Thursday, September 1, 2011

Brooker Creek Headwaters

It is important to say that Brooker Creek Headwaters Preserve is not the same place as Brooker Creek Preserve. The latter is well-known because it receives a lot of press, but when it comes to the former, the only people who seem to know about it are a handful of the ones who live in its immediate vicinity.

Located in northwestern Hillsborough County, Brooker Creek Headwaters Preserve occupies an 1,100-acre tract between Gunn Highway and the Suncoast Parkway, stretching north from Van Dyke Road to Lutz Lake Fern Road. As its name suggests, it was set aside to protect the wetlands that feed what eventually becomes Brooker Creek.

Do not let the preserve’s name and purpose mislead you into assuming that it is one hundred percent wetlands, for nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it contains some hardwood swamp, but it also has oak forests, pine flatwoods, and tall-grass prairies.

There are five roadside entrances to Brooker Creek Headwaters, but only two of them have parking: One on Lutz Lake Fern and the other on Ramblewood Road, which is the first right turn off of Van Dyke when heading west from the Suncoast. I recommend entering from Ramblewood because you will be plunged straight into woods from which no civilization can be seen. If you use the Lutz Lake Fern entrance, you will find that part of the first trail segment tracks right beside the preserve boundary that backs up to a neighborhood, meaning that for several minutes you will walk with woods to your left and backyards to your right.

No less than 5½ miles of interconnected trails traverse the interior of Brooker Creek Headwaters. These are not trails in the traditional sense of narrow footpaths crowded by vegetation -- rather, they are unpaved Jeep roads that vehicles can not access, thanks to locked gates at the entry points.

Generally speaking, the center of the tract has most of the open, prairie-like terrain, whose soft earth I find especially amenable to trail running. That terrain is encircled by a variety of forest types extending to the boundaries. Damp spots are found intermittently through all of the forests, but more so in the eastern parts of the preserve than in the western. Palmetto, joined by longleaf pine, is common in the southwestern quarter, while a mixture of oaks and deciduous trees dominates the southeast.

Bird lovers might be interested to know that I have seen many kestrels in the southwestern quarter. Only seven to eight inches long, kestrels rank as North America’s smallest bird of prey and feed mostly on lizards, mice, and locusts. Some people refer to them as sparrow hawks, but in reality, they are a kind of falcon.

Brooker Creek Headwaters is a fine place to spend a couple hours outside, and to be satisfied that you are experiencing a piece of the Tampa Bay area that few others know about. Having said that, you might not be entirely alone for the whole time you are here, for in addition to backing up to a neighborhood near the Lutz Lake Fern entrance, Brooker Creek Headwaters is very close to Cheval, and some knowledgeable residents of these communities make sure to experience this place. On a visit last winter I saw what I thought was a gigantic wild hog move off of the trail, but when I got a few steps closer I realized it was an Irish wolfhound. When I returned a couple weeks later, I saw the same wolfhound being walked by its owners, who had an additional four dogs in tow.

A printable trail map can be found here, or you can pick one up from the information kiosk at the Ramblewood entrance. The maps are generally reliable, but be aware that they are not one hundred percent accurate because there are a few trails which do not appear on them. If you turn onto one of those trails you could find yourself scratching your head for a bit; but fortunately, given the preserve’s trail density, trail signage, and location, you will not be lost long if that happens.

As Roy Rogers once sang: Happy Trails!