Gainesville New Year’s Trip Report: An unforgettable start to 2022

Payne's Prairie Preserve State Park in Florida | wild horses and bison in the distance

A few days before the end of 2021, I decided to plan a last-minute New Year’s adventure. Since my goal for the upcoming year was to see significantly more of my beautiful home state of Florida, particularly the state parks, it seemed like a no-brainer to start that goal immediately.

There was a lot in the Gainesville area that was on my to-visit list, so that was top of my list as long as I could find affordable accommodation.

I quickly looked at state park campground options near Gainesville, incorrectly assuming that New Year’s Eve would not be a popular time for camping and that I’d be able to find a spot to pitch a tent for my first solo camping trip. When I struck out, I turned to Airbnb, determined to find a unique accommodation option. It didn’t take long before I was booked for 2 nights at a converted school bus parked in someone’s driveway!

New Year’s Eve

On December 31st, I drove up to Gainesville. My only previous experience in the city had been quick stops as I drove through it on my way somewhere else. In the past, that had usually just been stops for food and gas, but earlier in the year I decided to get a membership at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens because I thought it would be a nice place to stop and stretch my legs while on long road trips.

I had come to fall in love with Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, so I decided to start my New Year’s Eve adventure there.

Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville on New Year's Eve

After enjoying the garden, it was check-in time at the school bus. It was a simple but functional setup, with electricity and wifi but no running water. The bathroom element was covered by an indoor composting toilet and an outdoor shower. Perfectly fine for a 2-night stay!

  • Converted school bus
  • Converted school bus
  • Converted school bus
  • Converted school bus
  • Converted school bus
  • Converted school bus
  • Converted school bus composting toilet
  • Converted school bus
  • Converted school bus patio
  • Converted school bus outdoor shower

Since I had an early start the next morning and didn’t feel the need to stay up for the midnight fanfare, I got in bed early. I curled up watching Ted Lasso on my laptop until I was tired, and then went to sleep, stirring slightly at one point when fireworks went off in the distance.

New Year’s Day

I woke up bright and early, and was ready when my fellow photographer friend Jonathan arrived at 9. Our day trip would combine my passion for nature and our mutual interest in photography.

Ellie and Jonathan at Devil's Millhopper State Park in Gainesville, Florida

The first stop was Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park. It was exciting to finally be exploring Florida’s state parks; having never been to any of them, I had now acquired a state park pass, and New Year’s Day was the perfect time to begin my challenge of visiting all of them!

(Note: If you’re going to be getting a state park pass, it’s best to do it at the start of a month, as it will expire on the last day of that month the following year. For example, getting a pass on Jan 1 2022 means that it’ll expire Jan 31 2023. Getting a pass on Jan 31 2022 will still have an expiration of Jan 31 2023. So getting the pass at the start of the month will give you 13 months of access rather than 12!)

This state park had a short path around a sinkhole and stairs that led down into the sinkhole. It was absolutely beautiful, and we took our time exploring the park and snapping plenty of photos before heading back to the visitor center to have a picnic. Below is a video I made from the outing.

After we’d finished at this state park, we decided to go back to Kanapaha Gardens so I could show Jonathan around and we could get more nature photos.

Ellie and Jonathan at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville, Florida

Here is another video I made highlighting some of the sights at the garden that afternoon.

We stayed at the gardens until they closed, and then we went back to the bus and pulled out our laptops to edit some of our photos together before he was on his way home to Jacksonville, our New Year’s plans successfully concluded.

January 2

This was supposed to be the conclusion of my New Year’s trip. Checkout was at 11, and I decided to stay in and enjoy a slow morning, savoring the last few hours of living in a school bus.

After checkout, I headed just outside Gainesville to Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park, intending to spend a few hours exploring before heading home to Orlando.

This place had been on my radar for years, since I drove through it every time I road-tripped north and was alway curious as to whether it was worth a stop someday. Then sometime last year, I learned that wild horses and wild bison could be seen here, so I made a mental note that it was definitely worth stopping here. When I started planning this New Year’s trip, I knew I had to put Payne’s Prairie on the itinerary.

I tried not to get my hopes too high as I drove out of Gainesville and toward the state park, since this would just be a short visit and I didn’t know how good my chances were of seeing wild horses or bison.

Once at the state park, I ended up driving through the campgrounds and felt a slight pang of envy for the campers. How lovely to be staying out in the midst of the natural scenery! I was glad I hadn’t been able to get a campsite here for the past 2 nights since it led to me looking for other options and finding the awesome bus on Airbnb, but I knew I’d want to camp here sometime in the future.

