Thanksgiving usually kicks off the hiking season in Florida's state parks and forests. The nights are cool. The skies are clear and you don't have to worry about mosquitoes or no-see-ums. You don't need much to get started, just a comfortable pair of walking shoes and a day pack to carry water, snacks and a compass.
Don't know where to go? No worries — here are five favorites that will get you going in the Great Outdoors:
SCOTT KEELER | Times (2014)
BOYD HILL NATURE PRESERVE
Located on the shores of Lake Maggiore in St. Petersburg, this 245-acre city park has more than 3 miles of trails and boardwalks. One of the gems of St. Petersburg, the Boyd Hill trail traverses a variety of habitat, including floodplain forest, freshwater marsh and pine flatwoods. Boyd Hill has an educational nature center, so leave a half-hour for a self-guided tour.
WEEDON ISLAND PRESERVE
Just a 15-minute drive from downtown St. Petersburg, it is known for its canoe and kayak trail. But this county preserve has more than 3 miles of trails and boardwalks as well.
OSPREY TRAIL AT HONEYMOON ISLAND
A few miles northwest of downtown Dunedin, the 2.5-mile Osprey Trail snakes through one of the few remaining stands of Florida slash pines. This is an ideal place to see osprey nesting. The raptors love the 80-acre slash pine forest, a reminder of what the county must have looked like at the turn of the century.
J.B. STARKEY WILDERNESS PARK
Located in western Pasco County, east of New Port Richey, it has more than 13 miles of trails that go through a variety of habitat. This Pasco County Park also has great biking, horseback riding and camping. If time is an issue, walk the 1.6-mile nature trail, one of the best in our area.
FORT DE SOTO PARK
It has been voted "Best Beach" in the nation but in addition to blue water and sugar sand this Pinellas County Park also has four hiking trails that are ideal for families with small children. 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.
THE FLORIDA TRAIL
For more of a challenge, consider a multiday backpacking trip. The Florida Trail, a 1,400-mile network of footpaths that stretches from Big Cypress Swamp to the Gulf Islands National Seashore, is one of the best marked and maintained trail systems in the United States.
The path is well marked with orange blazes and signs. Side trails have blue blazes, and turns are marked with two blazes. Boardwalks guide backpackers through wet portions, and campsites are within easy walking distance of each other. In some areas, the trail is flat. But in others, it can be downright challenging.
One of the best segments runs through the Richloam, Croom and Citrus tracts of Withlacoochee State Forest. With nearly 160,000 acres of wilderness to explore, Withlacoochee has trails that will challenge beginners as well as experts. The Croom Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest has some of the best backpacking in Florida, which is one reason why it was named one of the "10 Coolest Places in North America" by the World Wildlife Fund.
After you have knocked off a few Florida trails, you might look for something to put on your bucket list. The Appalachian Trail, commonly known as the "A.T." in hiking circles, is a 2,181-mile footpath that stretches from Georgia to Maine. This trail, which runs through 14 eastern states, was completed in 1937 and became America's first National Scenic Trail.
Roughly 2,500 people start the hike each year, making it one of the most well-traveled trails in the country, but only half actually finish its full length from Maine's Mount Katahdin to Georgia's Springer Mountain. Folks who go all the way are called "thru hikers."
If this is on your bucket list, set aside five to six months to complete it. Once you have knocked off the A.T., try the Continental Divide Trail, 3,100 miles along the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Canada, and the Pacific Crest Trail, 2,663 miles from Mexico through California, Oregon and Washington to Canada. Finish all three treks and you will earn the coveted Triple Crown of long-distance hiking.