Best Places to Photograph Wildlife Near Gainesville, Florida

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Surrounded by swamps and beautiful natural areas, Gainesville, Florida is a birding and wildlife photographer’s dream.  Though there are so many good places to photograph wildlife near Gainesville, I personally have two favorite places. Luckily, they are right next to each other. Though, they are very different experiences.

With uniquely diverse and wild trails, my first love is, Paynes Prairie. With my second pick going to the well-manicured and well-designed, Sweetwater Wetlands Park.

Let’s get straight into why these are my picks for best places to photograph wildlife near Gainesville and what you will see.

Paynes Prairie Anhinga

What Kind of Wildlife Can I See at Paynes Prairie and the Sweetwater Wetlands Park?

Time of day, season and luck all play a huge part in what you will see at these parks. Sweetwater Wetlands is on the north edge of Paynes Prairie, so many animals migrate between them. If you’re a keen wildlife photographer, then I don’t need to tell you early morning is when you have the best chance to see the most activity. Some of the wildlife in the area include (top of the list are most likely what you’ll encounter);
  • Alligators
  • Over 300 species of birds, including Wood Storks, Snail Kites and Bald Eagles.
  • Turtles
  • Snakes
  • Wild horses
  • Deer
  • Rabbit
  • Bison
  • Wild turkey
  • Wild pigs
  • Bobcats
  • Black bears
Oh, I should mention, tons of bugs. In the cooler months, like November to January, you may be okay, but most of the year you’ll need to wear mosquito repellent.
Baby Alligator as seen from the Boardwalk at Paynes Prairie Florida

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park Main Entrance

With around 23,000 acres, Paynes Prairie is Florida’s first state preserve. There are two entrances to the park, though the road does not connect. The main entrance is just off U.S. 441 between Gainesville and Micanopy. After paying the entrance fee at the ranger station, Lake Wauberg and the campground are on the left.

Tip for University of Florida Students. Your active student ID gets you into a student only area at Lake Wauberg, next door to Paynes Prairie’s main entrance off U.S. 441.

Paynes Prairie Palm Tree in the rain
Panoramic View from the Paynes Prairie Observation Tower
Horribly rainy day on the prairie, but the observation tower kept us dry

For photographing wildlife, go straight to the back of the park to the Observation Tower. The tower provides fantastic views of the prairie.

If you are very lucky, you may see the bison or wild horses grazing. I haven’t gotten there early enough on my last few trips.

To get any decent photographs in this area requires a steady and long-range telephoto lens.

View from Paynes Prairie Observation Tower
Much better day at the Observation Tower, but not much to see at mid-day.

Ask at the visitor center if there are any large nesting areas or interesting birds to look out for. We witnessed an interesting Turkey Vulture mating ritual one year. Another time, we saw these two baby Bald Eagles learning to fly. Wish I could have gotten better photos.

Pair of baby Bald Eagles at Paynes Prairie Florida
Pair of baby Bald Eagles at Paynes Prairie Florida

Have more time? The 8.25-mile Cone’s Dike Trail travels into the prairie, giving you unobstructed views of the wildlife. Be aware that there is no cover from the blistering Florida sun. Make sure to bring sunscreen, a hat, and water with you.

Paynes Prairie Observation Platform

When you finish in the main park, head north on U.S. 441, back towards Gainesville.

On the right side of the road is Bolen Bluff, another great trail for wildlife, but part of the trail often closes due to flooding.  

A little further is a fantastic pull off. It comes up on you quick, so slow down early. This boardwalk is great for spotting gators and birds, especially in the morning. The surrounding area is also full of snakes so be extra cautious.

View of Observation Platform at Paynes Prairie
Blue Heron seen from the Observation Platform at Paynes Prairie

Baby alligators like to hang out near the wall, a short walk south of the boardwalk. Snakes hide in the reeds and you can’t see them. I was focusing on a swamp flower when I noticed a water moccasin about two feet away, curling up and opening its venomous mouth. Needless to say, I did not get the photo.

If you are after snake photos, our next stop is a bit safer.

Baby Gator lounging in the water at Paynes Prairie
Paynes Prairie Three Baby Alligators
How many baby gators can you spot?

