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Get Outside: 6 Parks to Visit Now in Gainesville

Located in northeast Florida, Gainesville is a go-to destination to explore some of Florida’s most beautiful and natural outdoor parks, rivers and prairies. National Geographic once named Gainesville one of the 50 best places to live and play in the country. This is the kind of place where you can see roaming bison and toothy alligators within a few miles of one another in the morning, then take a river tubing trip with a group of friends in the afternoon. If you’re looking for some outdoor adventure in Gainesville, here are six places where you can find it. 

1. Paynes Prairie
Where: Micanopy, 17 minutes south of Gainesville 
Best for: Wildlife sightings, hiking and birding 
Fun facts: The park has its own 50-foot high observation tower that allows guests to have a panoramic view of the preserve. 
When to visit: Daily, 8 a.m. to one hour before sunset

See the best of Florida’s swamps at Paynes Prairie where guests can view (in a safe distance from the elevated boardwalk) the droves of alligators lounging in the sun. The park has the 3-mile LaChua Trail lined with Spanish moss. Alligator sightings are to be expected in Paynes Prairie, but don’t be surprised to see wild horses, bison and deer on a hike. Paynes Prairie is also one of the best places for birdwatching in this area of Florida.

Here are a few safety recommendations from Visit Gainesville and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission:

• Observe and photograph alligators only from a distance. Remember, they’re an important part of Florida’s natural history as well as an integral component of aquatic ecosystems.

• Never feed alligators – it’s dangerous and illegal. When fed, alligators can overcome their natural wariness and learn to associate people with food.

• No pets allowed on the trail, and for extra precaution it is recommended that visitors with small children, remain on the boardwalk at all times—do not continue onto the open, grassy trail.

2. San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park
Where: Alachua, 24 minutes northwest of downtown Gainesville 
Best for: Horseback riding, cycling, hiking and birding 
Fun fact: The park has an on-site hand-gliding service.
When to visit: Daily from 8:00 a.m. to sunset 

One of the best ways to describe the San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park is that it’s like an enchanted forest. Its tall and majestic oak trees give it a fairy-tale atmosphere, with more than 7,350 acres of mature forest. The park has a 30-mile trail that makes it a popular destination for cyclists, and it’s also a hot spot for horseback riding with a 10-mile horse trail. The park is very serene and mostly quiet, except for maybe the hand-launched glider experiences that allow guests to play pilot with radio-controlled model sailplanes.

3. Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
Where: Gainesville
Best for: Looking at flowers, birding and strolling 
Fun fact: Kanapaha is derived from a Timucua Indian word meaning “palmetto leaf” and “house.”
When to visit: Year-round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays through Wednesdays and Fridays (closed Thursdays). 9 a.m. to dusk on Saturday and Sunday. 

For a scenic and relaxing stroll, there’s no better place than the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. Operated by the North Florida Botanical Society, this nonprofit park displays colorful assortments of beautiful flowers like water lilies, roses and palm plants. The garden has various specialty sections such as a hummingbird garden, rock garden and a children’s garden with playground. The garden regularly hosts special events like the Spring Garden Festival, Moonlight Walk and various concerts, so check the calendar of events before visiting.

4. Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Where: Fort White, about an hour northwest of downtown Gainesville
Best for: Tubing, snorkeling, swimming, kayaking and manatee encounters
Fun fact: The park has 3.5-mile tubing run down the crystal-clear Ichetucknee River
When to visit: Year-round from 8 a.m. to sundown

If you’re looking for a secluded spot to snorkel or kayak, the gorgeous Ichetucknee Springs State Park is the place. The park’s spring-fed Ichetucknee River flows for six miles through the park, offering up plenty of fun adventures from tubing down the lazy river to cave scuba diving to manatee sightings. When paddling or swimming down the springs, keep your eyes peeled for wandering white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and turtles. Guests can bring their own tubes or rent one from vendors outside of the park to float down the lazy river. A quick note: You can only tube through the South entrance off US 27. Picnic tables are scattered throughout the park as well for easy lunch plans while you’re on the river.

5. O’Leno State Park
Where: High Springs, 30 minutes north from downtown Gainesville
Best for: Camping, swimming and exploring nature 
Fun fact: Before it became an official park, O’Leno used to be a thriving small town with two grist mills, a saw mill, hotel, general store and a doctor’s office. 
When to visit: Year-round from 8 a.m. to sundown

O’Leno State Park was established in the 1930s and is situated on the banks of the Santa Fe River. When visiting this park, you have to check out O’Leno’s biggest attraction: the River Sinkhole. This geological phenomenon is something to see: the river looks like it “disappears” along the 3-mile bank, only to reemerge later. There are several campgrounds for guests for primitive tent or RV camping.

6. Morningside Nature Center
Where: Gainesville Best for: exploring historic buildings and hiking
Fun fact: Every first Saturday of the month, the farm offers live interpretive farming experiences.
When to visit:
8:00 am to 6:00 pm daily (Nov-Apr)
8:00 am to 8:00 pm daily (May-October)
Living History Farm Hours: Monday-Saturday 9:00 am to 4:30 pm
Holiday Hours: Morningside Nature Center, Park and Living History Farm will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Eve

Morningside Nature Center is one of the last remaining examples of fire-dependent longleaf pine woodlands in the area. Morningside Nature Center boasts a spectacular seasonal wildflower display and opportunity to see a diverse array of wildlife. FREE and fun interactive programs take place from September through May! On Living History Days farm visitors can experience daily life in 1870 as staff and volunteers interpret bygone days through chores and activities.

PICTURED: A Great Egret Flies Over Paynes Prairie
Photo Courtesy of Visit Gainesville
PICTURED: Colorful Flowers at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
Photo Courtesy of Visit Gainesville
PICTURED: The Beautiful Ichetucknee River
Photo Courtesy of Visit Gainesville