by Randy Reagor
Wild horses—and alligators—couldn’t keep me from cycling the Gainesville to Hawthorne Rail-to-Trail.
I’m sure you’ve seen the viral video of the horse stomping the alligator, right? Well, about two miles from that social media sensation my friend, Mike, and I began our journey near Payne’s Prairie State Park in Gainesville which would take us on a 16-mile, scenic bike trip to Hawthorne.
I’ve been biking for many years, so but I’d been looking forward to doing the trail since I did the first five miles from the Hawthorne end about 11 years ago. I wasn’t disappointed, especially since I had my reliable friend accompanying me. In fact, last summer I bought an extra mountain bike just for these occasions, since my outdoor companions either: 1) have lame bikes (that would be Mike). 2) live out of town. 3) or just cycle to humor me, so they shouldn’t have to spend several hundred dollars on one.
Borrowed bike, new bike, no bike, just go there, even in the middle of summer, because 90-95% of it is shaded, even at mid-day, although you might want to take it easy (if you’re well into middle-age like me) the first few miles because there are some serious hills and 90-degree turns from around Mile 2 to Mile 4. Since there are some intense cyclists on the trail going up to 30 mph make sure you stay to the right… always.
The trail passes through several swamps, grassy plains, pine forests, and over three wooden bridges, and you only have to cross one major highway. There’s also a couple small towns along the way that reminded us both of “Old Florida”, and if you don’t know what I mean, just picture The Yearling. Since we were taking our time it took us about two hours to reach the Hawthorne trailhead, located at the north end of the Lochloosa Wildlife Conservation Area.
On the way back I reminded Mike there were a couple stops we needed to make, a side trail that leads to a view of Alachua Lake and the La Chua Trail, where the horse/alligator battle occurred (there are also several non-paved trails that I plan to investigate next time). The paved trail to Alachua Lake, which is only about a mile, is well worth taking because the viewing platform offers an elevated view of most of Payne’s Prairie.
About two miles west we parked our bikes at the beginning of the La Chua Trail, and I was surprised with how many visitors there were—several were international judging by their accents. I assume the viral video spawned many new visitors for this area. When I visited this area 5 ½ years ago there was only about 30 people there, mostly bird watchers, and there was no raised platform around the Alachua Sink. On my previous visit I also ran down the trail by the sink and almost stepped on a water moccasin I didn’t see because of the high grass. However, now the area is sandy and you can see where you’re walking. There are also several signs warning about the wildlife there, which I’ve seen more frequently since the fatal alligator attack of a toddler at Disney last year.
The platform continues for about a ¼ mile, and when it ends you can continue walking on a sandy road with the creek feeding the sink on your left and the prairie on the right. In the water and on the banks I saw at least 40 alligators, with more likely hiding in the hundreds of lily pads. The largest alligator was about 10 feet long, about the same size as the one that got stomped on in the video, which made me wonder if it was the same reptile. Then, I found the area where the attack occurred. It was a part of the trail far from the water and where I doubt the wild horses see any alligators. Why the gator was on the trail at all is a mystery—since the creek embankment is about five-feet high. Alligators are notoriously lazy, so it had to go to a lot of trouble to get near the horses, and there was also no water on the other side of the road.
We walked for about another 10 minutes when we encountered three wild horses blocking the road, and since several tourists were on the other side of them we stopped so we wouldn’t scare them.
Being the pragmatist that he is, Mike said “We might as well head back.”
“Wild horses couldn’t drag me any farther,” I replied.
For more information about visiting the Gainesville area go to: www.visitgainesville.com or call ( 352) 374-5260.