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Off the beaten path: 15 Tampa Bay trails to explore

Some of the region's treasures are moderately known, while others are hiding in plain sight.

You’re likely quarantined out. Tired of having to stay indoors and avoid large crowds.

There’s an easy solution. And if you’re lucky, it might be within walking distance.

I spent the past two weeks discovering some of the best trails in Tampa Bay. No, we don’t have mountains to climb or breathtaking views from down below, but we have a lot of land and hidden gems between the sawgrass and palm trees.

Quickly overwhelmed at the never-ending list online, I gave some moderately popular and lesser-known trails a go (bringing my dog, Thor, along when I could). And I wasn’t selfish; some of my co-workers got in on the fun, too.

A native Floridian, I had no idea half of these existed. Now, my list keeps growing and there are even more trails to tackle.

Have a favorite we should add to our explorations? Let us know.

East Tampa

Alderman’s Ford Park Trail & Alafia River Corridor Preserve Trail

One of the boardwalk bridges at Alderman's Ford Park Trail. The 1.8-mile paved loop features a connected, half-mile boardwalk loop, too. [ Mari Faiello ]

I learned a few lessons hiking Alderman’s Ford Park Trail. It is dog-friendly, so I took my 2-year-old German Shepherd, Thor. But it was also the middle of the afternoon, in Florida. Need I say more? The great news is that if you’re like me and forget an adequate rain jacket or umbrella, there are a few places along the paved path to hide in until the rain passes. There are also plenty of dog poop bag spots along the way, which are helpful when you’re trying to protect your socks from getting wet. The paved path was a great loop for us, running right along the Alafia River more times than not. There’s also a 1/2-mile boardwalk loop, but no dogs or bikes are allowed in that area. There’s a good bit of shade, but pack some bug spray and a hat just in case. If you’re up for a more daunting task, you can tackle the 9.9-mile loop right next to the baseball fields. Don’t forget your $2 to use the park (if no attendant is present, use your credit card at the machine).

Distance: Trails range from 1.9 miles (paved loop) to 9.9 miles

Hours: Daily, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Amenities: Restrooms (along paved path), some open benches and dog-friendly

Trail mix: Make sure you stop by Smokin’ Joe’s BBQ & Grill for a bite to eat after you finish your hike.

Chito Branch Reserve

Hikers should look out for deer, snakes and birds along the Chito Branch Reserve trail, which offers hikes ranging from 2.3 to 4.8 miles. Watch out for small white diamond markers along the path to make sure you stay on the trail. [ Mari Faiello ]

If you’re looking for a secluded trail with a Florida-esque feel, this might be your place. The trail isn’t paved and can be difficult to follow, but for 0.3 miles or so there are white diamonds to let you know which direction to go to keep along the trail. Some old horse droppings are a giveaway, too, that civilization was here at one point. Bring your baseball cap and sunscreen if you’re going on a sunny day, because the trail is only partially shaded. It’s probably best to wear closed-toe shoes, given much of the trail is through high grass (mid-calf) and not well-maintained. Keep an eye out for snakes in the brush and deer sightings, too.

Distance: Trails range from 2.3 miles to 4.8 miles

Hours: Daily, sunrise to sunset

Amenities: No restrooms or water, horse-friendly, biking, lots of wildlife

Trail mix: Stop by the 7-11 convenience store on Lithia Pinecrest Road and Fishhawk Boulevard afterward and cool off with a nice Slurpee.

Singing Bluffs Trail at Medard Park

Along the Singing Bluffs Trail at Medard Park, hikers can look out on the water and see a fishing pier in the distance. [ Mari Faiello ]

Don’t forget to bring $2 in cash when you visit Medard Park. The county park offers a variety of trails and even some camping options for those interested in spending a night or two out in the wild. Follow the dirt path along the Singing Bluffs Trail, and you’ll get to see some cool views of the water, too. If you want to make a day of it, rent some canoes or kayaks right on site for $25 at the park’s entry station.

Distance: Trail is a 1.3-mile loop

Hours: Daily, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (spring/summer) and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (winter/fall)

Amenities: Dogs allowed, hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, horse back riding, etc.

Trail mix: Cool off by stopping at the RaceTrac station off of State Route 60 after you finish up at the park.

