get lots of pictures of the inside of an alligator’s mouth just in case I ever need them.




Those little forearms look mighty funny next to that giant head and gaping mouth.



He’s got his eye on me.  I want to know why he kept his mouth open for so long.  When I look it up, this is what I learn. 

This behavior is called gaping and is done when the crocodilian is basking in the sun. Experts think that this may cool the crocodilian. However they also do this during rain and at night which suggests that gaping has a social function as well.  

Seems to me he could just slide into the cool water if he is too hot so I’m going with some social thing.  But if that’s the case why is he hanging out solo?  Maybe he’s waiting for someone curious to come over and step inside.  Actually, the better question is why don’t we quit trying to explain the behavior of animals and admit we don’t know?





I guess he’s decided I’m no problem since he’s closed his eyes for a nap.  Boy I hope he doesn’t get a dry sore throat like I do when I sleep with my mouth open.  We didn’t hear him snoring.




On down the shore a cormorant makes use of a monitoring instrument antenna.






Seriously, there are gators everywhere.




Such beautiful skies over the trail and the wetlands.  I love clouds!








This is the best of several pictures of this glossy ibis.  His feathers glisten in the sunlight.  But he is rarely out in the open for a really good photo.


The candy corn bill of the moorhen always makes me laugh. 



I’ve never noticed before the finger like thing at the top and end of the cormorant’s wings.  He’s got some spikey head feathers as he stretches out to dry his wings.



Up ahead on the path we spot this Great Egret.  We stop so we don’t force him to fly and when I zoom in, I see he’s having a snake snack.  I had one great picture of it when the snake managed to wiggle back out of his mouth but the heron put his head down just as I was taking it so you can’t see how hard the snake was trying, to no avail, to get away.






Once that snack is completed he flies a short distance over into the marsh and begins hunting for another.



On the other side of the trail are a group of blue winged teals.  Taking a picture of them forces me into taking directly into the sun.  So this is about the best I could do.  Their coloring is exquisite.








The clouds’ reflection and the sun sparkling off give the water a texture.





It makes this pied billed grebe look like he is floating on a silver surface..





Wetlands are some of my favorite places on Earth.








Another blue winged teal.




We have almost reached the viewing platform when David looks ahead through his binoculars and says, “that’s strange, there is no one on the platform”.  We both know there is always someone on the platform and although there aren’t an unacceptable number of people on the trail today we certainly aren’t alone.




I zoom in with my camera and this is what I see.  These are the people who passed us at our pokey pace.  What are they contemplating?




Around us the redwings continue their unique sounds.   Another couple passes us.




We get closer and see they too are stopped at the same spot.   The first couple is walking back toward us.




Looks like the path has a gate keeper that everyone is trying to decide whether to pass by. Maybe there is a magic word…like “Joe sent me”.  But he’d probably laugh out loud there on his green floor.
(for you Suzanne)




His face is in the grass but his eyes are on you.   He’s about 8 or so feet long.  He does look pretty fat, as though he’s already had his lunch.  But he can sprint short distances at 11mph.





They too turn around.   David’s turn is next.  Is he looking back for reassurance?   He won’t get it from me.  If he goes, I’m not following.





Look how close Mr. Gator is to the platform. He’s king of the path all right and has turned everyone away from the platform all afternoon.  I think back to the sign, ‘this is not a zoo or a theme park’.  I wonder how he came to be missing that piece of his tail?  Is this indicative of his temperament?




Well we get close but we don’t get to stand above the prairie with our binoculars and camera to see as far as the eye can see.   We head back.  He’s got the place to himself until the next people come along to consider the situation. 





By this time evening is upon us and flocks of birds are winging their way to wherever they are roosting.


Coots are chattering.







The pied billed grebe is just so cute.





Portrait of an Egret.



Before long we are back on the boardwalk in the shade of the stately wild oaks.


We don’t stay for sunset on the trail but we do stop on our way back along the road side to enjoy the fire in the sky over the prairie.  I really do wish they would extend the closing time until 30 minutes or even 45 after sunset.   But I know that would mean someone would have to stay even later to lock the gate.   The La Chua Trail is one you could walk every day and always see something new and never tire of it.  If you are at Paynes Prairie or near Gainesville don’t miss it.



  1. Lots of birds and wildlife to enjoy. I'm voting the notch on his tail is the Talley to record the number of careless tourists who come to close. Ha!

  2. I heard one man say that gator had been in that spot for the last month, so not many people have been getting to the observation deck recently. Oh well, another thing to look forward to next time.

