Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Quick Glance Back

Four of my last five reviews (and five of my last six posts) have been about Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve, so it is time to turn my attention elsewhere for a while and write about some of the other places in our area that make for good hiking.

But before doing that, I want to publish some of my pictures from Lower Hillsborough that I did not publish before. All of these were taken on the hikes detailed in my posts from November 21st, November 29th, December 6th, and December 20th.

Looking back, I feel I slighted the Buteo Trail because the only picture I published of it was of a sign. So here is one from along its route, showing a cypress tree in the Hillsborough River:

And here is another picture from along its route, showing Sarah on a palm tree curving over what I called “the skinny branch” of the river:

East of the spot where the Hillsborough’s fork creates the skinny branch, Sarah pointed out a cypress knee that bears a strong resemblance to a bird:

While walking through the preserve, I have been struck by the “aliveness of death” when it comes to plant life. That phrase probably sounds like nonsense (and is definitely more wordy than it needs to be) but it simply means that life springs from death and that dead things are often a beautiful part of nature’s landscape. For example, check out how plants and flowers are growing around and within this log:

I have also been struck by how easily nature can obscure signs of man, as evidenced in the following picture that I took along the Main Trail. It leads me to believe that the trail might once have been a road, because the tree is swallowing what appears to be the post of an old stop sign.

And finally, I like the fact that Lower Hillsborough’s wildlife makes its presence known both by being visible and by leaving tracks:

Although I have recently hiked a lot in the preserve, I have covered less than one-fourth of its trail miles -- barely scratching the surface, even when it comes only to the side paths accessible from the Hole in the Fence Trailhead -- so I will definitely be writing more about it in the future. However, as the great Michener character Pasquinel would have said, those writings will come not today but “in due time.” Until then...Happy Trails!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

LHW: Hole in the Fence

There is nothing like an early morning hike to clear your mind and get your blood flowing. Especially if you start before daybreak and witness the sky’s transition from black to pink to blue:

Early morning is also prime time for spotting wildlife because nocturnal and diurnal animals are both up, the former going about their final rounds while the latter go about their first. After taking the above photograph last Saturday, I headed deeper into the forest and within moments realized I was in the middle of a deer herd. Crashing sounds erupted as deer fled in every direction. Their telltale white tails were held up like warning flags, making them easy to spot even though it was dim under the trees.

Having accessed the Main Trail from the so-called Hole in the Fence Trailhead, I was walking along a section of it that is farther west than those I wrote about in my November 29th and December 6th posts. This particular section intersects with numerous side trails, not all of which are named, and some of those intersect with each other at points farther afield. This results in what describes by saying: “This is an extensive, crisscrossing trail network. Keep in mind, you will probably get marginally lost at least once.”

Not to worry, though. If you stick to the Main Trail you will be fine; and if you want to venture off of it but aren’t comfortable with your navigating skills, simply follow the directions in this post. There will be lots of good sights no matter what:

Less than a tenth of a mile after starting your hike you will see a side path on the right with a sign that reads: “Hikers Only – Fishing Trail.” It leads 0.2 miles to the Tampa Bypass Canal, where you can cast a line for tilapia or largemouth bass.

0.6 miles from the trailhead, shortly after passing a signboard on your right, you will come to an intersection with a trail that is unsigned. To the left, it travels through a flat field into the woods on the other side. To the right, it travels up onto an undulating bluff that looks like a Florida mountain biker’s dream come true.

If you take the “mountain biker’s route” you will find that it goes up and down for several quick successions along the top of the bluff, one of which is pictured here:

At one point I stepped off the trail on the mountain biker’s route, went part of the way down the bluff, and took this picture looking back up at Sarah:

The mountain biker’s route is not particularly long, intersecting first with the Misery Trail and then with the Gator Bait Trail. Turn left on the Gator Bait and it takes you on a jaunt through low-lying murky woods before meeting back up with the Main Trail at a junction where one sign points back in the direction you came from and says “To Misery – To Gator Bait.” Meanwhile, another sign points to the beginning of the Indian Trail. The whole side trip totals 0.8 miles.

