Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in the Tampa Bay Times in 2020. The story below has been lightly edited to update it for 2023.
Looking for a way to connect with the outdoors?
There’s an easy solution. And if you’re lucky, it might be within walking distance.
I spent 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.
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).
Address: 100 Alderman’s Ford Park Dr. Plant City, Florida, 33567 (Canoe launch is found at 9625 Canoe Launch Loop Lithia, Florida, 33547)
Distance: Trails range from .62 miles to 9.9 miles, including a 1.9-mile paved loop trail
Hours: Daily, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (spring/summer) and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (fall/winter)
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.
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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.
Address: 11254 Browning Rd. Lithia, Florida, 33547
Distance: Trails range from 2.3 miles to 4.8 miles
Hours: Daily, 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after 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.
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.
Address: 6140 Turkey Creek Rd. Plant City, Florida, 33567
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 on a leash, 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.
The Rowlett Park Loop is a cute park with a paved 1.1-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.
Address: 2401 E. Yukon St. Tampa, Florida, 33604
Distance: Trail is 1.1 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.
The River Rapids Trail is one of five located within the park. The shade extends deep into the canopy in spots, but it doesn’t feel like you’re wandering aimlessly. The path is unpaved, but distinguishable from the surrounding trees and plants. There are some lovely views of the river from the lookout, boardwalks and suspension bridge. If Thor hadn’t been with me, I would have brought a book and listened to the rapids at the lookout while sitting on one of the many benches in that area.
Address: 15402 U.S. 301 North Thonotosassa, Florida, 33592
Distance: Trail is a 1.2-mile loop
Hours: Daily, 8 a.m. to sundown
Amenities: $2-$6 per vehicle (depending on transportation method and number of passengers), dog friendly, pavilions, picnic tables, restrooms
Trail mix: Stop at the IHOP off of Morris Bridge Road for a short stack.
The park offers visitors a nice recreation trail with an oversized sidewalk to allow walkers, runners, roller-bladers and bikers to share the area comfortably. There’s a playground toward the back of the park, too. Take the boardwalk to the 35-foot observation tower, which overlooks Pineapple Island.
Address: 12410 74th Ave. North (Old Oakhurst Rd.) Seminole, Florida, 33772
Distance: Boardwalk Trail is .8 miles; Recreation Trail is 1.1 miles
Hours: Daily, 7 a.m. to sunset
Amenities: Restrooms, pavilions, picnic tables, benches, water fountains, dog friendly (except on boardwalk, but there is a 1.5-acre dog park), playground, wheelchair accessible, observation tower
Trail mix: If you have kids who enjoy playgrounds, swing by Seminole’s City Park off of Ridge Road.
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.
Address: 1100 8th Ave. SW Largo, Florida, 33770
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.
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.
Address: 1800 Keene Rd. Largo, Florida, 33771
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 (closed Monday-Friday), shelters and grills, a playground and fishing
Trail mix: Largo Central Park and its public library are less than two miles southwest.
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.
Address: 1101 Country Club Way S. St. Petersburg, Florida, 33705
Distance: Trail is 3.1 miles all the way around
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (trails close at 5:30 p.m.) (Nov. 1-Feb. 29) and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (trails close at 6:30 p.m.) (March 1-Oct. 31)
Amenities: Birds of prey enclosure for permanently injured, non-releasable birds, including a bald eagle, hawks and a vulture; a playground; the Pinellas Pioneer Settlement; and the Terry Tomalin Campground
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.
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.
Address: 100 Carillon Pkwy. St. Petersburg, Florida, 33716
Distance: Loop is about 1 mile
Trail mix: Grab a Pub Sub from the nearby Publix or a “You Pick Two” at Panera Bread to cool down after your walk.
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.
Address: 7400 25th St. N. St. Petersburg, Florida, 33702
Distance: Loop is about 2 miles
Hours: Daily, 7 a.m. to sunset (trails close at 8 p.m.)
Amenities: Restrooms, water fountains, picnic tables, one picnic shelter and grill, an 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.
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.
Address: 18102 Ramblewood Rd. Odessa, Florida, 33556
Distance: 4 mile-loop
Hours: Daily, sunrise to 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
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.
Address: 11115 Wilderness Park Blvd., New Port Richey, Florida, 34655
Distance: Trails range from 1.8 miles to 14.8 miles and one paved 7.3-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, including an equestrian trail; and a 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.
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.
Address: Zephyrhills Colony Company, Zephyrhills, Florida, 33540
Distance: Mail trail loop is about 4.8 miles
Trail Mix: None
It doesn’t take long to figure out why this preserve is a popular choice among locals and tourists. Cross over the boardwalks and find open spots in the mangroves to look out to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. You can also catch a great view from the 53-foot observation tower. Bring along a kayak or paddleboard and use the launch toward the south entrance. Pack your beach gear, too, since you’re only a 20-minute drive from Anna Maria Island.
Address: 1704 99th St. NW, Bradenton, Florida, 34209 (Main/North Entrance)
Distance: Various, but includes a 7.5-mile loop (shorter if you don’t take the branches off the main drag) and a 1.3-mile rubberized pedestrian path (Eagle Loop)
Hours: Daily, sunrise to sunset
Amenities: Dog friendly, picnic areas, restrooms, water fountains, kayak launch, observation tower, bike friendly, wheelchair accessible trail available
Trail mix: Hit up the Sage Biscuit Cafe off of Cortez West Road.
Former Times staff writers Rebecca Torrence and Kyle Wood contributed to this story.