While staying at Paynes Prairie and exploring the Gainesville area, we passed a sign on a couple of occasions that said Sweetwater Wetlands Park. I noted it, but with other destinations in mind we passed it by. A few weeks ago I researched it and discovered that this man-made treatment wetlands, a part of Gainesville Parks and Recreation, had hiking and birding. We decided to stop by one morning, and our brief stop took up most of the morning.
The useful brochure sized trail map shows three trails, called Wetland Cell1, Wetland Cell 2, and Wetland Cell 3, all with marked overlooks. Cell 1 contains an inner loop of a 0.4 mile boardwalk. We hiked only Cell 1, the inner and outer loop, and part of Cell 2 this trip, but found the trails wide and fairly flat. White boards at the welcome area and the start of Cell 1 listed recent sightings including wild horses. We spoke with a very friendly and knowledgeable ranger, who provided a great deal of information. She said that during Hurricane Irma a few members of the Paynes Prairie herd of wild horses came to the area, and the amount of rain then and subsequent higher than normal rain cut them off from the main herd. About six “hang out” in the areas of this park now, with plenty of grazing, and the rangers keeping an eye on them.
I recorded 27 species of birds in just the morning and only those I could definitely identify. A few maybes made the list, but unable to confirm they didn’t go to the final list. The trails circle the wetlands, well elevated above them in the parts we hiked, so many birds swim and forage quite close. I recommend binoculars and a zoom lens for the best experience. Several alligators rested in the sun along the edges of the water. Remember nothing restrains them, keep your distance and don’t feed or antagonize them. It surprises me how often I see people with their Smartphone camera looking at the screen while walking toward an alligator, snake or other wild animal.
The park opens at 7 a.m., seven days a week. The $5 parking fee payable at the entrance is well worth it. We plan to be back, and to get there earlier next time.