If you choose to skip the side trip and remain on the Main Trail, you will come to this same junction 0.65 miles after passing the one where the mountain biker’s route began. Along the way you will pass through the second-growth forest pictured below, where I once saw a trio of deer run toward a field you can just barely make out in the background. When I set out toward that field hoping to see more deer, I crossed another trail whose name and destination I do not know.

But getting back to the junction mentioned above, it is hard not to notice that the Indian Trail’s sign claims it is “very difficult.” That claim was made with mountain bikers in mind, and is warranted because the trail has plenty of tight curves and also has lots of roots that would present a technical challenge on a bike:

For my money, however, what really sticks out about the Indian Trail is the beauty through which it travels. Clocking in at just under one mile, its entire course ranks as the single prettiest stretch of trail I have seen in Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve:

The Indian Trail ends at what I originally presumed was the Main Trail. However, after turning left thinking it would take me back to where I began the Indian, I came to a sign that told me I was not on the Main Trail but rather on a shared section of the Grandpa and Palmetto Trails. Following my nose, I kept turning left and stuck with the Grandpa when it and the Palmetto diverged, because I remembered having seen a junction with the Grandpa earlier in the day. It is an attractive path and in many places resembles a tunnel through palmettos:

After three-quarters of a mile the Grandpa finally intersects the Main Trail at signpost 10. From there, a left turn on the Main leads 1.3 miles back to Hole in the Fence Trailhead, while a right turn takes you approximately 2.7 miles to Morris Bridge Park. Alternately, you can shave about 0.4 miles off your return to Hole in the Fence by going straight and remaining on the Grandpa until it intersects the Main Trail at another point further west.

You should know this about your return to Hole in the Fence: Shortly after going back past the intersection with the mountain biker’s route, the Main Trail forks and the signpost clearly indicates that you may go either direction and both are considered parts of the Main Trail (I assume the forks re-converge later on). However, a subsequent sign along the left fork reads “one way do not enter.” Feel free to ignore that sign and stay on the left fork – it is the one you came in on, is the wider of the two, and people are always going both ways on it.

To reach Hole in the Fence, turn east onto Fletcher Avenue from I-75. It is on the right, less than a mile from the interstate, and you can’t miss it because it has a big sign proclaiming that it is for hikers and bikers.

Happy Trails!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Manatee Center

I know, I know. A walk that is less than half a mile roundtrip and can be done in flip flops does not deserve to be called a hike. Especially when you can expect to see 100 other people and it is in the shadow of a power plant:

But when the walk is guaranteed to provide multiple wildlife sightings -- of both terrestrial and aquatic creatures, with some weighing more than half a ton -- it definitely deserves a mention on a hiking blog. Those of you who have trudged for miles through mountainous terrain hoping to see bears, only to encounter nothing but sparrows, know what I mean.

The walk I am writing about today is waiting for you next to TECO’s Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach. To cool its generating units, Big Bend takes water in from Tampa Bay and then discharges it into a wide canal so it can flow back to sea. Having gone through the plant, water in the canal is warmer than water in the bay and manatees have figured out that this makes the canal a perfect place to hang out during the winter:

It has been reported that as many as 300 manatees have been counted here at a single time, and perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. Their digestive tracts start shutting down and mortality rates start climbing when water temps drop below 68 degrees, so for them, the canal can literally be the difference between life and death.

Once it became obvious that manatees were a winter definite, TECO constructed a viewing platform in 1986:

In the quarter century since then, additions have been made and the platform has evolved into what is now called The Manatee Center. It includes a butterfly garden; environmental education building; gift shop; concession stand; and picnic tables.

Plus, it includes the Tidal Walk: a 900-foot pathway along the canal’s southern edge. The walk begins on the opposite side of the educational building from the viewing platform. Elevated for its entire route, it slips through a strip of mangrove forest and ends on a dock facing toward the open waters of Tampa Bay:

Manatees require not only warm water, but clean water, and therefore the canal and its shore support a plethora of wildlife. You will see animals galore not only from the platform and Tidal Walk, but also on the short walk between the two. This picture of a yellow-crowned night heron was taken on that “walk between”:

This one of fiddler crabs was taken from the Tidal Walk:

Along the Tidal Walk I have seen not only manatees and crabs, but sharks and dolphins as well, so keep your eyes out for them. And while you’re at it you are sure to notice that pelicans are ubiquitous:

The Manatee Center is open from November 1st to April 15th, and it is free. To reach it, take exit 246 from I-75 in southern Hillsborough County, then drive west for 2½ miles to the intersection of Big Bend and Dickman roads and follow the signs.

