As Interstate 75 approaches Gainesville from the south, it dips into a wide bowl that seems to spread for miles. Welcome to the ancient Paynes Prairie, where human occupation stretches back 12,000 years. History -- that of American Indians, cattle ranchers and naturalist William Bartram -- is only part of the attraction here. The park is also known for its hiking, biking and horseback riding trails, from which might be seen animals such as bison, deer, wild turkeys and wading birds. If you have only a couple of hours to spend, stop at the visitors center for an overview of the park's history, ecosystems and wildlife. For a bird's-eye view of the prairie, take the short Wacahoota Trail near the visitors center and climb its 50-foot observation tower. As you look over the marshes, try to imagine it as a lake -- as it was in 1873, after rainwater collected on the land. In 1891, Alachua Lake, as it was called, vanished when Alachua Sink unplugged and gulped the water down. -- Lisa Roberts, Orlando Sentinel GETTING THERE: The park is at 100 Savannah Blvd. in Micanopy, with its entrance near Interstate 75. Admission is $4 per vehicle; hours are 8 a.m. to sunset daily. Details: 352-466-3397. On the Web, go to floridastateparks.org/paynes prairie.
PHOTO BY DOMINICK MARTINO, FLORIDA STATE PARKS.