If you haven't hit the trail, any trail, what are you waiting for? Whether you're a walker, a bicyclist or a skater, there are paved paths ripe for the picking across the Tampa Bay area. I tend to stick with what I know (trails near water, mangroves and palm trees) but was glad to broaden my horizons recently during a spin on inline skates on the Upper Tampa Bay Trail, which leads to the Suncoast Trail. I was able to experience a different side of the bay area, seeing ponds, cattails and pine trees, and get a good workout in the process. Ready to explore? Grab your sunglasses and go.
Dawn Cate, Times staff writer
It's hard to believe, but the Pinellas Trail, officially the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, named after a former county administrator, is nearly 30 years old. It has grown considerably over the years, now stretching more than 45 miles from Tarpon Springs to downtown St. Petersburg. Estimates put the number of monthly users at 70,000. Depending on how far and where you're traveling on the trail, you may have to use overpasses or underpasses, and because the trail connects all of Pinellas County, your overall experience will vary by location. Some parts are busier and more visually appealing than others. Rides across Boca Ciega Bay near Seminole and around downtown Dunedin are picturesque and popular. Always be aware of your surroundings, and use common sense. According to the county, "The trail is patrolled by park rangers, volunteer auxiliary rangers, maintenance workers and law enforcement agencies," and some sections are monitored by videocameras. "Emergency assistance markers" affixed to the trail every few hundred feet (look down — they're on the pavement) bear a number (0282, for example) that identifies your location if you need to call 911.
DETAILS: The trail is long, and you'll get a mix of sun and shade as you cruise past the backs of homes, a golf course, the waterfront and all sorts of other things. There are numerous points of entry, including some city parks, like the one on Ridge Road in Seminole, where parking is free. There are restrooms, water fountains, air pumps and benches periodically. There also are several bike and skate rental shops fairly close to the trail in some parts, along with places to get food and drinks.
CAUTION: If you're not comfortable with overpasses and underpasses (scout out your route in advance), find another section of trail. You certainly have options. I had planned to skate to Cross Bayou from Seminole City Park, but after encountering tree debris, rough road and two overpasses, I turned back. The overpasses are particularly daunting on skates, though not the up as much as the down. I gripped the railing as I descended, fearful I'd accelerate too quickly and tumble to the bottom. As I skated past Seminole City Park toward Largo, I encountered another overpass. Done. (Note to self: Bring a bike.)
More information: bit.ly/pinellastrail
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This 14-mile-plus trail, which is split into two sections that do not connect, starts in Hillsborough County and takes users north to Lutz Lake Fern Road, where they can get on the Suncoast Trail. This trail really puts you in touch with nature. It's woodsy at points and very peaceful. If you head south from the main trailhead on W Waters Avenue, toward Old Memorial Highway, you'll travel beside a canal and pass over a metal bridge before you reach the end. There isn't too much trail to the south of W Waters.
DETAILS: Good portions of this trail are made in the shade, and you'll quickly get in touch with the outdoor enthusiast within. The main trailhead is at 9201 W Waters Ave., where you'll find the park office, restrooms, lots of benches and a water cooler. Bring your water bottle because the paper cups run out. Parking costs $2 and there is a pay station. The majority of the trail is to the north. There are several trailheads with parking, and there are benches and restrooms at most of them. If your ultimate destination is the Suncoast Trail, consider parking in the lot at 7020 Lutz Lake Fern Road (again, $2). Before you get to the Suncoast Trail, which is on the north side of Lutz Lake Fern Road, there's another water cooler. This one had paper cups the day I was there, which was nice, as was the bench.
CAUTION: This shouldn't matter unless you're a skater, and even then it might not matter much, but there are several sections, at least toward the northern end, where you cross bridges that are segmented. I glided over them without incident but was very mindful. There also was some reverberation from the metal railings. I got used to it by the third bridge.
More information: bit.ly/uppertampabay
This 42-mile trail really goes the distance — from Hillsborough County through Pasco and Hernando counties. It's not the most scenic trail, from what I saw, but in fairness I was on it only a few miles. It can get pretty hilly in parts. As you travel north, you'll see some housing on your left, and plenty of fauna and flora. On your right you'll see cars zooming down the Suncoast Parkway, and you'll hear them. There are wildlife viewing areas, and the majority of the trail — 21.6 miles — is in Pasco.
DETAILS: There are a number of trailheads with parking lots, including at State Road 54. I had read that there is a $3 fee to park in some lots, but I didn't notice a pay station at SR 54. I did notice a small covered area where you could stand or sit, a portable restroom, a water dispenser and a "Bike Fixtation" machine with air and tools. The lot is close to a Chili's, McDonald's and more. Pasco's website mentions that there are restrooms, water and information kiosks along the trail and lists trailheads and major intersections.