Happy Trails!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

LHW: Morris Bridge

The Hillsborough River forked, as it is wont to do downstream from the state park that bears its name. The wide branch went to the east while the skinny one went to the west:

Eventually those branches re-converge, but all that really mattered to me that morning was this: The parts of Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve that can be accessed from where I was standing, in Morris Bridge Park, are among the most interesting our area has to offer.

Morris Bridge Park is one of several separately named sections of the preserve. At 106 acres, it is far from the biggest and accounts for less than seven-tenths of one percent of the total acreage, but who cares? Those 106 acres are lovely, and the Main Trail, which passes through them, leads you out into the preserve’s wide “unincorporated” reaches.

To reach the park, drive 3.8 miles east of I-75 on Fletcher Avenue, which becomes Morris Bridge Road along the way. The sign for the park is on the left side of the road, but there are parking lots on both sides. It doesn’t matter which one you choose because they are linked by a boardwalk underneath Morris Bridge; however, you may want to know that the bathrooms are on the left.

From the left-side parking lot it is easy to spot the arching footbridge that marks one of two trailheads on that side of the road. It crosses the skinny branch of the river and deposits you on a boardwalk, over on the island which results from it forking. The boardwalk offers several good river views while taking you on a quarter-mile loop through the woods:

The other trail on this side is an earthen one called the Buteo Trail, which totals a half-mile and loops through the forest on the “mainland side” of the skinny branch. To reach it, walk along the entry road back toward the spot where you turned off of Morris Bridge Road. The trailhead is obvious and marked by the sign/map pictured below. The Buteo Trail is “self-guided” in that it has 19 numbered posts identifying various sights; you can find out what each post is about by taking a brochure from the dispenser at the trailhead.

As attractive as everything is on the left side of the road, the right side is where your thirst for exploring is most likely to be sated. Near the sheltered picnic tables on that side is the beginning of the Bald Cypress Trail: a 1½-mile lollipop loop that tracks along the river bank for part of the way and slips away from it, into the riverine forest, for the rest. I suspect you would find much of this trail to be under water if you visited during the rainy season:

When Sarah and I were here a few weeks ago, we did not complete the entirety of the Bald Cypress Trail because she started complaining of hunger and about mosquitoes, and I couldn’t deny that it was about time for her to eat. So we made our way back to those picnic tables and scarfed down some of the contents of my backpack.

Then she mentioned that she wanted to hike the other trail that departs from this side. The signs said it would lead to a river overlook after one mile. Being an outdoorsman at heart, I figured that when a seven-year-old identifies a part of the outdoors she wants to explore, you don’t discourage her, so off we went.

The trail in question was actually a segment of the Main Trail, which I mentioned above and in my previous post. On this day we followed it south from the parking lot and it soon turned east into a palmetto field. We had gone a little more than a half-mile when we reached an intersection from which the Main Trail turns south; the Heartbreak Ridge Trail goes east; and an unnamed side trail goes north to the overlook.

Obviously we turned north (left) and went along on our merry way. We were now out of the palmettos and into a forest where you could not look in any direction without seeing water. The trail was wide enough to drive a car on and perched just above its surroundings, almost like an abandoned railroad route, to keep it dry:

Sarah thoroughly enjoyed the overlook where it dead-ended:

On our way back to the car we encountered a box turtle crossing the path:

Sarah decided to “help” it cross, and after picking it up and turning it over she announced that she had never known what a turtle’s belly looks like. She asked me to take a picture of her holding it, with its belly on display, and I obliged:

We noticed something else interesting on our return -- topography! Glancing off at an angle, we saw the ground rise visibly in what resembled a small Indian mound, and we set off to climb it. It was no more than 10 feet from bottom to top, but in Florida you take what you can get:

I was surprised to find that this hill did not simply drop down on the other side. Instead it continued in an elongated, ridge-like manner, and Sarah skipped along it happy as a clam:

Morris Bridge Park is an entry point to a world you should be sure to see. Happy Trails!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

LHW: Flatwoods from the south

The word “primeval” occurred to me when I took a step and felt the carpet of leaves press ever so slightly into the muck below. The ground was spongy even though we were a half-mile from the river and it had been a long time since the last significant rain.

