Blue skies and cool afternoons make for good baseball weather, but spring is also the season to hit the trail in Florida. The ground is dry, the bugs virtually nonexistent and the temperature ideal for a brisk walk in the woods. Most people don't think of the Sunshine State as a great place to hike or backpack, but that's because they haven't explored the hidden hardwood hammocks and pine flatwoods that can be found within a half-hour drive of most people's homes. Florida has hundreds of great hiking trails, most suitable for families with small children, others challenging for even the most hardened adventurer.
Boyd Hill Nature Park
One of the true gems of the city of St. Petersburg, you'll find this park on Country Club Way S off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street. The 2.1-mile trail traverses a variety of habitat, including floodplain forest, freshwater marsh and pine flatwoods. Boyd Hill has an educational nature center, so leave yourself a half-hour for a self-guided tour.
Fort De Soto Park
Voted "Best Beach" in the nation in 2005 by Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. Dr. Beach, this Pinellas County park has lots of blue water and sugar sand, but don't miss the four hiking trails. Arrowhead Nature Trail, at the north end of the park, is a must. Pick up a free map at the ranger station to guide you through the natural communities.
Hillsborough River State Park
A half-hour north of Tampa, this is one of the finest hiking trails in the state. Look for red-shouldered hawks in the sky above and otters in the river below as you hike along the banks of the Hillsborough. Be sure to take the "rapids" trail, a rare treat in a state that is as flat as a pancake.
Honeymoon Island State Park
Located at the extreme west end of State Road 586 in Dunedin, this 2.5-mile nature trail offers the best chance to see osprey nesting in Florida. The raptors love the 80-acre slash pine forest, a reminder of what Pine-Ellas County must have looked like at the turn of the century.
J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park
This Pasco County Park has great mountain biking, horseback riding and camping in addition to 13 miles of hiking trails that traverse a variety of habitat. If time is an issue, walk the 1.6-mile nature trail, one of the best in our area.
The Florida Trail
If you want to see many of Florida's unspoiled wilderness areas, you'll have to walk. Luckily, the Florida Trail Association oversees more than 1,500 miles of well-maintained trails that stretch from the Everglades to the Panhandle. Most of the trails can be found on public property — state parks and forests — but some sections also run through private land. For more information, go to floridatrail.org.
Treat your feet
A good pair of walking shoes or light hiking boots will be well worth the investment. Boots made of nylon are lighter than those made of leather. But the latter will be cooler because leather breathes and allows perspiration and heat to escape. Count on paying $75 to $125. So what do you wear underneath your boots? Anything but cotton socks, which soak up perspiration and lead to blisters. Socks made of synthetic materials will help transfer moisture and keep your feet dry and blister-free.
Before you hit the trail, wear the new boots around town for a few days. You might look like a geek, but it beats getting a blister.
Be safe and respectful
. Always tell a friend or relative where you're going and when you plan to be back.
. Check in at the ranger station or park office. Ask about trail conditions and any potential hazards.
. Carry plenty of drinking water. Count on at least a gallon a day, more in extreme heat.
. Do your research. Get a trail map and study your route before you set out.
. Use common sense. Don't tease alligators. Don't pick up snakes. Don't feed raccoons.
. Pack out what you pack in. As the saying goes, "Take only photographs, leave only footprints."