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Take a hike around Florida's many trails

Terry Tomalin passes a blaze marking the Florida Trail, a 1,400-mile network of footpaths, while hiking within the Big Cypress National Preserve.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Terry Tomalin passes a blaze marking the Florida Trail, a 1,400-mile network of footpaths, while hiking within the Big Cypress National Preserve.

ST. PETERSBURG — How did you start off the new year?

Did you sleep late then lounge around the house all day and watch football?

Or, for you adventurous souls, did you kick off 2013 with a hike through one of Florida's fabulous state parks?

America's "First Day Hikes" offered outdoors lovers a chance to start this year off on the right foot with walks in 627 state parks in all 50 states. The Florida Park Service hosted 60 events, more than any other state, with several in the bay area.

January is my favorite month for day hikes and overnighters in 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.

It doesn't take much to get going. All you need is a pair of comfortable shoes. People hike in everything from lightweight, high-tech boots to old sneakers.

I'm partial to low-cut hiking boots or trail runners. I always wear lightweight, wool socks (yes, even in the summer) because they help prevent blisters and last a long time.

If you plan to do a multiday backpacking trip, spend the extra money for a pair of boots with a steel shank. The boots might feel heavy at first, but in the long run, they are better for your feet.

For day hikes, get a small backpack, the kind most kids use to carry their books to school. Carry plenty of water. Figure on at least a quart per person; more if you're walking under the hot sun. Bring plenty of high-energy food. Leave the submarine sandwiches at home. Instead, bring fruit or trail mix.

Check the weather report before you head out. But shorts and a T-shirt will do just fine on most hikes. Carry a sweatshirt or poncho in your pack just in case the weather takes a turn for the worse.

You can find great day hikes wherever you go in Florida, but here are a few of my favorites:

• Boyd Hill Nature Park is one of the true gems of St. Petersburg. 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 a half-hour for a self-guided tour.

• Fort De Soto Park was voted "Best Beach" in the nation in 2005. But while this Pinellas County park has lots of blue water and sugar sand, 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.

• Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin has a 2.5-mile nature trail that offers the best chance 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.

If you are looking 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.

More than 40 years ago, Miami resident Jim Kern returned from a trip on the Appalachian Trail and wondered why the Sunshine State didn't have its own long-distance hiking trail.

Kern and some friends subsequently formed the Florida Trail Association then set out to hike from Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida to Highlands Hammock State Park near Sebring.

In 1966, volunteers from the new organization painted the first blaze on a tree at Clearwater Lake in Ocala National Forest. Eventually, the trail would stretch to the Florida Panhandle.

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 hiking and backpacking trails that will challenge beginners as well as experts.

The Richloam Tract, 10 miles north of Dade City, has several combinations of 5- to 10-mile loops. The Croom Tract, located east of Brooksville, has three loops that make good day hikes. The Citrus Tract, southwest of Inverness, offers a variety of walks with lengths of up to 40 miles.

Even though most trails are well marked, do a little advance research. Write ahead to park or forest officials, download information off the Internet or stop by the ranger station or park office for a map.

Be sure to let somebody know where you are going and when you plan to be back. The best advice is to use common sense. Pack out what you pack in. As the saying goes, "Take only photographs, leave only footprints."

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@tampabay.com/

Take a hike around Florida's many trails 01/03/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 3, 2013 6:47pm]
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