Not that I should have been surprised. After all, we were in the subtropics and walking through what is known as a floodplain forest. Realizing it probably wasn’t a good idea to have left the marked trail with my seven-year-old daughter in tow, I guided Sarah back to the footbridge from which we had hopped down into this gully (creek bed?) and we resumed our original course.

My previous post detailed a hike I took after driving into the Flatwoods Park section of Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve. On this day, however, I chose to enter Flatwoods on foot, by hiking the Main Trail from farther south in the preserve.

The Main Trail winds 20 miles through Lower Hillsborough Wilderness and along its route links up with many other trails. Sarah and I stepped onto it at the spot where it departs from the west shoulder of Morris Bridge Road, just north of Morris Bridge itself. The spot is marked by this sign on the opposite side of the road:

From here the road runs southwest to northeast while the trail runs south to north, so the two depart from each other at a 45-degree angle. The floodplain forest, through which you travel early on, has a decidedly jungle-like appearance:

Because Lower Hillsborough Wilderness is a continuous preserve whose separately named sections are not partitioned, there is no way to tell when you officially enter Flatwoods Park out on the trail. Nonetheless, it is easy to tell when you enter the habitat for which it is named.

Here in Florida, mere inches of elevation change can drastically alter the landscape. On this portion of the Main Trail you will never get the sense that you have climbed, but you will definitely notice when you have left the floodplain forest and entered the flatwood forest. The former is damp, dark, and jungly, while the latter is dry and sunny. The former is marked by oaks and a variety of palms, while the latter is marked by pines and saw palmettos.

Rather than a carpet of leaves beside the trail, the flatwood offers up a carpet of pine needles. On the day we were there, it also offered up proof that wild hogs are common in the preserve. Check out these wallows that hogs made right on the trail:

A little more than a mile after departing Morris Bridge Road, the Main Trail reaches Flatwoods Park’s east road right at the spot where the road turns. Other than backtracking, your options are to go right and follow the road to the visitor center; go straight and follow it to its end, which is where I started the hike described in my previous post; or go left on a seven-mile paved trail from which you can access several more unpaved paths.

Because Sarah had to go to the bathroom and did not want to pee in the woods, we hoofed it to the visitor center. After she used the ladies room, we sat at a picnic table and ate some of the food that was stashed in my backpack. Along the roadside between the trail and the visitor center we saw some autumn foliage:

Walking with Sarah slowed me down because she kept stopping to look at tracks (both real and imagined) and she wanted to inspect every nook and cranny of the woods to figure out what animals live there. But I was not about to complain because it is awesome to see her enthused and curious about the outdoors. And it was adorable when she decided to fashion a palmetto frond into a natural parasol:

The Main Trail is easy to follow, partly because it is marked by numbered signposts. Along the portion we hiked are two side trails, one of which goes west and eventually intersects with the paved trail mentioned above. The other one goes south to points that are unknown to me.

Our slow pace, coupled with my knowledge that we were needed at home to help out with my five-month-old son, kept us from exploring the side trails that morning. But I (or we) will return and do that before long, and you can expect a report when that happens.

The reach the trailhead we used, take I-75 to the Fletcher Avenue exit and drive east for four miles. Physically, there is nothing to prevent you from simply parking on the roadside and stepping onto the trail, but I suspect that as far as the county is concerned, you are supposed to park at Morris Bridge Park and walk along the road to the trailhead. That way you are prompted to fork over the $2 fee at the pay center in the parking lot.

Morris Bridge Park is located just before Morris Bridge with parking lots on both sides of the road. You will have to walk across the bridge, whose shoulder is amply wide, and from there it is 0.2 miles to the trailhead.

Happy Trails!

Monday, November 21, 2011

LHW: Flatwoods from the east

Of all the regions in Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve, Flatwoods Park is the best known and most visited. And as I alluded in my previous post, this is largely because it contains a seven-mile paved trail that attracts droves of joggers, bicyclists, and in-line skaters. However, the overwhelming majority of those visitors never step off the pavement to venture onto the earthen routes which I consider to be “the true Flatwoods” -- and which I set off to experience when temperatures dipped into the forties a couple weekends ago.

