The Friends Trail is not inside the black iron gates at the Environmental Education Center, but it's a vital part of Brooker Creek Preserve. • Seven days a week from sunrise to just before sunset, people can experience a bit of Florida the way it was. Tucked away in the northeast corner of Pinellas County is 8,700 acres of wild Florida. And the 1.75-mile loop of the Friends Trail is Old Florida at its best.
"We're proud of the Friends Trail," said Steven Harper, Pinellas County division director of Environmental Lands in the Department of Environmental Management. "It is a unique opportunity for people who visit to learn about the ecology and history of the area."
Go East on Keystone to Lora Lane, which sounds like a typical street, but is anything but. Homesteads dot the landscape. Some are new and some have been in families for generations. In the space of maybe a mile, from the road's start to dead end, where the trail begins, wildlife abounds.
Drive slowly. Not only because it is a neighborhood street, but in case a pair of sandhill cranes amble across. Behind the mesh fence, deer may be nibbling grass. They often peer up as people stomp on the brakes.
There are horses and cows grazing and lying in the grass on both sides of the road.
A wooden fence signals the beginning of the trail and the end of the pavement. Watch for potholes. Outside the trail, check the wooden sign for a diagram of the loop. Better yet, pick up the Friends brochure back at the preserve's Environmental Education Center or from a bin on the wooden sign. If you really want to prepare, download one from BrookerCreekPreserve.org.
Barbara Hoffman, president of the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve, knows all about the nuances of the Friends Trail. She has been a member of the Friends group since it began in 1994.
"When the county created the trail, we were surprised to learn they had named it after us," Hoffman said. "It was in response to the work we'd done for a number of years."
Enter the trail on the right. Horses and their riders take the left trail. Since the path is lower than the surrounding ground, get ready to get muddy when it rains. After all, this is a wilderness hike.
No boardwalks, no restrooms and no water fountains. Bring water, mosquito repellent and wear boots or sturdy close-toed shoes. A cell phone in case of emergencies isn't a bad idea either.
Enjoy the fresh air, the wide-open sky and the canopy of trees. Slash pines above, palmettos on the ground and an occasional rabbit, gopher tortoise, deer or other wildlife.
Rest a bit at the observation deck built to give hikers more of a bird's-eye view of the land.
"About 20 of the Friends got together and built the observation tower in one weekend," Hoffman said. "The most special thing about this trail is that it goes down to Brooker Creek. When you walk to the (south) end of the loop, you've traversed through so many different types of land."
Hardwoods, cypress and pines are part of that variety, and where there are trees, there are lots of birds. Look and listen to the sounds of cranes, egrets and storks. See a hawk or an eagle glide overhead.
A wild turkey or armadillo may scratch in the thicket as you walk. Check out the bumpy pink and white spots that seem stuck to the trunks. The Baton Rouge lichen are algae that do not harm the trees.
Wild flowers and plants thrive. Native plants and exotics abound, and preserve managers work to maintain a balance of indigenous species.
Charred trees, stumps and plants are part of prescribed burns. They help stamp out exotics and reduce wildfires from lightning.
Remember, too, horses and their riders have the right of way in spots where the horse trail crosses the Friends Trail. Gopher tortoises and Catesby lilies also have special protections. All plants and animals are protected, and feeding wildlife is prohibited.
That said, people have not been ignored. The red-topped posts work as guides. Near the hike's end, there's a nod to the future with new plantings of native trees and grasses. The goal is to keep the area a wilderness for future generations.
All the resources once were used by American Indians; they carved out pine trees to make canoes and used palm fronds for roof thatching. The preserve is a reminder that people once lived in Florida long before Disney, air conditioning and condos.
"The Friends Trail is a beautiful place for people to visit," Hoffman said. "Its one of the greatest places to experience Old Florida."