Holiday adventures north of Tampa Bay

HOG ISLAND

Five minutes from the parking lot, my blood pressure dropped 10 points. No cellphone, no television, just a hawk crying in the distance and miles of trail before me.

Less than one hour earlier, I had been stuck in traffic on the interstate, wondering why so many people were in such a hurry to go anywhere on this fine Saturday morning. I doubt any of them were headed in my direction, Withlacoochee State Forest.

Florida's state parks seem to get all the press, but if you love wilderness without the frills, check out a state forest. The Croom Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest isn't far from civilization. But you would never know that after 15 minutes of wandering one of its many trails.

The state forest has seven tracts or areas of land spread across Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties. Most of the recreational activities center on an 18-mile stretch of the Withlacoochee River that flows through state land.

The river has great canoeing and kayaking, but the state forest also has activities from mountain biking to bird watching. There's also hunting, and many trails are off limits during the peak season.

The trails, which range in length from a little more than a mile to loops that can be combined for overnight backpacking trips, are maintained by Division of Forestry personnel and volunteers from the Florida Trail Association.

All together, the Croom Tract, in Hernando County northeast of Brooksville, has more than 22 miles of trails. The trails can also be accessed from the day-use area of the Silver Lake Recreation Area.

Water is not available in the backcountry, so hikers should carry all they need. Bring insect repellent, sunscreen, a first aid kit, a map and a compass.

To learn more, contact the Florida Forest Service, Withlacoochee State Forest Recreation/Visitors Center, 15003 Broad Street, Brooksville. Call (352) 754-6896 or go to freshfromflorida.com.

Withlacoochee State Trail: The state's longest paved bike trail is one of the best-kept secrets of the greater Tampa Bay area. The 12-foot-wide path runs 46 miles from the Owensboro Junction Trailhead, 6 miles north of Dade City, through Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, to the Withlacoochee River, just south of Dunnellon.

It's popular with triathletes and competitive cyclists looking for a long training ride, but it's also ideal for families, especially those looking for a safe, convenient way to enjoy nature.

Visitors can thank railroad magnate Henry Plant for clearing the land in the 1880s to build a railroad. The corridor eventually became the first of many old train tracks purchased by the Florida Rails-to-Trails Conservancy program and converted for recreational use.

This trail is generally flat, but a handful of hills keeps it interesting. You can walk, run, skate and bike without fear of getting lost because it is a straight shot with ample places to stop and rest, including the Inverness Depot, built in 1892.

For the more adventurous, there are side trips — hiking the Croom Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest, paddling the Withlacoochee River canoe trail or learning about Florida history at Fort Cooper State Park, where five companies of the 1st Battalion, Georgia Volunteers battled the Seminoles for 16 days in 1836.

The "Chaz:" The Chassahowitzka River, with its miles of side creeks and hidden springs, is great place to paddle and swim during the winter. For generations, the locals have kept this spring-fed waterway to themselves.

When it comes to Florida's rivers, the Chassahowitzka seldom makes top 10 lists. That's because it's relatively short — 7 miles long — but the cool, clear waters are pristine and hail back to the time the Seminoles roamed the woods. The name "Chassahowitzka" is said to come from the Seminole word for "hanging pumpkin." I've never seen any of the legendary gourds there, but that is probably because I've been too busy looking at the wide array of birds you can see along the banks.

The Chassahowitzka River campground rents canoes and kayaks. It is a great place to pitch a tent or park an RV. Most of the river runs through the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

The 31,000-acre wilderness is home to more than 250 species of birds, 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 25 species of mammals, including the West Indian manatee and the state's largest land mammal, the Florida black bear, so it is strictly look but don't touch.

The Chassahowitzka River Campground is at 8600 W Miss Maggie Drive, Chassahowitzka. Call (352) 382-2200 or go to chassahowitzkaflorida.com.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park: Another short spring run, this waterway is home to one of the largest herds of West Indian manatee in the state. Kayakers and paddle boarders will see plenty of sea cows heading upriver to the tourist attraction that is Old Florida at its best.

In the early 1900s, railroad passengers would stop to relax in the cool water of the head springs while the train was loaded with crabs, fresh fish and other supplies. The springs are just 9 miles from the open water of the Gulf of Mexico, so they get an interesting mix of fresh and saltwater species. The name Homosassa supposedly means "the place where peppers grow," and the area is thought to be a place where American Indians met and traded long before Ponce de Leon came looking for the Fountain of Youth.

Over the years, the springs have changed hands several times, eventually reverting to county control in 1984. Today the state operates the old tourist attraction, which now also doubles as a rehabilitation center for a variety of threatened and endangered species.

Homosassa Springs offers boat tours, but the springs are off limits to people because they serve as a refuge for many injured and sick manatees.

Though the centerpiece of the state park is the first-magnitude freshwater spring, visitors can stroll through the grounds on paved trails and boardwalks to observe a variety of animals, including black bears, Florida panthers, bobcats and red wolves, most of which have been injured or born in captivity and could not survive in the wild.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is at 4150 North Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa. Call (352) 628-5343 or go to floridastateparks.org.

Coming Friday: Part 2, places to explore south of the Tampa Bay area.

Holiday adventures north of Tampa Bay 12/25/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 25, 2013 11:01pm]

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