NEW TAMPA — The paved trail at Flatwoods Park runs in a loop for 7 miles amid towering trees and thick brush.
It draws people of all ages and dogs of all breeds: a bicyclist and his standard poodle, a little girl and her bike with training wheels, an inline skater and his water bottle, a couple with their German shepherd and a pink Frisbee.
The park is 5,400 acres of wilderness nestled amid the bustling suburbs.
And it's about to get bigger.
The city of Tampa plans to pave an additional 3.5 miles of trail on 200 acres of adjacent property and link it to the existing loop. The new nature park will include an entrance at Dona Michelle Drive from Bruce B. Downs with parking for 20 vehicles and a couple of buses.
Currently, there are two entrances to the Flatwoods loop: a 2-mile trail from Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and a 1-mile trail from Morris Bridge Road. Both are maintained by Hillsborough County.
The new trail combined with the existing loop and the extensions will add up to almost 15 miles of smooth, open path where joggers, bicyclists, bladers and hikers can get their exercise while gazing at deer, turtles and snakes.
"We really don't have, other than Picnic Island in the south, a nature park-type area out here," said David Flanagan, landscape architect for the Tampa parks and recreation department. "It just became an advantageous situation to provide this type of nature park in the city."
Urbanites can get in touch with the world beyond strip malls and manicured lawns.
"There's extensive wildlife," Flanagan said. "Eagles, wild pigs, just about anything you can name is out there if you take the time to walk through it."
The New Tampa Nature Park project is in the final stages of permitting and has a contractor in place, Flanagan said. Construction is expected to start within the next few months and take about six months to complete. The expansion will cost about $600,000 and was funded through community investment tax dollars, Flanagan said.
It will be fashioned after the Flatwoods trail, which offers picnic tables and peaceful scenery tucked deep inside pine flatwoods, wetlands and cypress domes that happen to be surrounded by Interstate 75, shops and restaurants.
"It's well maintained, safe and quiet," said Sigrid Volko of Tampa Palms. Volko and her 5-year-old daughter, Sophie, have been hitting the trail from Bruce B. Downs once a week for about two years. Sophie makes the 11-mile trek on her bike with training wheels as active riders whiz by.
Some circle the loop several times, even clocking 100 miles, or "centuries."
Others? Well, on a recent Sunday, one bicyclist pedaled slowly down the hiking trail while steering an empty bike alongside his.
"Some of us finish, some of us don't," he said, chuckling.
With about 250,000 visitors a year, Flatwoods draws both regulars and newcomers from far and near, said Eddie Anderson, park manager. Mornings are the best time to see deer and hawks. It's a popular destination for birdwatchers, too, he said.
Caitlyn Register, 22, and her fiance, Michael Seidel, 24, enjoyed lunch at a picnic table during their first visit to Flatwoods recently. Then they led their German shepherd, Izzy, down a hiking trail that runs alongside the paved path.
In addition to the paved loop, there are 15 miles of track for off-road biking and rustic hiking trails for walkers. The couple are big dog park visitors and found Flatwoods to be just as appealing.
"It's really nice out here," Register said. "I'm just glad there's a dirt path because those bicyclists sure go fast."
The rules of the trail are posted for newcomers: If you stop, get off the trail. And always alert those ahead of you that you're about to pass them from behind.
It's serious business for bicyclists like Marcia McCoy, who comes from Dade City to maintain optimum cardiovascular health.
"You see all kinds of wildlife. It's very cool," said McCoy, who logs 18 to 24 miles at Flatwoods a couple of times a month. "It's a great park in the middle of the city."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or firstname.lastname@example.org.