Tampa

Lettuce Lake Regional Park Loop

Visitors who wish to walk around the Lettuce Lake Regional Park Loop can follow the path for 1.2 miles. The loop has multiple entrances and amenities along the way. [ Mari Faiello ]

I absolutely loved hiking this trail. The park is full of shade and nice amenities along the paved 1.2-mile loop. There are water fountains and even some doggy fountains along the paved path. You can take your dog along for the ride (like I did) or bring your bike, skateboard or roller blades. You can walk along the boardwalk, too. Park at any of the lots within the park, and you can find an entrance to the trail. And don’t forget your $2 (in cash) for the park fee. Students attending USF or Florida College should bookmark this place, since it’s close to both campuses.

Distance: Trail is 1.2 miles

Hours: Daily, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (spring/summer), 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (fall/winter)

Amenities: Dogs allowed, bathrooms and water fountains along trail, roller blading, skateboarding and biking

Trail mix: Grab a Frappuccino from Starbucks or Coolatta from Dunkin’ to celebrate your trek.

Rowlett Park Loop

Rowlett Park Loop offers visitors a paved 1.5-mile walkway around the park itself with plenty of shade. [ Mari Faiello ]

The Rowlett Park Loop is a cute park with a paved 1.5-mile loop going around the main concourse. There’s plenty of parking and lots of open picnic tables. Bring along your hammock, and you can read a book under the trees, too. Dogs are allowed on leashes, and there’s a jungle gym for the kids. You can also see the Hillsborough River while hiking along a part of the trail.

Distance: Trail is 1.5 miles

Hours: Daily, sunrise to sunset

Amenities: Dogs allowed, bathrooms and water fountains, roller blading, biking, canoe launch

Trail mix: Grab a sub from Wawa off of East Fowler Avenue and North 30th Street on your way to/from the park.

Largo

Taylor Lake Trail

The 1.6-mile trail at Taylor Lake offers plenty of views for hikers in Largo. [ Rebecca Torrence ]

While Taylor Lake only has one trail, the views make up for it. The trail, just a little over a mile and a half long, circles the lake, putting you in close proximity to beautiful scenery and plenty of wildlife. I got up close and personal with some egrets, white ibises and moorhens, and while I didn’t see any alligators, there are a dozen signs reminding you of their presence. This is a relatively short and easy trail with level ground, perfect for bikers, runners and walkers. It’s even wheelchair accessible.

Distance: The trail is 1.6 miles long.

Hours: Daily, 7 a.m. until sunset. Restrooms are open Saturday and Sunday only

Amenities: Picnic tables, three playgrounds, multiple parking lots around the trail, fishing, baseball field, frisbee golf course

Trail mix: Grab pizza afterwards at Your Pizza Shop across the street on 8th Ave SW. You’ve earned it.

Eagle Lake Park

The 3-mile trail at Eagle Lake Park offers hikers a chance to choose between several loops and walk up to 5 miles without repeating any paths. [ Rebecca Torrence ]

Wheelchair accessible and bike-friendly, this is a “choose your own adventure” trail. While the main paved trail is 3 miles around, you can pick and choose between several loops and walk up to 5 miles without repeating any sections. If you don’t have an internal GPS, make sure you bring your phone, because you could easily get lost combining trails. I wandered off a few times and had to retrace my steps, as some of the smaller man-made trails don’t have markings. The trails are generally wide but densely wooded, and the lakes are a bit muggy right now, so bring bug spray.

Distance: 3 miles paved with some short trail segments branching out

Hours: Daily, 7 a.m. until sunset.

Amenities: Dog park, lots of parking, restrooms, grills, vending machines, fishing and a roasted corn stand

Trail mix: Largo Central Park and its public library are less than two miles southwest.

St. Petersburg

Boyd Hill Nature Preserve

The Sand Scrub Trail at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve gives hikers a chance to see gopher turtles, chuck-will's-widows and various plants up close. [ Kyle Wood ]

Boyd Hill Nature Preserve’s trails are open for business — contrary to what Apple Maps may say — though its nature center and programs have been suspend because of the coronavirus. Admission is free for the time being; the preserve usually charges admission of $3 for adults and $1.50 for children ages 3-16 (children younger than 3 are admitted free). The main trail spans 3.1 miles. Several trails snake off it, and signs are posted throughout, but you can keep track of your 5K progress with conveniently posted signs as you work your way out to the edge of Lake Maggiore and back through different ecosystems, including sand scrub, swamp and pine flatwoods. Most trails are accessible for people with disabilities, and bike riding on the trails — none of which are paved — is permitted. Pets are not allowed.

