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Hernando's finest spot for hiking is off-limits

Now that it's cool enough to do something outdoors other than scurry from one air-conditioned refuge to another, I want to tell you about the most beautiful vista in the county — maybe even the state.

I'm talking about Chinsegut Hill, home of Hernando's only antebellum mansion, where you can gaze out on swaths of forest, oak-studded pastures and cement plants shining like distant cities.

I can think of no better fall outing than walking up its gentle slopes for a picnic at the gazebo overlooking Lake Lindsey.

Best of all, it's public land, donated by former owner Raymond Robins in 1932, according to a plaque at the top of the hill, as "a wildlife refuge, forest preserve and experiment station.''

There's only one problem: You aren't welcome.

Not really.

The University of South Florida maintains the Chinsegut Manor House grounds north of Brooksville as a retreat for paying groups. The U.S. Department of Agriculture runs a 1,200-acre cattle research center on the hill's southern flanks.

Yes, the research center is willing to schedule guided tours. And, if you want to wander around the Manor House property, nobody's going to turn you away. But neither of these owners wants hikers on their land.

They previously refused access for a trail linking two state-owned tracts, forcing this path around the hill and onto a far less scenic route: the shoulder of U.S. 41. Mitch Almon, who is trying to extend the Florida Trail across Hernando, says he'll have to detour around a view that most hikers would go miles out of their way to take in.

I understand the researchers' need to maintain controlled environments that walkers could disrupt and even the university's claim that hikers are potential security risks (through, by and large, we're about the most law-abiding bunch imaginable).

I also realize these agencies own the land and call the shots. All we can do is ask for their help in finding routes that won't disrupt the current uses.

I think this can probably be done and that we should try because, well, this has been a pet idea of mine almost since I was married there (yep, I'm prejudiced) 14 years ago.

If we could do more than one thing with this public property, we could connect Chinsegut Hill to trails branching out to publicly owned land throughout the county. For a tiny cost, we'd have a great community resource and maybe even a statewide draw.

I thought about this recently while reading an excellent book by Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.

After years of living in England, Bryson was struck by this country's strange habit of setting aside land for one purpose and one purpose only — wilderness for walking and most everything else for commercial exploitation.

Which is why he loved Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains, where, "instead of seeing nothing but tufted green mountains stretching to the horizon, we got airy views of a real, lived-in world: sunny farms, clustered hamlets, clumps of woodland, winding highways.''

Which reminded me of Chinsegut Hill.

Really, it's that pretty. You should walk it sometime if you get the chance.

Hernando's finest spot for hiking is off-limits 10/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 3, 2008 6:35pm]
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