If celebrating Valentine’s Day with a dinner and a movie isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other date ideas to try in Greater Gainesville. There are many beautiful natural areas to explore – Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, the Butterfly Rainforest, and Paynes Prairie are just three of Gainesville’s many attractive date destinations.
Paynes Prairie stretches over 21,000 acres and is home to hundreds of species of wildlife and plants. Visiting the state park is an inexpensive Valentine’s day date option. The prairie lookout is free and La Chua trail has only a $4 per car entrance fee. You should easily get your money’s worth. From hiking, picnicking, or watching the deer and alligators, there are plenty of ways to enjoy this natural beauty.
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens also offers breathtaking scenery and an ideal atmosphere for an outdoor date. The gardens feature a privately owned collection of herbs, bamboo and many types of plants and flowers. If a stroll through the park sounds appealing, the gardens also have a mile-and-a-half-long walkway that winds through a premier stand of Chinese royal bamboo and a variety of plants and blooming flowers.
The Butterfly Rainforest mixes nature with educational information. While immersing yourself in a bubble of butterflies, you and your significant other can learn more about these creatures and watch them flutter within the enclosure. Spending time with the person you love on Valentine’s Day will be so easy with these inexpensive outdoor date options.
Paynes Prairie & La Chua Trail
While driving north on highway 441 into Gainesville, you may notice the long boardwalk that leads into Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. At the beginning of the boardwalk, there is a display with educational information and facts about the prairie. The preserve is home to a variety of wildlife, including alligators, rd
son, horses and more than 270 species of birds.
The end of the boardwalk is an ideal spot for an outdoors Valentine’s Day date, where you can find a scenic view of the prairie, watch birds flying overhead and see animals roaming the area.
Then drive out to the northern portion of Paynes Prairie where La Chua trail begins with a boardwalk adorned with benches to relax upon to watch the wildlife. For those who are up for a short hike, the boardwalk roundtrip is about a mile walk. From the boardwalk, you can see the Alachua Sink. This sinkhole drains water from the prairie.
At the end of the boardwalk there is a grassy path that carves through the prairie, where wild horses and bison roam freely. Near the water, an abundance of alligators can be found, basking in the warm Florida sun. This trail is 1.6 miles one way, ending at an observation tower. From the tower, visitors get an aerial view of birds and other wildlife moving through the prairie.
There is a $4 or $6 per vehicle charge; cash only.
Things to do • See the alligators • Climb observation tower
Sweet Water Wetlands & Hawthorne Bike Trail
The Hawthorne Trail is a paved path stretching 16 miles through natural, wooded areas of Gainesville. The trail begins at Boulware Springs Park and runs along a former Seaboard Coast Railroad Line through Paynes Prairie State Preserve and the Lochloosa Wildlife Management Area. Designed for walking, biking and even horse riding, there a plenty of places to stop to take in Mother Nature. Off of the trail, there is a lookout perfect for viewing the 125 acres of the Sweetwater Wetlands. For dinner plans or a lunch in the wilderness, there is a small picnic area tucked under the trees near the Gainesville city limit sign.
Things to do • Biking, walking, skateboarding, rollerblading, and horse riding • Have a picnic
Located at the Florida Museum of Natural History, the Butterfly Rainforest is home to over 60 species of butterflies and moths. For any couple looking to immerse themselves in the beauty and wonder of hundreds of butterflies, this is the place to be. The 6,400-square-foot exhibit is home to more than 1,000 butterflies and a great variety of plants, birds, turtles and fish. In the exhibit, water flows from small trickling waterfalls down to ponds inhabited by fish and turtles. Various birds can be seen hopping around the grounds of the enclosure. With an overload of vibrant colors, the butterfly rainforest’s tropical flowering plants create a beautiful, functioning ecosystem.
The entrance fee is $13 for adults.
Things to do: • Learn about butterflies • Explore the museum
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens are booming with Chinese Royal bamboo, herb gardens, giant Victoria water lilies and Asian snake arums. The gardens are perfect for an afternoon stroll to explore colorful flowers, trees, trails and Lake Kanapaha. Known as a place of romance, Kanapaha is a premier wedding venue for ceremonies and receptions. There is a picnic area near the entrance, ideal for an outdoor lunch or dinner date surrounded by a sea of colorful plants. During the first part of February, Kanapaha holds its annual bamboo sale, the perfect opportunity to buy a unique Valentine’s Day gift.
The entrance fee is $8 for adults.
Things to do: • Stroll through the gardens • Eat lunch or dinner at the picnic tables
From watching butterflies to exploring trails, Gainesville is the perfect place to enjoy a simple date in nature.
Photography by John Sloan and Susannah Peddie