La Chua Trail - Paynes Prairie North Entrance

Still part of the Paynes Prairie Preserve, the La Chua Trail looks over the Alachua Sink which is a gold mine of wildlife.

Depending on the time of year, the area could be in drought. Most gators and birds flock here to what remains of the water, making photos easy.

Sometimes it’s flooded. Portions of the trail close, but the boardwalk is my favorite spot anyway.

Pair of Egrets standing on the boardwalk at Paynes Prairie
Paynes_Prairie end of Boardwalk two alligators can be seen in the flooded path
It may be hard to see the two large alligators laying on the flooded trail.

Unfortunately, on our most recent trip the vegetation took over most of the waterway. This made it challenging to see the alligators, but there were still lots of other critters.

Horses and bison are known to also frequent the area.  

Paynes Prairie Gazebo
March
La-Chua Trail Gazebo at Paynes Prairie
December

The La Chua Trail is one of the best birding spots in the area. 

Anhinga Bird at Paynes Prairie
Anhinga
Paynes Prairie Florida Common Moorhen
Common Moorhen
Paynes Prairie Wood Storke
Wood Stork
Limpkin in Paynes Prairie eating a snail
Limpkin

I love peering into the reeds to see which snakes I can find. Only a keen eye will see these guys.

Most snakes you may encounter are harmless, but venomous snakes do live in these parts. Always be aware of your surroundings and never go off the trails.

Just because you don’t see them, doesn’t mean they are not there.

Paynes Prairie Florida Ribbon Snake
Paynes Prairie Black Snake
Paynes Prairie Water Snake
Snake hiding in the reeds at Paynes Prairie La Chua Trail

It’s not just snakes, look for turtles and other small animals in the water and reeds. 

Turtle in the water at Paynes Prairie
Paynes Prairie Florida Frog
Paynes Prairie Florida Softshell Turtle

Sweetwater Wetlands Park

A short drive around the swamp from La Chua Trail is another great place to photograph wildlife near Gainesville. Sweetwater Wetlands Park is a 125-acre man-made wetlands aimed to reduce pollution in the Alachua Sink.

It’s beautifully laid out, with wide gravel trails leading off in large circular loops on the left and right. In the center, a few boardwalks take you over some of the large alligators that call Sweetwater home.

Very Large Adult Alligator laying in the stream in Sweetwater Wetlands
Very Large Adult Alligator laying in the stream in Sweetwater Wetlands
Very Large Adult Alligator laying in the stream in Sweetwater Wetlands

Along the trails are several lookout platforms. Most folks only loop around either Wetland Cell 1 or Cell 2.

Head out toward Wetland 3 to get away from most visitors. As I understand it, this is also where the wild horses can be seen most when they are around. Though, I never seem to be lucky enough to catch them.

Lookout Platform in Sweetwater Wetlands

Large alligators sit just off the trails sunning themselves. It took us quite a bit of nerve to walk past this very large fellow.

Very Large Adult Alligator laying up on the bank in Sweetwater Wetlands
Very Large Adult Alligator laying up on the bank in Sweetwater Wetlands

Like Paynes Prairie, there is so much bird activity at Sweetwater Wetlands. The boardwalks extend into various areas of the wetlands, make it very easy to photograph the wildlife. 

Egret hunts for food in the water Sweetwater Wetlands
Limpkin walking through the reeds in Sweetwater Wetlands

Yup, snakes are here, too. Most are more concerned with the other animals than they are with you. 

Sweetwater Wetlands Banded Water Snake
Sweetwater Wetlands Great Blue Heron Eating Snake

Use Extreme Caution

The park service said it best, the animals you will encounter are wild. Use extreme caution and be aware of what’s around you at all times. Keep children within arms reach, and never let small children walk near alligators or near the waters edge. Even large gators can move with great speed, in and out of the water.
Paynes Prairie Entering Wildlife Area Sign
Use Extreme Caution Wildlife Sign at Paynes Prairie Florida

Do you know of another great park to photograph wildlife near Gainesville? Leave a note in the comments to help other readers. Thanks!

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