I was trudging through some tall grass a week or so ago. I was wearing shorts, and the mosquitoes were out in force. The weather was a touch warm for late November. In the back of my mind, I thought: Isn't there a college football game I should be watching right now?
I slipped while climbing up a steep, rocky cliff, and nearly dropped my wife's smart phone, which was doubling as a GPS guide. My wife and I were on a mission, and so far we were failing. At the top of the cliff, we spent a good 15 or 20 minutes with our eyes glued to the ground and the screen.
Then we looked up.
We got spoiled by the view of the Aripeka Sandhills Preserve, public land in northwest Pasco that was set aside in 2007, largely for its value as habitat for the threatened Florida black bear.
From atop the cliff, you can see rolling hills several hundred yards away, as well as acres of meadows and forests. There's a large lake that comes right to the edge of the cliff. The land seems drier than most of Florida, a scene straight out of the Texas Hill Country where I grew up. That's the American West — not west Pasco.
In a word-association game, most people would answer "west Pasco" with some version of "U.S. 19." But there's a funny thing about this area. What seems like a solid strip of development still has a few surprises up its sleeve.
Think about your trips over the past several months. Raise your hand if you've visited the Aripeka Sandhills property. How about the James E. Grey Preserve? Key Vista Nature Park?
Now, don't everybody raise your hand at once.
These aren't your typical county parks with ballfields and playground equipment and the occasional swimming pool. These are for the hikers, the bird watchers, the people who pause for an extra second or two at that perfect bit of wilderness.
My wife and I took a whirlwind tour of some of west Pasco's prettiest places last weekend as part of the inaugural EcoFest. We were competing in a "geocaching" challenge, basically a glorified scavenger hunt with global satellite coordinates as clues.
Our goal was to find 48 small plastic boxes containing trinkets and a visitor log. For those keeping score at home, we found 26. As a reporter who started in Pasco nine months ago, it was a great way to get acquainted with some of the county's best-kept secrets. I don't think I was the only one who learned a thing or two about the area last weekend.
Of course, the trip wasn't without fault. It's far too difficult for the average person to see the mangroves and trails inside the Werner-Boyce Salt Springs park. Budgets are tight, but state officials would find many grateful residents if they coughed up a few nickels to improve access points at Florida's newest state park.
One other beef: We encountered far too much litter. Nothing spoils a good romp through the woods like finding an old beer bottle or a Panera coffee cup. Call me old fashioned, but people should have more respect.
But on balance the trip was a blast. Some other recommendations:
Everyone should spend more time in New Port Richey's Grey Preserve. Follow a trail that snakes along the Pithlachascotee River for views that just beg you to settle down on a bench for an hour or two with a good paperback. On a pretty Sunday afternoon, we were one of two cars in the parking lot. Now that just ain't right.
The Starkey Wilderness Preserve doesn't exactly qualify as a "hidden gem," but there are still many areas in the huge park that most people haven't explored. During two days in the park, we found a secluded spot farther upstream on the Cotee River and had a blast rooting for buried treasure in the Serenova Tract. If you haven't been lately, consider making a day of it.
And I'd be remiss not to mention Key Vista Nature Park. The 100-acre park has a pleasant walking trail that cuts through palms and pine trees before hugging the coast. Don't miss the four-story observation tower. You can look out over the gulf of Mexico and imagine what west Pasco must have looked when it was still wild.