We dragged our bicycles across Shoal Line Boulevard and onto a sandy white path. At first it was just a stretch of trees and the occasional dip in the road.
But after half a mile, the trail widened and an expanse of deep blue lakes sat underneath a clear sky before us. This is the view we were treated to as we entered the Weekiwachee Preserve.
The 11,206-acre preserve, most of which lies south of the Weeki Wachee River and between Shoal Line Boulevard on the west and U.S. 19 on the east, is one of the Southwest Florida Water Management District's many protected lands and one of Hernando County's prime recreation spots. Since late 2008, it has been managed by the Florida Parks Service.
"The district buys land to protect water resources, which is the main focus of water management," said William Miller, Swiftmud manager of land use and protection.
Before Swiftmud purchased the property in 2001, it had been mined for lime rock. The preserve's lakes are 45- to 60-foot-deep rock quarries filled with freshwater from the Upper Floridan Aquifer.
The scenic lakes provide protection to local communities from flooding and tropical storms. They are also open to the public for boating with hand-launched boats such as canoes, kayaks and rowboats. Licensed fishing is also permitted. Swimming is not.
Stepping onto the edge of the vast lakes, the clear water will lap across your feet, but a quick glimpse ahead into the darkness warns of its depth. While the cool waters are inviting on a sweltering Florida day, the dangers of taking a swim, or even getting on a float, far outweigh the experience.
"Swimming is not allowed because the water is very deep and the walls are very steep," Miller said. "There are also some very large alligators out there."
While exploring this beautiful expanse of nature, Miller said, it is important to keep safety and common sense in mind. The terrain can be rough, and the area is filled with wildlife. The occasional snake slithers past visitors. Black bears roam deep in the swamp and usually shy away from humans. Fish and wildlife officials say black bears are gentle creatures, and the best thing anyone who encounters them can do is to back away slowly and give the bears their space. There have been no documented bear attacks in Florida.
Officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Swiftmud's private security company frequent the area to keep the public safe, Miller said.
"We always try to work with the public, but if they're caught swimming ... they're ticketed," he said.
Five and a half miles of partly paved and sometimes rocky trail invite cyclists to test their skills while taking in the views. Occasional picnic benches offer a break where visitors can look out across the water or take some photos.
Hikers can experience 4.3 miles of marked trails deeper in the preserve, where the wildlife is more abundant. Bird-watchers can note this as site No. 69 of 117 on the west section of the Great Florida Birding Trail, where least terns and Wilson's plovers often nest in the spring and summer.
The din of rushing cars and sounds of the outside world are hidden by the coastal hardwood hammock. Listen, and the sounds of nature fill the air. Mice scurry by, fish jump out of the water, and crickets sing against the silence. If you're quiet enough, you might be lucky enough to watch deer creep out of the brush and race across the open terrain.
Enter the Weekiwachee Preserve on bike or foot through Shoal Line and Osowaw boulevards. It is open daily from sunrise to sunset. On the second and fourth Saturdays of each month, the public can drive into the preserve through the Osowaw Boulevard entrance.