Distance: Trail is 3.1 miles all the way around

Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (trails close at 6:30 p.m.)

Amenities: Birds of prey enclosure for permanently injured, non-releasable birds, including a bald eagle, hawks and a vulture, playground

Trail mix: Pick up snacks at the nearby CVS Pharmacy or make a day of it and pick up subs at a Publix off I-275.

Carillon Park Nature Preserve

Meander around the Carillon Walking Path and you might see an alligator or two along the boardwalk. [ Courtesy of Traci Johnson ]

The Carillon Park loop is truly a hidden treasure nestled behind hotels and businesses off of Ulmerton Road. The boardwalk loop circles the lake. Walking around, it’s likely you’ll see lots of birds, alligators, turtles and more. The walk is short if you’re on a tight schedule or just want to get out and move for a little bit. There weren’t any signs posted about dogs, but I would make sure your animal is on a leash if you choose to bring it. Remember to use the restroom at home before you head out, too.

Distance: Loop is about 0.75 miles.

Hours: Daily

Amenities: None

Trail mix: Grab a Pub Sub from the nearby Publix or a “You Pick Two” at Panera Bread to cool down after your walk.

North Bay Trail

The North Bay Trail runs right along the St. Pete Pier up to the Rio Vista Park. Bring your hammock and a good book and park yourself under the shade of some palm trees to make a relaxing afternoon out of it. [ Mari Faiello ]

While somewhat popular with locals, the North Bay Trail offers a good glimpse of the St. Pete life for visitors and Tampa residents. The trail starts by the new St. Pete Pier and goes all the way up to Rio Vista Park. While the path itself was enjoyable, I was disappointed with the lack of upkeep (there were dead fish leftnover from fishing adventures on the grass bank) and little to no shade. However, the view of the water and the parks around made it enjoyable. If you decide to go for a good chunk of time, use the ParkMobile app (when available) so you don’t have to cut your visit short. You can also bring a hammock to swing in under some palm trees while enjoying a nice book if you have some time to kill and want to enjoy some Florida sunshine.

Distance: Trail is 11.9 miles

Hours: Daily

Amenities: Restrooms, dog-friendly (on leash), public parks

Trail mix: Check out the new St. Pete Pier and grab a bite to eat (and maybe an adult drink) while you’re there.

Sawgrass Lake Park Trail

Don't miss the lookout tower along the Sawgrass Lake Trail if you need to take a break or just want to enjoy some nice Florida views in St. Petersburg. [ Kyle Wood ]

The trails at Sawgrass Lake Park cater to walkers and hikers of varying degrees. The park offers the Sawgrass Trail, which takes you on a raised wooden path to a lookout tower of Sawgrass Lake. You can’t fish from the structure, but it offers much-needed shade and benches to rest on. Other trails snake on raised, wooden structures, dirt paths, paved areas and sparse pine needles. There’s a scenic path on the east side of the park that is a hair too close to the bustling traffic of I-275, but it’s shaded and more open than some of the other areas. Bikes, vehicles and dogs are not allowed on the boardwalk, and patrons are constantly advised by posted signs to stay clear of alligators.

Distance: 1.8 miles all the way around

Hours: Daily, 7 a.m. to sunset (trails close at 8 p.m.)

Amenities: Restrooms, water fountains, picnic tables, environmental education center

Trail mix: Options are plentiful at the nearby Shoppes at Park Place across US-19, including a Starbucks and Chipotle and a Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s across the street.

