The header to the blog featuring our podcast logo.
Ecotourism is the new buzzword for a familiar pastime; what older generations would lovingly refer to as ‘getting back to nature’. In a nutshell, it’s the practice of responsible, sustainable travel and vacationing to a natural or remote area with the aim of minimizing negative human impact on the environment. Thoreau extolled it, Tolkien venerated it, and the Durrells celebrated and manifested it into an entire way of life. In the 21st Century, there is an attractive, almost beguiling appeal to escaping the madding crowd of modernity and literally heading for the hills to unplug and unwind, to rediscover a connection to the planet that our ancestors had.
As Bilbo Baggins once said, “It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life”; to enjoy things that Mother Earth has to offer – like peace and quiet, and good tilled earth. For some of us, that can be the occasional hike or camping trip in the Great Outdoors. Others are as passionate as hobbits, making it a lifetime calling or career. But almost all of them head to various campgrounds, state and national parks, wilderness preserves, and conservation areas, and Florida certainly has plenty of those.
Payne’s Prairie Preserve is the state’s first official preserve, with 21,000 acres of near-pristine savanna in Alachua County. It’s a massive conservation area that is home to several indigenous species of flora and fauna, as well as literal miles of hiking and biking trails, campgrounds, and waterways for fishing, canoeing, and kayaking. It is one of North Florida’s most popular refuges – for both humans and animals – and especially for ecotourists looking for an off-the-grid adventure.

“You see a lot of bird watchers and photographers who like to go there,” says Anna Duhame, Showcase Graphic Designer and a frequent visitor herself.With over 270 species of avians, the preserve is a veritable mecca for amateur and professional ornithologists. “They’re always looking through binoculars or the lens of a camera, and they’re absolutely engrossed. It’s as fascinating to watch them sometimes as it is the birds.”

A large alligator prepares to ascend the bank along a body of water.
She and her husband often head up for a hike on one of the 8 trails that traverse and criss-cross the plain, including the 16-mile paved Hawthorne State Trail and Sweetwater Trail. It’s hard to believe, sometimes, that they’re still in Florida; this area is part of the southeast conifer forest ecoregion, and in some places it almost feels prehistoric.

“I like the Sweetwater Trail a lot; it’s more developed and easier to navigate. But I think my favorite is the La Chua Trail. That’s the one where you can get up close enough to see alligators.” Although, she hastens to add, at a distance: “You have to stay back about 25 feet, which honestly, is a really good idea. Getting any closer than that would be too dangerous, because those things are fast. (and have a bite force PSI of 2000Ibs! – Editor) But you can still see them really well. They’re fascinating.”

a crackling campfire

Like a lot of people, she doesn’t necessarily consider herself an eco-warrior, but you don’t have to be. Being environmentally active and understanding sustainability involves a wide spectrum of action and practice – from learning about biodiversity and native ecosystems to simply throwing your trash away and cleaning your campsite. There’s no one, singular way of being ‘green’. A lot of it is just immersing yourself in a natural setting, observing it, enjoying it – and leaving it alone so that the next person who comes along can do the same thing.

Anna has camped at the Preserve with her family on several occasions, and has taught her kids to respect and take care of where they are.

“We’re careful to keep our food contained, and we make sure to know the rules about campfires and how much noise we can make – which doesn’t sound important, but we want to be respectful of other campers AND the wildlife, which is the main draw for me,” she explains. “The last thing you want to do is scare the animals away so that you never see them.”


It might catch you by surprise to find out about the beautiful, wild Cattle and Cracker horses – originally developed and husbanded by the Seminole and then reintroduced in 1985 – or the enormous Plains bison that lumber along in the conservation area. The bison were brought from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in 1975 as part of the Preserve’s mission to restore the ecosystem to pre-European conditions – before the Spanish got here – and the herd is now 50-70 strong and thriving. What’s even more of a surprise is that you will quite likely encounter these animals while hiking one of the trails, or you might see them from one of the 50-foot observation towers located at the Visitor’s Center and throughout the Preserve.

“They’re not always at a distance!” Anna laughs. “You can round a corner and boom! There’s a wild horse right there looking at you. It’s great; you’re fine as long as you don’t try to approach or bother them. Just look, or take a picture, and move on. That’s preservation and conservation in action.”

Ecotourism is a relatively new term in the lexicon of vacation lingo, but it’s a fast-growing niche for state and local economic impact. You might think that Florida’s beaches are the lure for visitors, but believe it or not, that laurel belongs to the State Parks. The diverse wildlife and opportunities for fishing, boating, fossil hunting, climbing, geocaching and camping attract millions of visitors, creates thousands of jobs, and generates huge revenue. According to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, combined engagement at the state parks outmatches any other attraction in Florida – including the Mouse. Ecotourism is a major reason – if not the major reason people visit. Which isn’t surprising; there’s a lot of outdoor recreation here, with the infrastructure to support it.

“It’s just so wide open, fresh air, big sky, and seeing the animals in a natural habitat.  You see students there, senior citizens, people from all ages and walks of life.” Duhame says. “Most of them are like-minded and respectful of the conservation and environment, and they’re there to enjoy what’s being preserved.”

If you’d like to discover more parks and trails in the Gainesville area be sure to check out our helpful guide located here:


Curious about what’s for sale in the Gainesville – Alachua County area? Look no further! From single-family homes of all shapes and sizes, pool homes, waterfront escapes, and everything in between, Alachua County has it all!