Natural break is close by at parks

Published Jan. 18, 2001|Updated Sept. 7, 2005

(ran TP edition)

Dale Mabry traffic getting to you? Want peace and quiet? There is a nature refuge within a short drive of your Tampa home. A few selections were compiled by staff writer Michelle Jones.

Alafia River

State Recreation Area

The name is somewhat misleading, as it is not on the Alafia River, although the southernmost branch of the river is nearby. CyTech Industries donated a total of 6,800 acres of reclaimed phosphate mine land for the park.

Freshwater ponds weave through the 1,000 acres that are open to the public. Bass, bream and catfish have been caught, but a fishing license is required. Canoes and johnboats are the only boats permitted.

Several picnic tables, barbecue grills and restrooms are available. Nature trails lure hikers to a day of bird-watching and wild-animal spotting.

No-swimming signs are posted in the park; alligators inhabit the waters.

COST: $3.25 donation.

HOURS: 8 a.m. to sunset daily.

HOW TO GET THERE: East on State Road 60 to County Road 39. South on CR 39 to Lithia Pinecrest (Pinecrest Elementary School on right). Continue south on CR 39 for 3{ miles. Park entrance is on the left.

CALL: Hillsborough River State Park (813) 987-6771.

Alderman's Ford, eastern Hillsborough

James Alderman forded the Alafia River in 1848 by cutting down trees along its steep banks near where the river's north and south branches converge. Alderman's Ford, as the site became known, grew into a gathering place for local residents.

Alderman's Ford is now a county park and a popular spot for a picnic, bike ride, campout or canoe trip. Old oaks heavy with moss provide shade and some relief from summer heat.

A 2-mile pedestrian and bicycle path weaves through the park's 1,141 acres. The path goes under SR 39 and across the river, giving visitors a view of a hardwood forest swamp and a large variety of plant life.

Two primitive camp areas are located near the south end of the park; reservations are required.

For the less adventurous, the large picnic area has nine shelters for group use, complete with barbecue grills and tables. A visitor center near the picnic area has restrooms and a museum featuring non-poisonous snakes in cages, posters, animal skeletons, fish tank and quiz boards to test knowledge of the environment and wildlife.

COST: $1 donations accepted, but not required.

HOURS: 8 a.m. until sunset daily.

HOW TO GET THERE: Alderman's Ford is on CR 39 on the Alafia River in eastern Hillsborough. Take SR 60 east to CR 39 and go south to Lithia. The main entrance is on the east side of the road. The canoe launch is on the west side.

CALL: (813) 757-3801.

Caladesi Island State Park

This park is one of the few undeveloped barrier islands in the state. It comprises six islands, a total of 650 upland acres and more than 1,800 acres of surrounding mangroves and grass flats.

Caladesi has been named the third best beach in the United States by Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Sea turtles and birds build nests among the dunes, which are covered with auburn hairgrass.

Caladesi Island is accessible only by ferry, unless one wants to attempt walking 5 miles at low tide from the northernmost tip of Clearwater Beach. Caladesi was formed in 1921 after a hurricane carved a new island from Honeymoon Island.

On Caladesi are covered pavilions, bath houses, restrooms, picnic tables, barbecue grills, a volleyball net and a concession building where refreshments and souvenirs can be purchased.

Chairs and umbrellas can be rented for $15 a day, or you can bring your own along with fishing gear, picnic basket and cooler. Alcoholic beverages are prohibited. Pets allowed on a leash but not on the beach. No pets allowed overnight.

COST: $2 parking fee at Honeymoon Island. Ferry ride is $7. Boats can dock for $3.25 a day with a limit of eight people in the 99-slip bayside marina or $8.88 overnight.

HOURS: 8 a.m. to sunset daily.

HOW TO GET THERE: Take U.S. 19 to Curlew Road. Travel west on Curlew Road to Honeymoon Island. Boaters should come in on the Intracoastal Canal, travel to the Dunedin Causeway and watch for Marker 8. Turn compass to 210 degrees and take the Caladesi Channel.

CALL: (727) 469-5918.

Davis Park, Brandon

One of Brandon's best-kept secrets is a 57-acre park in the heart of the community.

Why is it a secret? Because if you zip along Parsons Avenue you might go right past the wooden sign and gate and never see it. Surrounded by homes, a railroad track and a lake, the park is all but hidden.

Brandon's largest park is built around Lake Meade, a shallow lake that is a bird sanctuary. No swimming is allowed. The lake is surrounded by wetlands that provide a pristine habitat for egrets, roseate spoonbills, cranes, wild peacocks and a host of other Florida birds.

For the health-conscious visitor, the park offers an exercise course, bikeway, multipurpose courts for basketball, volleyball or roller hockey, and open fields for playing catch, chipping golf balls or just running for the fun of it. There are several restrooms and water fountains.

The park was named for Robert Davis, who owned the greatest part of the land and sold it at a reduced price to the county. Later, it was dedicated in his honor by his widow, Anne Davis.

COST: Free

HOURS: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

HOW TO GET THERE: SR 60 to Parsons Avenue. North on Parsons Avenue over the railroad track. Park is on the west side of the road.

CALL: (813) 975-2160.

E.G. Simmons Park, Ruskin

For the family who enjoys camping and wants to get away _ but not too far away _ E. G. Simmons Park in Ruskin offers a relaxing environment and a variety of recreational activities.

The 258-acre park offers modern facilities for overnight camping. The camping facilities are on a first-come, first-served basis.

During the summer and fall, except for major holidays, there are just a few campers, so getting a campsite is not a problem.

The park is surrounded by water. The entrance is the only land connection. When it was dredged 20 years ago, it was a sand trap. Now it is beautiful, with mangroves grown all around.