More information: bit.ly/suncoasttrail
As you head toward Clearwater Beach from the mainland and come off Memorial Causeway Bridge, you'll see a parking lot on your left. You may never have noticed it. There are about two dozen parking spaces, and parking is free. You'll have to make a U-turn and backtrack to get to the parking lot unless you're coming from Clearwater Beach. The trail itself, part of the Ream Wilson Clearwater Trail,is about a mile long and parallels the water. As you approach the end you have a good view of the harbor and can watch boats come and go. Another perk: If you go to the end of that paved trail, cross the small bridge and continue another few blocks on the sidewalk you'll end up across the street from Clearwater Beach and Pier 60. I usually remove my skates here and head for the sand, timing my visits to coincide with the sunset. Other people have similar ideas. I've seen them park in the lot, grab their chairs and beach stuff and walk the mile-plus to the beach. There's a lot to be said for avoiding the driving-around-for-an-hour-looking-for-a-parking-spot craziness anyone who has ever tried to park at Clearwater Beach at sunset has endured.
DETAILS: There are no shady spots along this trail, but there are several covered areas with benches, as well as water fountains and, near the parking lot, a Fixit station for bicyclists. If you need refreshments, cross the small bridge at the end of the paved trail. There's a marina on your left, along with several restaurants. There's also a snack bar at the beach.
More information: bit.ly/clearwatertrails
The main paved path, which is several miles long, begins at the base of the bridge, and you can take it all the way to Honeymoon Island State Park. There's a fee to enter the park, even if you're on a bike or skates. Parking is free along the causeway. If you're feeling ambitious you could actually start back at the Pinellas Trail, at Curlew Road and Alt. U.S. 19, and cross the bridge.
DETAILS: There is a considerable amount of shade along parts of the trail. Benches are plentiful — I'm not sure I've ever seen so many so close together — and a lot of them are out of the sun. It really is a delightful place to sit for a while. You'll find restrooms and water fountains sort of in the middle of the causeway as well as a little restaurant. If you're done on land, water toys (paddleboards, kayaks) are available for rent.
CAUTION: Be especially careful when crossing the cut-ins where cars enter and exit. Not everyone is looking out for pedestrians, bicyclists and skaters. Also, because cars are allowed to drive through the parking area that parallels the water and park here, sand, dirt and gravel can accumulate at the crossings, which can be an extra challenge for skaters.
More information: bit.ly/dunedincauseway
Fort De Soto Park, at the southern end of Pinellas County, has more than 6 miles of trail, running from south of Bunces Pass Bridge to the main stop sign and then in both directions parallel to the water from one end of the park to the other. You'll have to pay two tolls ($1 and 75 cents) before you get to the 1,100-acre-plus county park. Once there, parking costs $5. There are booths at the entrance, as well as several pay stations. Parking is abundant here, with a number of lots. On extremely busy days when the lots are full, there is overflow parking on the grass.
DETAILS: There are benches every so often, though not often enough, and some of them are in the shade. You'll have a great view of the Sunshine Skyway from the bench at the easternmost point. Much of the trail is in direct sun. There are several water fountains at Fort De Soto Park in addition to a campground, restrooms, showers, snack bars/shops, playgrounds, covered pavilions, fishing piers and plenty of beaches, including North Beach, which was named the No. 1 beach in the country in 2005 by Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman. There's also a lot of history here, including the fort, which dates to the late 1800s. Once you've packed up your skates or bike, check it out, and walk to the top for a panoramic view. You can see Egmont Key in the distance. Paddleboards and kayaks can be rented across the street from the Bay Pier.
CAUTION: Be careful, especially if you're skating, when you go under the trees that form a nice canopy over parts of the trail. Those trees have roots, some of which have made the pavement uneven. Those trees also have leaves and branches and things that might make you fall. Watch out for loose sand, standing water or a combination of the two if you're biking or skating. (The scar on my right knee is a reminder.) The mosquitoes really love it here, so you may want to bring insect repellent.
More information: bit.ly/fortdesoto
This is but a small sampling of the bay area's many trails, both long and short (the section in Safety Harbor along the waterfront, north of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard; the Good Neighbor Trail in Brooksville; Flatwoods Park in Thonotosassa). One of the best ways to discover new trails is to get out and look around, and then there's always Google. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's website at traillink.com is a good resource. You can search for trails by city, state, ZIP code, name or keyword and also read user reviews.
Contact Dawn Cate at firstname.lastname@example.org.