WITHLACOOCHEE STATE FOREST — Sitting beneath a full moon in the middle of an old cemetery nestled deep in the woods, my mind drifted back to a time when Florida's first settlers struggled to conquer this wild land.
This forest of longleaf pine and scrub oak, dotted with the occasional cypress swamp and palmetto thicket, must have been hard to tame. As the dates on the tombstones attest, people didn't live long in the 1800s. Life was hard, the people even harder.
But luckily for me, I'm just here for one night. That is the beauty of the Nature Coast. I can work until lunchtime, pack my gear and drive for an hour to a campsite that is in the middle of nowhere.
Well, to be honest, the Croom Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest isn't that far from civilization. But you would never know it listening to the uncivilized racket the coyotes, barred owls and wild turkeys make once the moon clears the treetops.
You could spend days, make it weeks, wandering the 159,310 acres of this vast wilderness playground and never see it all. The state forest is actually comprised of seven tracts spread across Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties.
Many of the area's 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 allows everything from motorcycle riding to bird watching.
We arrived on a cool November afternoon to get one more overnight backpacking trip in before the start of hunting season. The trails in the Croom Tract are off limits to hikers during the muzzleloading (Oct. 31-Nov. 8) and general gun (Nov. 14-Jan. 24) hunting seasons. When the trails are closed in Croom, hikers have options in other tracts of the forest.
Backcountry camping is allowed in established zones, which are designated by white-banded trees. You will find these primitive camps north of the Tucker Hill trailhead and north of the Croom Road/Forest Road 6 intersection.
Only small cooking fires are permitted in backcountry campsites. In times of drought, campfires may be prohibited. Check with the ranger station before heading out.
Practice "Leave no Trace" when in the woods. Human waste should be buried in a hole at least 6 inches deep, well away from the campsites. Pack out all trash. Do not burn garbage in the fire pits.
The loop trails, which range in length from a little more than a mile to more than 4 miles, are maintained by Division of Forestry personnel and volunteers from the Florida Trail Association.
All together, the Croom Tract, located in Hernando County northeast of Brooksville, has more than 22 miles of trails. These trails can also be accessed from the day-use area of the Silver Lake Recreation Area.
Water is not available in the backcountry, so backpackers and day hikers should carry all they need. Bring insect repellent, sun screen, a first-aid kit, map and compass. During the winter, be prepared for wide fluctuations in the weather, from warm conditions during the day to cool, wet and windy conditions when the sun falls.