Tampa Bay is west of the park, and inlets are to the north, south and east, providing many fishing spots. Manatees and waterfowl are seen regularly.

Swimming is allowed in designated areas, and there's a ramp for launching boats.

COST: Camping is $10 a night without electricity or $12 per night with electricity, $2 off for seniors.

HOURS: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

HOW TO GET THERE: Take U.S. 41 to 19th Ave NW just north of Ruskin. Turn west on 19th Ave. NW and go about a mile to the park entrance.

CALL: (813) 671-7655.

Lithia Springs Park, southeastern Hillsborough

Lithia Springs' year-round 72-degree temperature draws 200,000 swimmers a year to its clear, cool water. The spring is ideal for little children. Most of the area is shallow, and a rope with bobbers sets off the deepest part, above the grate-covered spring. Lifeguards are posted around the rim of the spring.

Although the park is county-maintained, it is owned by Cargil, a fertilizer company, and is leased to the county for the cost of the property taxes.

The park's spring produces 24-million gallons of water a day.

The 200-acre park has picnic areas, playground equipment, shuffleboard and volleyball courts, a 40-site campground, canoe launch, a primitive nature trail, restrooms and shower house.

Over the years, few changes have been made to the park, keeping it in its natural state with cypress swamps skirting the river, hardwood hammocks and high sandhills.

COST: $1 per person. Camping is $12 a site per night ($10 for seniors) with a two-week limit.

HOURS: opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 7 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 8 p.m. weekends and holidays.

HOW TO GET THERE: SR 60 to Brandon. Turn south on Lithia Pinecrest Road and continue over the Alafia River to Lithia Springs Road. Turn west and follow road to the park.

CALL: (813) 744-5572 to register for a campsite.

Little Manatee River State Recreation Area

Named for the river that flows through it, the state park's 1,638 acres were acquired in 1974.

The Little Manatee River meanders through the park for about 5 miles. It rises and falls with the tide and is stained the color of tea by decaying vegetation that slips into the water from the steep banks.

A canoe launch provides opportunities to explore the area's scenic beauty and wildlife. Canoeists must furnish their own canoes or rent one from Canoe Outpost, (813) 634-2228, less than a mile away on U.S. 301.

Campsites with electric and water hookups are available. The campsites are set within sand pine scrub. A 6{-mile hiking trail that rambles through a diversity of habitats has been put in with the help of the Florida Trails Association. The hiking trail is on the north side of the river and bridges small tributaries and wetlands. A primitive camp along the trail can be reserved.

Picnic shelters and playground equipment are just a short walk from the river.

Horseback riders can find two trails that total 6 miles. Horse camping is available with horse stalls offered for overnight stays.

Bass, catfish and pan fish are regularly caught in the river. A Florida fishing license is required for people 16 and older.

COST: $3.25 per car, $1 for walk-in and bicycle visitors. Equestrian fee is $5 for two horses in one trailer.

HOURS: Open 8 a.m. to sunset daily.

HOW TO GET THERE: Take I-75 to exit 46B, Sun City Center. Follow ramp onto Highway 674. Go 4 miles. Take right on U.S. 301, going south. Go 3 miles. On right, cross bridge. Take first right after bridge.

CALL: (813) 671-5005.

Upper Tampa Bay County Park

Just a few miles from the bustle of downtown Tampa and West Shore is a gem of a park. Upper Tampa Bay County Park offers 596 acres of peace on a peninsula bordered by Double Branch Creek and Old Tampa Bay.

This is a park the entire family can enjoy. There are nine covered picnic shelters, a playground and a field for a game of softball or baseball. The playground provides adventures in climbing, swinging and crawling for youngsters.

Fishing is a draw.

Inside the Interpretive Center, open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Christmas, visitors can observe the fish of the nearby estuary in large salt water tanks.

Also in the center are exhibits featuring plants and native fauna. An eastern king snake and red and yellow rat snakes are behind glass.

However, the most popular attraction in the center is a large aerial map of Hillsborough County. Everyone tries to find his or her house.

Nature trails and boardwalks meander through the park, and a canoe launch offers the chance to paddle through the mangrove swamps. Primitive camping is available.

COST: $1 donation

HOURS: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily

HOW TO GET THERE: Take Hillsborough Avenue to Double Branch Road (near Hillsborough-Pinellas county line). Turn south on Double Branch Road and follow signs to park entrance.

CALL: (813) 855-1765.

Wilderness Park, northeast Hillsborough

Located on 16,000 acres of land owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the area known as Wilderness Park is the largest regional park in the county.

Included in this designation are the Trout Creek, Morris Bridge and Flatwoods parks as well as the Dead River, John B. Sargeant Sr. Memorial and Veteran's Memorial parks.

At Trout Creek, facilities include a canoe launch, picnic areas and a boardwalk with fishing area.

A few miles east of Trout Creek is Morris Bridge Park. Here there are boardwalks (one goes under the roadway), a picnic area, a boat launch and trails along the Hillsborough River for hiking or fishing.

The Flatwoods Park is the farthest east and features three camping areas, picnic facilities and a 9-mile bike loop.

Horse trails, off-road hiking and biking are also available at Flatwoods. A myriad of wildlife populates the park. Wild boars, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, ospreys, hawks and pileated woodpeckers are among the wildlife in the park.

COST: All three parks are free, but donations are accepted.

HOURS: Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m.-7 p.m.; 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sat., Sun. in summer.

HOW TO GET THERE: Take I-75 to Fletcher Avenue. Head east on Fletcher until it becomes Morris Bridge Road. Parks are on left side of road. Trout Creek is the first park, Morris Bridge is the second and Flatwoods is the third.

CALL: (813) 975-2160 for hours, (813) 987-6208.

Call ahead for special holiday and seasonal changes.