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!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lower Hillsborough Wilderness

Adjacent to Hillsborough River State Park -- and four times its size -- sprawls a wild land whose very presence is a surprise to most people. Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve (LHW) encompasses almost all of the land between U.S. 301 and New Tampa east of I-75. Morris Bridge Road bisects it and is where you will find seven of its twelve entry points.

The Hillsborough River flows through the preserve, as do several major tributaries that empty into it here. These include Trout Creek, Cow House Creek, Two Hole Branch, and the Dead River, just to name a few.

This is a county park that was once known simply as Wilderness Park. And interestingly, while very few people know of it as a whole, many do know about certain sections of it. This is because some sections have their own names and signage and have gained a reputation for specific activities...For instance, Flatwoods Park’s paved, seven-mile loop makes it popular with joggers, bicyclists, and skaters; while Morris Bridge Park is favored by paddlers because of its canoe launch.

Where hiking is concerned, more than 60 miles of trails wind through the preserve. They range from earthen paths to paved ones to boardwalks, making it clear that there is something here for every hiker to enjoy.

In the coming weeks and months I will write about a number of specific hikes here, and I humbly suggest relying on my descriptions instead of the trail map. Although the map does do a decent job showing where the preserve’s entry points are, it does a frankly terrible one showing the routes and intersections (and in some cases, even the presence) of the trails themselves.

Maybe that is a problem of ownership, because although LHW is run by Hillsborough County, it is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District -- and as you may recall, my last post about a district property also noted major map errors.

Fortunately, I promise to steer you right! Please stay tuned…

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Violet Cury

You know the old saying about not noticing something that is right under your nose? It can easily be applied to Violet Cury Nature Preserve.

Despite being only a one minute drive from the intersection of Bearss and Bruce B. Downs, and only 2¼ miles from the bustling campus of USF, Violet Cury is unknown even to most residents who pride themselves on being outdoorsy. It was acquired by Hillsborough County in 1995 and opened to the public in 2000, after Jeff Zwolenski directed the routing of trails through it as part of an Eagle Scout project.

I visited early Sunday when the temperature was a perfect 58 degrees, and spent 90 minutes snapping pictures while strolling the paths. The preserve’s oak-pine woods were lovely and the decomposing of its dead trees surprisingly scenic:

This place has an interesting way of putting things into perspective, like how much life can exist on a piece of land, and how large a particular piece of land is even if the figure you hear doesn’t sound large.

Violet Cury consists of 160 acres, and on the one hand that does sound big. It is the same amount homesteaders got for pulling up stakes in the Oklahoma land rush, and it is easy to visualize herds of cattle being reared on a ranch that size…But on the other hand, 160 acres does not seem all that big when you try to visualize it as a preserve traversed by trails and sustaining hundreds of varieties of plants and animals. It is especially hard to visualize it in that context when you are told that the 160 acres are surrounded on all sides by varying degrees of development, as is the case with Violet Cury.

However, a walk through here will show you that 160 acres is indeed significant. Violet Cury contains multiple habitats plus a named body of water, Lake Flynn. When its forests surround you there is no doubt you are in Nature’s domain, and the nearby city and next-door suburbs suddenly seem a world away.

Another thing Violet Cuty puts into perspective is how much beauty goes unnoticed simply because people fail to look. This picture, which I took from the preserve’s entrance, shows that an old neighborhood sits right across the street:

There is no parking lot or grand gateway at the entrance, only a modest sign and this walk-through opening in the fence:

And inside that opening it is only 62 steps to the spot pictured below, which I believe to be a shallow sinkhole reclaimed by plant life. On Sunday its far end was filled with blooming flowers; on my only previous visit, back in 2007, it held standing water from recent rains and there were egrets and ibis milling around it. But my point is, of all those people who live right across the street and all those who drive by the entrance every day, how many have no idea that this sight exists a mere 62 steps away?

A similar thought went through my mind at the spot where I took the next two photos. I looked west and took the one of the pond, then looked east and took the one in which you can see two houses in the distance, obviously by the preserve’s boundary. Surely the owners of those houses gaze into the preserve and appreciate that they don’t have noisy neighbors behind them, but I wondered: Do they appreciate the beauty by which they live? Do they ever start a morning by walking through the preserve? Have they ever brought a fishing pole to this pond to kill some time? Do they realize that bass must be lurking beneath those lily pads? For their sake, and their children’s, I hope the answer to each of those questions is yes.

Clearly, I am a big fan of Violet Cury. It is an excellent place to spend a morning and will surely open your eyes to how much natural space exists in our area. But unless you plan on standing still for a long time or taking a nap, you will not be here all day. 160 acres is significant, to use my word, but nowhere near boundless; and by my calculations the trails total just 2.35 miles. This is the kind of place where you can take your time soaking up the scenery and smelling the proverbial roses, yet still be home well before lunch.

If you like viewing wildlife, there are many species to be on the lookout for. Among those catalogued in the preserve are fox squirrels, gopher tortoises, and pinewoods tree frogs. On Sunday all I saw were gray squirrels scurrying along branches; but on that 2007 visit I mentioned earlier, I had my all-time closest encounter with coyotes, when I happened upon one standing in the middle of the trail who was soon joined by another. They faced me head on for what was probably only two or three seconds, but felt like five or six minutes, before they finally dashed off into the woods.

To reach Violet Cury’s entrance, turn west onto Sinclair Hills Road from Livingston Avenue and drive a half-mile, or east onto it from Nebraska Avenue and drive six-tenths of a mile. There is an alternate entrance at the north end of North 15th Street.

In closing, below is a picture from Sunday of what passed for fall color. Hey, what Central Florida lacks in changing leaves, it at least makes up for with late blooming flowers!

Happy Trails!