Paynes Prairie Basin

Just south of Gainesville, Florida, Interstate 75 crosses a broad valley covered by a shrubby grassland.  This is the western portion of the Paynes Prairie Basin, a karst landscape underlain with Ocala Limestone (Eocene in age).  Like other topographic basins, streams flow in from surrounding uplands but there is no surface stream that drains the basin; rather, water disappears into the Floridan Aquifer via a number of sinks across the valley floor, the largest of which is the Alachua Sink, near the north edge of the basin; the basin (actually a sub-basin within a more extensive, closed watershed) is 8 miles west to east and up to 4 miles north to south.

Throughout the natural history of the Paynes Prairie Basin, most recently in the 1870's, periods of excessive rain have produced massive inflow from the Newnan Lake watershed (via Prairie Creek), clogging the sinks with debris and filling much of the basin with a lake.  Today, man-made levees and channels cross the basin, which is covered by a mosaic of scrub prairie, flatwoods, freshwater wetlands, bald cypress and tupelo swamps, oak-pine hammocks and sandhills.  Wild horses roam the preserve as do a small number of introduced American bison; other residents and visitors of note include Florida black bears, bobcats, sandhill and whooping cranes, bald eagles, limpkins, black-bellied whistling-ducks, Florida pine snakes, gopher tortoises and American alligators.

Designated a State Nature Preserve in 1971, Paynes Prairie Basin and some adjacent uplands have since become a Florida State Park.  Access to this fascinating refuge is best achieved from the Visitor Center area (north of Micanopy) or from the Gainsville-Hawthorne Trail (a rail-to-trail project), which courses along the north rim of the basin.  A nominal day-use fee is charged and the Park is open from 8am to sunset.