Then, I made my way to the visitor center. They had a big picture window with a view straight out onto the prairie. Without looking too closely out the window, I went straight to the telescope that was pointed at the prairie. When I saw a closeup photo of a horse, I thought this was one of those gimmicky things that lets you put in different pictures to look at through a lens. But then THE HORSE MOVED! And I looked up and squinted out the window to see several horses in the distance! They were real!

Just outside the visitor center is an observation tower, where I climbed to get a good vantage point of the prairie, on which there were both wild horses and bison in view! (BRB saving up for a longer telephoto lens, secondhand of course!) After speaking to a few people, it seems like I was pretty lucky to have seen both so easily!

At the bottom of the observation tower was a short loop trail where I observed a lot of red lichen. (I learned about it recently and naturally have been seeing it everywhere now!)

On my way back through the visitor center, I found myself asking the employee at the desk if I could make a camping reservation there. She told me that I could make one at the ranger station at the front of the park, so I headed back to the parking lot, checking the weather forecast as I walked to confirm that it would be decent for camping—clear skies all night and a low of 60°. Perfect!

As I walked back to the parking lot, I was surprised to see a golden silk orb weaver spider on the side of the path. As I pulled out my phone to take some photos, a leaf fell into her web. I tried to remove it, but she won that tug-of-war game, thinking the leaf was food. A family came by and I answered some of their questions about the spider. I was so happy when one of them asked if I was an entomologist!

Back at the ranger station, I learned that there were 3 tent sites available, and I was able to choose one right by the restrooms. Once I’d booked my site, I made a run to the nearest Publix for more picnic food, since I hadn’t planned to be out adventuring for this long.

With enough rations for the next 24 hours, I found my site and pulled out the tent that I have had for 6 years, using it once with my friend Molly when I first got it and then never again. A few months ago, I’d put it in my van just in case I ever wanted to have a spontaneous camping trip. I’d felt that moment might be coming as I’ve delved deeper into my love for nature. And now it was time to figure out how to assemble that tent on my own! It was pretty straightforward, but I felt so proud of myself for doing the thing all by myself!

With about 2 hours left of daylight, I decided to hike the nearby lake trail. I didn’t make it too far because I kept stopping to take photos and admire the scenery, which was gorgeous as the sun set. I saw an armadillo and a TON of birds!

I got back to the campgrounds just as it was starting to get dark. After showering, I emerged back outside into almost total darkness. I hadn’t realized there would be absolutely no lights in the campgrounds, but then it made perfect sense because I looked up and the stars were SO BRIGHT!!!

It wasn’t quite bedtime yet, so I got out my laptop and stayed in my van to do a little work (after all, I was supposed to be home from my New Year’s trip by now!) before eventually bringing my sleeping bag, camping mat, and pillow to my tent and drifting off to sleep. Fortunately, I also brought some warmer clothes in case I woke up cold, which ended up being very necessary due to the unexpected storm that would blow in during the night!

January 3

It was still dark when I woke up shivering to the sound of wind and heavy rain pelting my tent. The last time I’d used this tent, it had rained and everything inside got soaked, but I felt around and everything seemed to be dry. I was grateful, because it was dangerously cold for a Floridian with so few layers.

I grabbed the long-sleeved shirt and sweatpants that I’d brought in and layered them on top of the t-shirt and shorts I’d gone to bed wearing. When I peeked at the weather, it said it was 43° and there was a wind advisory in effect. I burrowed myself deep into my sleeping bag and tried my best to sleep through the rest of the night, although I woke up shivering several more times.

Instead of waking up for a sunrise hike like I’d previously planned, I ended up snoozing all morning, reluctant to leave my cocoon and venture into the cold world. Finally, I dragged myself out of the tent at 9:30 and quickly got ready so that I could go explore some more!

This was my biggest day of hiking. Once again, I hiked along the lake trail, this time walking the entire length until it led to Jackson’s Gap trail. I followed that path to the visitor center and climbed the observation tower again to get a look at the prairie. There were animals in the distance, but they were too far away for me to tell whether they were horses or bison.

Ellie with a large spider in front of her face

However, I did get a good look at my spider friend from the previous day. I was surprised to see she was in the same spot as before, thinking the storm might have forced her to move elsewhere. This time, I got a spider selfie I was pretty happy with!

At this point, it was time to hike back to my campsite, pack up my tent, and head back to Orlando, feeling like I was the luckiest person in Florida for having experienced such a good New Year’s trip. There is still so much I want to explore at Payne’s Prairie, so I hope it’s not too much longer until I’m sleeping under the stars there again!

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    What is your most memorable New Year’s trip? Let me know in the comments below!

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