Rather than accessing Flatwoods from its popular western entrance on Bruce B. Downs, I chose to use the isolated eastern entrance on Morris Bridge Road. After driving to the end of the park’s east road, 0.8 miles past the visitor center, I stepped onto the trail pictured below. As if to demonstrate that the word “wetlands” applies to much of the forest through here, that structure you see is one of several covered footbridges across areas that usually have standing water.

Although a sign at the beginning of the trail says it leads 0.4 miles to a trailhead and another sign along the way says you are 0.1 miles from an interpretive center, I never encountered anything that qualifies as either. The trail ends at a T intersection with another one, at which point there is no signage to tell you what lies in either direction. I arbitrarily decided to go left, and as you can see, the second trail is wide enough that “dirt road” might be a more apt description:

This trail proved interesting because it follows a line of separation between two ecosystems. To my left was the hardwood forest from which I had just emerged, where the tree canopy is dense and the underbrush sparse -- while to my right was a pine flatwoods habitat, where the canopy is sparse and the underbrush dense:

Six minutes later I came to a narrow, unsigned path that slips into the flatwoods. I followed it to its end, then backtracked off of it and resumed my course until I came to these blazing stars:

While crouched down to photograph them, I heard the sound of something big moving nearby, and a moment later a deer bolted across the trail from left to right.

Shortly after again resuming my walk, I saw a buck and doe standing in the hardwood forest to my left, only twenty or so feet away. When I made eye contact with the buck, the two of them ran deeper into the forest and disappeared.

Seconds later I heard a sound, glanced right, and saw a fourth deer bounding away into the flatwoods with its tail held aloft.

Before long another wide trail branched off to the right. After turning onto it and walking for three minutes, I came to a well house where I again went right. The next landmark was a T intersection where I turned right yet again. Eventually the next trail’s direction shifted ever so slightly into the sun and the glare whited out my vision...and right after moving forward a few steps to escape the glare, I saw a large animal that I believe was a coyote. At first I thought it was another deer, but in the blink of an eye it took for it to turn and flee into the woods, I noticed its tail was long and held outward (unlike a deer’s, which is short and held up when it runs).

Anyone who has seen a moving creature for a mere fraction of a second and tried to figure out what it was in hindsight, knows about the confusion and second-guessing that are caused by such encounters. On the one hand, coyote are nowhere near as tall as deer so I wondered how I could have mistaken one for the other…but on the other hand, that tail definitely did not belong to a deer so it must have been a coyote’s…or maybe it actually was a deer’s and I “misperceived” its length and position because everything happened so fast…or maybe it belonged to some other wild animal I was forgetting about…or maybe it was just a big stray dog that happened to wander out here into the backwoods.

I walked forward hoping to get a glimpse of the creature off to the side of the trail, but there was no glimpse to be had. I did see tracks, however, and they resembled the illustrations of coyote prints in my Audubon Society field guide -- except that I couldn’t make out any claw marks in front of the toe pads. Maybe some knowledgeable reader can help me out with this one?

In any event, my wildlife encounters continued before I even moved from that spot, because when I stood up from looking at the tracks and turned around, I was treated to the sight of a bald eagle gliding just over the tops of the pines. Unfortunately, it was out of sight before I could take a picture.

I made my way back to the car, and just so you know, I continued past the first T intersection for several minutes to see if I could find that alleged interpretive center. For the record, I found nothin’ but wasn’t bothered by it because the sky was blue and the temperature was cool and I enjoyed being outside.

To reach the eastern entrance of Flatwoods, take I-75 to the Fletcher Avenue exit then head east for 5.3 miles, by which time Fletcher has become Morris Bridge Road. The entrance is on the left and you can’t miss it.

Also, be aware that you need to pay a $2 fee because this is a county park. It is an honors system by which you stop at the kiosk in the visitor center parking lot; put your money in one of the provided envelopes; detach the hang tag from the envelope, and hang it from your rear view mirror.

And lastly, be aware that of all the trails mentioned in this post, the only one with any signage is that first one that starts at the end of the road.

Happy Trails!