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The outdoors calls to us

Aaron Freedman, Darry Jackson and Terry Tomalin hike the Florida Trail through Hillsborough River State Park in Thonotosassa.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Aaron Freedman, Darry Jackson and Terry Tomalin hike the Florida Trail through Hillsborough River State Park in Thonotosassa.

In my line of work, you know you've had a good week when you sleep on the ground at least four out of the last seven days.

Some people might consider sleeping in a tent a hardship. Not me. I'm with Steve McQueen, the King of Cool, who in addition to being one of the biggest movie stars of the 1960s and '70s, was also a backcountry camper who once boasted that he "would rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth."

Paris, London, Rome or Madrid … you can keep 'em. I'd rather have a patch of paradise in East Pasco. There's no place I'd rather be than in the Green Swamp, howling with the coyotes on a cool November evening.

You should try it. The weather's perfect. There's no better time to get outside than now. And if you are running short on ideas on what to do, here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Take a hike: The Florida Trail stretches 1,400 miles from Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida to Gulf Islands National Seashore on the Alabama border.

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.

Here in Central Florida, the trail segments that run through the Richloam, Croom and Citrus tracts of Withlacoochee State Forest can keep an intrepid trail walker busy for years. With nearly 160,000 acres of wilderness to explore, Withlacoochee has hiking and backpacking trails that will challenge experts as well as beginners.

Pick up a paddle: The upper Hillsborough River may be located just a half-hour drive from one of Florida's largest cities, but it is still one of the most scenic rivers in the state.

The Hillsborough's 34-mile designated canoe trail runs from Crystal Springs to Tampa's Rowlett Park. The upper reaches, though wild, can be difficult to paddle. But in general, the river is kid-friendly, especially the section serviced by a local outfitter, Canoe Escape.

The section below Hillsborough River State Park, called Seventeen Runs, should only be attempted by the most experienced paddlers. The last time I paddled that 6-mile stretch between Hillsborough County's Dead River and John B. Sargeant parks, it took more than five hours. Numerous deadfalls make for slow going, and if you do try to conquer this stretch of river, you will get wet and muddy.

Wet a line: Fort De Soto's twin fishing piers at the south end of Pinellas County have shallow artificial reefs within casting reach. These man-made structures support diverse communities of marine organisms, so it is not unusual for anglers to land even tarpon, cobia and king mackerel.

From time to time, these shore-bound anglers even hook fish far too big to land, including sharks. Like most piers, Fort De Soto's has a cast of regulars, most of whom are willing to share their secrets. If a fellow angler hooks a big one, don't be shy about asking what they used for bait. Follow the leader and cast away.

Another good local choice is the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park. Located at the mouth of Tampa Bay on a structure that was once a bridge, the twin Skyway Fishing Piers are probably the most productive land-based fishing spots in the state. If it is a species that swims in the Gulf of Mexico, sooner or later it will pass beneath you if you dangle a line there.

Ride a bike: The Withlacoochee State Trail, 46 miles of fun for cyclists of all skill levels, is just an hour drive from downtown Tampa. The trail is ideal for triathletes and competitive cyclists looking for a long training ride. But for families, especially those looking for a "nature" ride, the Withlacoochee State Trail is must-see as well.

Safe and well-maintained, yet wild and unpredictable, you will get the best of both worlds. You can thank railroad magnate Henry Plant for clearing the land that eventually became the trail.

This trail is generally flat, but a handful of hills keep it interesting. The 12-foot-wide paved path runs 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.

The outdoors calls to us 11/14/13 [Last modified: Thursday, November 14, 2013 7:34pm]
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