Every once in a while, if you're very lucky, you can find a place where the noise and stress of the city completely disappear. A quiet place that is so peaceful, you almost feel as if you have stepped into a dream, one where the only sounds you hear are birds chirping, fish splashing, wind rustling the trees and water lapping the shore.
The 596-acre Upper Tampa Bay Regional Park, just off W Hillsborough Avenue near Race Track Road, is one such place.
From 900 A.D. to the 1500s, the Tocobaga Indians roamed these woods and fished the waters. They created mounds from the shellfish they consumed, which are still visible today. You can walk through the woods and see sites just as they did hundreds of years ago. You can rent canoes or kayaks to paddle the pristine waters that swirl with redfish, snook and many other species of fish. Double Branch Creek, which winds its way to Upper Tampa Bay, also attracts otters, many species of birds, dolphins and an occasional manatee that can also be observed from several observation decks.
The park offers something for everyone: picnic shelters and a playground for families with kids; a Nature Center that retraces the history of the area and provides information about the ecosystem that surrounds you; and three walking trails that cut through pine forests, oaks and a dense understory of shrubs and grasses.
This beautiful place lives up to its "hidden gem" moniker, because unless you know where it is, it is truly hard to find. It is on Double Branch Road, just east of the intersection of Race Track Road and W Hillsborough Avenue. There is a small brown sign on Hillsborough Avenue that reads "Great American Bird Trail," which tells you that you're in the right area. As you turn onto Double Branch Road, you will see the sign for Upper Tampa Bay Park, which lets you know that serenity is just ahead on the right. (Online: bit.ly/upper-tampa.)
Hidden Gems is an occasional photo column that features outdoor places in Hillsborough County that are unknown to many or have features that are unique or hidden. If you have an idea for a Hidden Gem, email Skip O'Rourke at firstname.lastname@example.org.