  3. Fantastic pictures- nothing better that a good bike trail :)

  4. Great hike! Wetlands are a magnificent place for wildlife watching.

  5. Thank you. I loved walking along with you and sharing the view through your beautiful photos.

  6. Great gator photos! We had one one time that crossed in front of us. A tour guide was leading a group of people across but he had one of those big sticks to hold down the gator's snout if needed. Looks like a wonderful place. I'd like to try that bike trail!

  7. Good to know that Great Egrets eat snakes, Wayne hates snakes. He actually has no interest in Florida due to the snakes and gators. I don't like the thought of 'em either, but I've still got to go have a look at least once! Florida is one of the few states I've never been in which is a small list for a navy brat for sure. Of course most of the states we visited I don't remember since I was under the age of 7, guess I'll just have to re-do 'em!

  8. Didn't know that egrets eat snakes. I like the photo of the gator and the flip flop. It would have been perfect if it was closer to the sign that said this is not a zoo or theme park!

  9. I would also be interested in knowing the story of the gator and flip flop. Great hike and I think you make a wise decision to turn around when you saw the gatekeeper. We've had to do that a few times ourselves.

  10. WOW...that really looks like a wonderful hike!!! I always get a funny feeling when I see the wading birds eating live fish and snakes... What must that feel like in their stomachs??!! ;o(( Looks like you found all the gators what weren't at Deep Hole!!! I had a large gator on a trail at Kissimmee Prairie who would not let me continue on... Wise decision Dave;o)))

  11. You are correct with your night heron ID. Lots of gators, but I guess you haven't seen any of those cracker cattle yet. ;)

  12. "Please do not pet the alligators. They will eat you." As for the alligator gaping: "Oh Grandmother! What big teeth you have!" Love the anole lizard (they were called chameleons when I was a kid). I had one as a pet and thought he was a boy until "he" laid an egg. Love the portrait of the egret- the color on his face matches the grass. The cormorant with his wings outstretched is beautiful in an eerie kind of way. What a fun hike with so much too see. xxxooo

  13. Beautiful trail! I love seeing all the gators. That is a gorgeous tan bird behind that hump of gator. Sherry did an amazing job with the bird photos. Love the Portrait of an Egret:) Boy, that gator knew exactly how to scare people away. How dare he sit there and block that trail! But who is going to argue with him:) You did end up capturing the beautiful sunset:) What a terrific day filled with wildlife! My kind of day:)

  14. Wow! Great trail but I can see why all the warning signs. All the gators reminds me of Shark Alley in south FL. I would say caution is a good thing considering the gator and the one sandal:)

  15. You catch the most amazing sights of nature with your camera. I'd never have known that egrets eat snakes or anhingas have "fingers" on their wings, not to mention what a gator's open mouth looks like. No wonder you love to hike so much! :C)

  16. Dang, don't like the looks of those jaws full of pointy teeth!

  17. I would LOVE to walk that trail every day! What a bounty of sights on this day. Wetlands are truly fabulous places and you had a mighty fine day! I'm pretty sure that's a juvenile black crowned night heron. Beautiful photos!

  18. The La Chua trail is one of our favorites in Florida. When we there a couple of years ago in winter, we didn't see one alligator. And then we returned in March and there were hundreds of gators, including one blocking the path near the observation tower. Wonder if it's the same gator? We were traveling with friends from Oregon and they were terrified. We turned around, too. :-) Your photos are wonderful -- I especially love the Great Egret in breeding plumage.

  19. Gators can run 11 mph? Before you get that close again, please practice your jogging at 12 mph!

  20. There is something awesome and fascinating and beautiful about them, but I don't like alligators! I wouldn't have to think twice about turning around if I saw one ahead.

  21. What an amazing place! No wonder the platform was empty. I guess everyone wonders if the gator would not be bothered if they walked by.

  22. I loved your bird pics, you have really turned professional over the last year.

  23. OMWow, I can see why you love this trail, from little lizards to huge. Kind of funny that gator almost at the end of the trail. Wonder if the other sandal was near it. Wonderful bird sightings and shots.

  24. The last picture is awesome - beautiful sunset. Pretty neat that you caught the egret snake snacking - I bet that's pretty rare to see. Nice trail. Wasn't there when we lived in Gainesville. It seems like the state has done a lot to preserve things in the last 50 years. That's a good thing.

  25. I too enjoyed watching egrets and GBH having their dinner, sometimes they bit more than they can chew! This is my kind of trail, lots of birds and wildlife and of course the smiling gators. On this day the gator ruled!

  26. I would be inclined to let the gator have the trail to himself! I know they can be very fast runners.


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