Hiking with Gators on Gainesville’s La Chua Trail
Wednesday afternoon I faced my childhood fears and took the family hiking among alligators on Gainesville’s La Chua Trail on the North Rim of Florida’s Paynes Prairie State Park. “Chua,” the Timucuan Indian word for sinkhole, is a 3 mile trail from the Alachua Sink out to an observation platform in the prairie. Alligators were everywhere, and NOT the orange and blue kind! Yes. For me, it was terrifying.
‘Well…this is nice,’ I said as my kids and I strolled along the boardwalk overlooking a nearly dried up pond. ‘Look, there’s an alligator.’ I pointed half-heartedly at the lone American alligator hiding in the vegetation. I couldn’t see them, but I felt my kids rolling their eyes as if to say: Yup, suckered into another one of mom’s lame adventures gone bust. I knew this because I was starting to feel that way myself.
It was 2 pm on Thanksgiving break and we had driven well over an hour to the University of Florida town of Gainesville in North Central Florida, where we walked a half-mile on the boardwalk of La Chua Trail. This nature trail, a part of Paynes Prairie State Park, wound along the northern rim of the prairie. Renowned for it’s wildlife, today it seemed to have more visitors than animals. I wondered if we should head back, maybe check out that Sweetwater park up the road. As the boardwalk ended, we counted 7 gators sunning themselves in the mud. The sign at the end of the boardwalk pointed to a grassy trail beyond- one mile to the observation tower over the prairie. My daughter tallied up the mileage in her head, arming herself for a protest against a three mile hike.
I just shrugged off her ready arguments–she will make a brilliant lawyer someday. I was battling the beginnings of a head cold and the drive had left me weary. I had no desire to get back into our car just yet. The sky was blue. The air was crisp. It was a beautiful day for a hike. And besides, the longer we walked, the less time the kids would be spending on their electronics (yeah, I really do think that way). I popped a menthol cough drop and we left the boardwalk for the grass trail. We skirted past the sign that warned about alligators on the trail, and then another letting visitors know that this was not a zoo. Despite the explicit warnings, I was not prepared for what awaited us.
A muddy creek followed alongside the left of the trail, dropping down an embankment. Dark and mud-slicked, an occasional alligator soaked up the November Florida rays. To the right Paynes Prairie stretched out like a vast wasteland, the grasses of summer dried to the color of old corn husks.
Walking the Gator Gauntlet on Florida’s La Chua Trail
Water rushed from a dam in the creek ahead, and a small crowd had gathered around the top portion of the dam, the muddy water thick with water hyacinths. Cell phones clicked away.
“Oh my goodness!” The words tripped from my open mouth before I could even think twice. The banks of the creek above the little dam teemed with giant alligators. Not one or two, but ten or twenty. They were basking on the banks and swimming in the vegetation.
Two men near us laughed at my reaction. “I bet everyone says that when they come here,” I said.
“Pretty much,’ came the reply.
We left the gawkers to continue on our hike. The alligators along the creek banks thickened in numbers and lengthened in size. 9 feet – 10 feet- possibly a 12. Yikes! I had never seen so many giant gators in one place in the wild before.
“You know, we can see the gators on that bank there, but what about the ones right below us?” I pointed out, as a gator-terrified mom would. Seriously, when my parents moved my family to Florida, I used to have nightmares not about the dark or some made up halloween fright, but a river full of alligators. I was literally walking my childhood nightmare!
The path rounded a corner up ahead, and we saw a family looking down at the two enormous 8 foot alligators right below them. Just as I suspected, alligators near and far. Gulp. Three wild horses wandered off the prairie and onto the trail to distract my thoughts from the numerous amount of gators that surrounded us, and I wondered why I had never heard of this trail before.
Growing up in Florida, my parents marched me, my older sisters and little brother to all of the natural delights around Gainesville. I had seen the giant lily pads in Kanapaha Gardens, walked boardwalks at Bivens Arms, descended the depths of Devil’s Millhopper and even remember visiting Morningside Nature Center, but not La Chua Trail. I vaguely recall my sister, Sandy mentioning a sinkhole filled with alligators on Paynes Prairie, but had assumed it was that boardwalk on Highway 441 on the side of the road. It was Instagrammer JeniTuck who inspired our La Chua family adventure on this occasion. I had never even heard of the name La Chua before, but then the local photographer I follow began posting colorful wildlife pictures on her account, all from La Chua Trail. Alligators, birds, wild horses. They are gorgeous photos. How could they not inspire a family adventure? Check them out on her Instagram page: www.instagram.com/jenituck/
I thought, okay. Sounds like a cool place to take the kids. And here we were, walking the gator-gauntlet on Gainesville’s La Chua Trail. We sidled past a nine foot American alligator too close for my comfort, to reach the crowded observation tower. We climbed the wooden tower for an expansive view of the lake and the prairie. Across the lake, a herd of wild bison roamed. Yellow wildflowers dotted the muddy landscape. And alligators, of course. There seemed to be no escaping those prehistoric beasts.
The holiday weekend had brought many hikers out. Families and their teenage kids, University of Florida students escaping their dorm-life, couples, young and old. The crowd on the observation tower grew.
“Mom, let’s go,” my daughter said. I nodded in agreement. I had no wish to be out here at dusk- prime gator-hunting time.
We headed back up the path. “We’ve got to watch that guy,” I told the kids, pointing at the nine foot gator that still basked near the trail. The tall grass beside me shook and I saw a flash of dark scales. I must have jumped ten feet. Without hesitation, I propelled the kids away from a possible ambush and past the prehistoric sunbather.
My heart was still in my throat, and the kids teased me about my gator-fears for the remainder of the hike back. (You can read more about my gator-fears at: 5 Things I wish I knew Before I Started Kayaking.)
Once back on the safety of the boardwalk, my son said to me: “Mom, that was just way too many alligators.”
What started out as an adventure gone bust- turned into an unforgettable journey.
Things to Know Before You Hike La Chua Trail:
- La Chua Trail is one of Gainesville’s best-kept secrets. We used google maps and Siri to get there, and I was led through neighborhoods and even a cemetery! La Chua Trailhead is located at 4801 Camp Ranch Road, Gainesville, Florida.
- There is a $4 parking fee for this Florida State Park. It’s an envelope honor system, so bring your own change.
- There is one compost porta-potty at the trail head. It’s the only one. Use it before you walk the gauntlet.
- Bring your own drinking water. Once you leave the comforts of the boardwalk, it’s all sun with no shade.
- Signs specifically state no pets or small children off of the boardwalk portion of the trail. You can read my post on 10 Things You Need To Know About Florida Gators for more info, but the bottom line is that to alligators, the little guys are food. This trail is NOT for little kids.
- There are more signs stating that La Chua is not a zoo, These animals are wild and unpredictable. Do not approach an alligator on the trail (wait for it to leave- and it could take a while). There are often venomous snakes sunning themselves on the trail as well. Proceed with caution. Use your common sense. Stay on the trail.
- La Chua Trail is popular for wildlife viewing: gators, wild horses, bison, & birds, and it can get very crowded on the weekends and over the holidays. Consider this when planning your trip there. Try weekdays or earlier in the day for quieter times.
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