Weedon Island Preserve Trail

Two men fish off a boardwalk at Weedon Island Preserve. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Weedon Island Preserve is a great spot for a short walk, escaping into the sounds of nature, right in the middle of everything. Located about 20 minutes from both downtown St. Petersburg and downtown Tampa, just at the base of the Gandy Boulevard bridge in St. Pete, it’s easy to get to. None of the trails are challenging — they’re flat, well-cleared and a couple of miles or less. The trails cross from sunny to shaded, so be prepared for both. The preserve offers an observation tower and platform, each on different trails, as well as a lookout point, with a picturesque tunnel through the trees to the water. There are picnic tables scattered throughout (carry your trash out!) and also a Cultural and Natural History Center with bathrooms, but the hours are limited. The downside is that the trails are not especially well-marked. You’re not going to get lost forever, but grab a map to reference at the forks.

Distance: The longest loop is 4.3 miles, but there are plenty of opportunities to cut it shorter.

Hours: Daily, 7 a.m. to 15 minutes before sunset

Amenities: Restrooms and water available at the Cultural and Natural History Center, which has different hours (Thursday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.). No pets.

Trail mix: Grab a Pub Sub to enjoy at the picnic tables from the Publix at Gateway Market Center.

North Tampa

Brooker Creek Headwaters Nature Preserve

One of multiple trails offered at the Brooker Creek Nature Preserve. [ Mari Faiello ]

I liked the remoteness and options that came with Brooker Creek. There are multiple connections to hike the paths available, but the one off Ramblewood Road has very limited parking (two regular spaces and one handicapped spot). Park on the grass along Ramblewood at your own risk if you choose this entrance. There’s a good bit of standing water, so bring your bug spray. The tree canopy spread throughout, provides some nice shade for your hike, but you should bring a hat for the sun. Make sure you use the restroom beforehand — or risk choosing the wrong leaf as toilet paper. The picnic table is also closed, and there’s a sign posted recommending hikers practice social distancing while on the trail. And don’t forget to pick up a copy of the Tampa Bay Times at one of the newspaper boxes on your way in (or out) of the preserve.

Distance: 0.7 miles to 4 miles

Hours: Daily, 7 a.m. to one hour before sunset

Amenities: No restrooms or water, limited shade, no dogs on parts of trail

Trail mix: Stock up with water and snacks at the Winn-Dixie off of Van Dyke Road and celebrate your hike at the Dunkin’ Donuts next door afterward.

New Port Richey

Starkey Wilderness Park Loop

One of the unpaved nature trails near Parking Lot 2 at Starkey Wilderness Park. [ Mari Faiello ]

If you’re looking for a place with a lot of options, hit up Starkey Wilderness Park Loop. I was amazed at the variety of trails and amenities available to park-goers, including a paved bike trail (which connects to the Suncoast Trail). There’s also an abundance of picnic tables — which allows for easy social distancing — so, take some lunch, too. On the trails, I would recommend you take a buddy (especially if you’re a novice) and wear leggings/long pants if possible to avoid the brush, since the paths are pretty narrow. Closed-toe shoes are also best for most of the dirt paths. Watch your step for snakes and bunnies. If you’re lucky, you’ll see deer.

Distance: Trails range from 1.1 miles to 14.8 miles and one paved 7.5-mile trail

Hours: Daily, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Amenities: Restrooms, picnic tables, dogs allowed on 6-foot leash, fire pits, plenty of parking, multiple trails, paved bike path

Trail mix: Stop by the Circle K on the corner of Starkey Boulevard to stock up on drinks and snacks. You won’t be able to get any on the trails.

Zephyrhills

Upper Hillsborough Trail

The Upper Hillsborough Trail offers hikers plenty of terrain to explore with a 9.2-mile hike. Visitors should look out for white diamonds on the trees to stay on the right path. [ Mari Faiello ]

Get your hiking shoes ready for the Upper Hillsborough Trail. Parking isn’t the best (only five car spaces available at this entrance) but there were plenty of trail options along the route. Like some of the others in the area, this trail uses the small white diamonds to designate the paths hikers should follow. If you don’t see those, stick to the white shell/gravel roadway, and you’ll be set. Hikers, bikers and horse riders are welcome along the trail.

Distance: Trails go up to 9.2 miles

Hours: Daily

Amenities: None

Trail Mix: None

Times staff writers Diana C. Nearhos, Rebecca Torrence and Kyle Wood contributed to this story.

Have an outdoor adventure we should try? Curious about the ins and outs of fishing seasons in Florida? Know a cool business or owner to profile? Contact outdoors reporter Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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