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Enjoy forest on foot, horse or wheels

Published Dec. 2, 2006

Heading south from Inverness, County Road 581 borders the eastern side of a tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest. The Florida Division of Forestry maintains three areas off to the right for public access. The closest to town is by a fire tower for the use of the FDF; however a picnic table in a clearing offers a pleasant spot for a bring-your-own-lunch in a wooded area. Informative brochures about the forest and recreation opportunities are available there.

Two and a half miles south from State Road 44 is Forest Road 10, another turn to the right, at the sign of Holder Mine Recreation Area. Into the woods from the turn are a parking area, a forest information board, picnic tables and a campground with bathhouses available. From there it is possible to walk an 8.5-mile loop through the forest called Citrus Loop "A," one of four loops in the trail system accessed from CR 581, and included in the Florida Trailwalker Program.

Participants in this excellent program to encourage exercise in a beautiful setting travel the state, walking state forest trails. They keep logs of their mileage, submit them to the Trailwalker Program and receive badges that may be displayed on clothing.

Their more immediate rewards are sights of wildflowers in spring, a surprising variety of trees, birds, wild animals and an occasional fishing hole ringed with live oaks. Five miles south of Inverness off CR 581 is a right turn at the sign of the Mutual Mine Recreation Area, which also leads to a trailhead and campground with access to the hiking loops. Drinking water is available at all the recreation areas. Overnight camping is available at other locations in the forest but is truly primitive without those facilities most of us desire.

The Trailtrotter Program is similar to the hiking plan. Participants travel the state forest horse trails on horseback and maintain their logs for state badges. The main equestrian trailhead at the Tillis Hill Recreation Area has a full facility campground with picnic tables, fire rings and bathhouses with showers, a kitchen, dining hall, picnic pavilion and horse stables. Wide-ranging field trials for dogs are staged from this area. Reservations are needed and information about fees is available.

This campground may be reached from Forest Road 10 by way of FR 13, which is a long, unpaved stretch of bumpy road perhaps more suitable for SUVs or vehicles other than the family sedan. Frequent deer sightings make it a worthwhile trip, but an easier way to access the Tillis Hill area is off County Road 480 (Stagecoach Trail), a turn to the west off CR 581. From there you'll turn to the north at Forest Road 13 to reach that trailhead.

If hiking and horseback riding are not your idea of adventure, there are other options that may appeal to you. Legally licensed ATVs and dirt bikes are welcome on designated vehicle roads in some areas. The Withlacoochee State Forest is also a part of the great Florida birding trail. Organized groups of bird spotters gather often for tours with experienced leaders. With the proper permits, fishing and hunting are popular park activities. Families or youth groups may arrange picnics or overnight stays at campsites. There are other campsites for recreational vehicles throughout the forest, in addition to the Tillus Hill Recreation Area.

If you are exploring without a lunch, you might enjoy a stop farther down the road at the famed Lake Lindsey Mall at the northwest corner of the Hernando County Road 481 and Lake Lindsey Road intersection. Their claim is "The coldest beer in the Boondocks." Another sign on the building encourages you to "Come fix up your belly at the Lake Lindsey Deli." If you feel you have been outside long enough, you may opt to "dine in." They have a table. Otherwise, you might find it pleasant to take your sandwich and some cold stuff to another great place to get off the road, a left turn on to Lake Lindsey Road heading east, where you may follow signs to the Chinsegut Nature Center. Besides picnic tables, the center offers numerous special programs Fridays and Saturdays. Examples of Saturday activities include a butterfly workshop for kids, a Pioneer Day for all ages and archery lessons.

Westward on Lake Lindsey Road you will find Lake Lindsay Cemetery, where some gravestones date from the mid 19th century, adjacent to a possibly 15th century Indian mound. Eden Baptist Church works with the community to preserve the cemetery and schedules cleanup days with potluck for those who volunteer to help.

When you return to County Road 481 from Lake Lindsey Road, a right turn will take you to a Hernando County boat launch sign, where another right turn takes you to the end of the road with a small parking area but a big view. As with other boat launch areas in Florida, the road simply continues into the water. Where Hernando residents park their vehicles and trailers after launching is hard to figure. It is certainly easier here not to have a trailer or a boat but just to enjoy the scenery. Here are some cypress trees and knees that have not been ground into mulch, and a lovely lake view.

Returning to Snow Memorial Highway, head south again to Snow Hill Road. Just for some unusual Florida scenery, take this right turn and go up a hill high enough to give a view of some distance both to the left and right. Now and then it is pleasant to find a vantage point higher than sea level.

Continuing south on CR 481 you will find the entrance to Chinsegut Hill Conference and Retreat Center. You may ride up this hill and find a striking Old Florida home rich in local history. With prior arrangement, you may have a guided tour of the home, portions of which date to the 1840s. At some point in its history the property belonged to the Snow family - hence the name Snow Memorial Highway for this fine road in Hernando County. The name memorializes the family, not the cold stuff we are happy to forget.

Meredith West is an Inverness resident. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects that they choose, which do not necessarily reflect those of this newspaper.