Camping in Gainesville

Getting closer with the family, by getting farther from the city

Fresh air, bright blue skies, connecting with nature: Yes, I was very much looking forward to our overdue family vacation. Tired of concrete and skyscrapers, my husband and I agreed on taking a trip during our daughters’ fall break.

I pictured sandy beaches, but he wanted us to experience the great outdoors, wildlife and campfire. Neither the girls nor I had ever pitched a tent, but we were up for the challenge.

“Gainesville has a ton of great spots,” Jeff said, pulling out a visitor guide.

“The Devil’s place looks cool,” said our 14-year-old, Izzy, showing interest in Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, which is actually a miniature rainforest inside a sinkhole.

The Devil's Millhopper Boardwalk
The Devil’s Millhopper Boardwalk

“I want to see horses,” announced our 12-year-old, Emily, excitedly referencing Boulware Springs Nature Park, which equestrians use for its horse-friendly accommodations.

We settled on Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park (Florida’s first state preserve and a national landmark). It promised beautiful hiking trails, which pleased my husband, and an equestrian trail and lush vegetation, which excited the girls. I was flexible so long as we all ended up in the same place.

A bird’s-eye view

a butterfly on flowers
Scenery at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

The moment we pulled into the state park, we were in awe. Everything was so green. The warm weather and leaves on the trees were a welcome change from the crisp weather we had been experiencing up north.

Our first stop was the park’s 50-foot tall observation tower that gave us a look at our home for the next three days. The tower provides a panoramic view that is nothing short of breathtaking. While my husband saw a land full of interesting wildlife, including horses, alligators, bison and birds, I faced what looked like a challenge. Even with my limited wilderness experience, I had to admit that the scene before me was enticing.

I watched my girls whisper to each other and point excitedly. It didn’t take long before they brought Mom and Dad in on the conversation.

“Mom, do you see the horse trail next to the walking path?” Emily pointed out.

“Dad, check out the lake,” Izzy called.

“I wonder what kind of creatures are in there—Muahahaa!” Jeff responded, scoring an eye roll and a smile from Izzy.

“Hey, look,” Emily said, grabbing our attention. “An eagle!”

This was going to be good.

Up close with wildlife

After successfully pitching our tent, I felt that we had earned ourselves a beautiful hike. Jeff already had a route in mind—the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail. We sampled about a quarter of the 16-mile route that stretches from the city through various conservation lands.

About 10 feet wide, the four of us could actually walk together on the path as we took in the towering trees, colorful wildflowers and little creatures excitedly darting around the woods. We stopped at several different overlooks, one of which revealed a large prairie dotted with wild horses and bison. The girls and I had never seen bison before.

“This is pretty cool,” Izzy said, linking her arm through mine. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d done that.

Sticking together

You’d think our fearless wilderness “expert” would have the whole s’mores thing figured out.

Jeff taught our daughters how to build a roaring (but safe) campfire. He led us in making hotdogs on a stick and we heated the aluminum foil bundles we’d prepared at home filled with biscuits, veggies and gravy.

When it came time for s’mores, Jeff was all set to show us how it’s done. His roasting stick was locked and loaded. The graham cracker with double chocolate was carefully placed within warming distance of the campfire. With all the enthusiasm of Harry Potter casting an emergency spell, Jeff whipped his wand into place using such force his marshmallow flew off and into the fire. Strike one. The girls were cracking up!

By round two, Jeff was ready to redeem himself. He gently lowered the marshmallow over the fire. Using a small flame, he talked to the girls about patience yielding the best results—gooey inside and perfectly tanned outside. We watched as the treat swelled.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if it fell off?” Emily said, giggling.

“No, it would not!” Jeff said, pretending to be indignant.

The marshmallow grew and drooped.

“It’s going to fall! Take it off, Dad!” Izzy apparently couldn’t handle the tension.

“I got this,” the “master” gloated. And he did. He had the sugary mess totally in control…right up until a beautifully timed sneeze. Not even Jeff saw it coming. Poor guy. Strike two. This was family hilarity at its finest—Emily laughed so hard that she snorted.

On his third attempt, Jeff took all precautions. He secured the marshmallow and lowered it over the flame. It turned into a golden piece of art. We were in awe (though a little disappointed an owl hadn’t swooped down and stolen it).

Luckily for us, there was another mishap. Remember that graham cracker and chocolate so carefully placed near the fire? Warming longer than intended, it became chocolate soup on a soggy cracker. Chocolate dripping down his hands as he mushed the sandwich together, Jeff was a sticky disaster after eating it. The girls screamed and laughed as he ran around trying to deliver bear hugs. Strike three (or home run…depending on how you count).

Spending the night in the tent was one of the best things our family has done in years. It struck a nostalgic chord, transporting me back to the days when Izzy and Emily were small enough to snuggle up with Mom and Dad in our queen-sized bed. Though I don’t remember ever getting into shadow puppets at home.

A walk in the park

an alligator on the sand
A gator on the La Chua Trail at Paynes Prairie

Before falling asleep, we decided on two hikes the next day. The park has eight trails, including the famed La Chua Trail, which we chose for our morning excursion. Only a three-mile round trip, it offers a view of the Alachua Sink, a sinkhole that can collect enough water to transform into a lake. The water level was low during our visit, but we were elated to see alligators basking in the morning sun.

Our afternoon hike was on the Chacala Trail. It’s a six-mile loop with two shortcut options. Emily was thrilled to meet horses on the trail. Their riders were nice enough to stop and let us pet their noses.

The entire trip gave my family three days with Mother Nature. We got exercise, fresh air, a night under the stars and were able to explore the unique Florida ecosystem up close. Most importantly, our family had fun together.

As we packed up our gear, Jeff asked the girls, “Where should we vacation next?”

“I want to come back here!” Izzy answered with more enthusiasm than I’d expected.

“Yeah, me, too,” Emily quickly chimed in.

“We could also check out new territory, like San Felasco Hammock Preserve,” Jeff suggested.

It will be a tough call.

For me, this experience was a paradigm shift. My first thoughts on vacationing were all about the beach. What I discovered was that the wilderness offers a totally different kind of peace. For one thing, there are fewer distractions, but the distractions that are in this spot are awesome (in the literal sense). Wild horses and bison, alligators, sinkholes, lush vegetation—it’s amazing. More than the wildlife, though, we found a new, adventurous way to connect.

Find your next favorite Gainesville camping spot, or see more that Gainesville has to offer, in this visitor guide.

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