Friday, November 30, 2012

Croom: The River Trail

If the Bay Area’s weather is like a broken record, with heat and storms dragging it down rather than skips and scratches, then Thanksgiving weekend was that spot where the needle drops right into the groove and generates glorious music.

With overnight lows in the forties and fifties…and even some thirties in the usual cold spots around Brooksville…and daytime highs in the seventies…and the sky a cloudless arc of robin’s egg blue…it would have felt criminal not to be outside:

So on Sunday I rounded out the weekend by putting Parker in the car and driving us to Croom. Parker is 17 months old and with Erika and Sarah enjoying a Mommy-Daughter Day, it seemed right to take him hiking for a Daddy-Son Day. He is usually happiest when he is outdoors, and Sunday was no exception:

When I closed my November 19th piece by saying I expected to post my first review “of specific hikes in Croom…by the end of this month,” what I had in mind was for the first review to be about the massive loop that is accessed by a few trailheads in the northwestern quarter of the preserve. After all, I have walked on that loop about 15 times and could probably write about it in my sleep. It’s just that those visits were all before I started this blog, so I never bothered to take many pictures during them, and therefore I wanted to go back and snap some more before publishing anything.

However, during a Saturday bike ride I saw something in Croom’s far south that captured my attention. While standing near the restrooms at the Withlacoochee State Trail’s Ridge Manor Trailhead, I looked across a meadow strewn with pine straw and noticed a signboard on the opposite side. It is easy to miss because it does not face the trailhead directly. With my curiosity piqued, I walked across the meadow and when I got there found an opening in a fence next to the following sign:

That piqued my curiosity even more, so it is where I went with Parker on Sunday. Based on my general knowledge of the area, I figured that the trail would reach the Withlacoochee River in a not-too-long distance and perhaps follow it north along its western bank. Since toddlers slow down any hike on which they themselves are walking, I placed Parker in our jogging stroller and off we went.

The River Trail’s opening stretch slips through a stand of young longleaf pines. Their presence tells me that a tree farm once stood here, and that these trees were its final planting:

Before long the pines thin out and are joined by other flora, with a more natural appearance taking over. The terrain in this section of Croom is nowhere near as hilly as it is to the north and west, but it is also not pancake-flat. It is obvious you are at a high point when you emerge into this big field that is dotted with scrubby oaks and mature longleafs:

As I entered the field, I thought to myself that it was perfect habitat for gopher tortoises and wondered if one would show himself. No more than two minutes later, this fella obliged:

In the middle, a blue-blazed side trail called the Windmill Loop branches off to the left, but Parker and I stayed on the River Trail, which is marked by orange blazes. After taking you across the field, the River Trail penetrates the tree line and heads downhill, which is where things got dicey for us because wild boar had recently scoured this section of woods and left behind wallows that covered the trail off and on for some distance. Pushing the stroller through those wallows felt like mogul skiing because we were greeted at each step by a jarring bump -- and on top of that, instead of continuing to move after each bump, we were often brought to a stop because the stroller’s tires kept getting mired in the tossed earth.

So I decided to abandon the stroller and soldier on by carrying my little guy. However, after we made it beyond the wallows he started squirming in my arms and insisting on being let down to handle his own ambulation. When I consented, he engaged in a little bit of true forward progress:

And a whole lot of stopping and turning around. Plus, he kept pausing to lift and inspect whatever he found on the forest floor:

It became apparent that Parker and I would not reach the river in good time, nor would we reach it with anything resembling mutual satisfaction, so finally I scooped him up and sprinted back to the stroller. Once he was strapped in, I pushed him back to the beginning of the trail and let him run around in that original meadow.

Therefore, I can not give you a blow-by-blow account of everything that awaits you on the River Trail. However, I can tell you that according to the map posted on the signboard, the trail is more than five miles one-way and ends near the campgrounds in Croom’s Silver Lake Recreation Area. I can also tell you that it does come to the Withlacoochee River like I expected, then follows it north like I hoped.

And regarding that blue-blazed side trail called the Windmill Loop, the map on the signboard shows it being a straight-line short-cut rather than an actual loop. From the spot where it and the River Trail diverge, it tracks east-northeast while the River Trail tracks south before curving east to meet the river. At some point after the River Trail begins its northward route, the Windmill comes to an end by emptying back onto it, and therefore the two paths can be used to create a loop I estimate would be about 3½ miles long.

To get here, take exit 301 from I-75, drive east for one mile, and turn left on Croom Rital Road. The Ridge Manor Trailhead is obvious. Simply walk across the meadow that lies beyond the restrooms and picnic tables, and you will find the start of the River Trail waiting for you. Happy Trails!

Monday, November 19, 2012


I don’t take it lightly when I say that the Croom Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest is arguably the crème dela crème of our area’s wilderness.

Sprawling mostly across the eastern reaches of Hernando County, it sits within a microclimate that is notably colder than the rest of the Tampa Bay area. Winter temperatures frequently drop into the thirties and sometimes the twenties. The Withlacoochee River flows through Croom and takes on a spectral appearance when vapor drifts over its surface on those freezing winter morns:

But the cold does not stop the land from erupting with wildflowers in February:

Croom encompasses a smorgasbord of landscapes, from flat cypress heads beside the river to hilly uplands away from it. Marshes fill some of the "non-cypress lowlands" while a mixture of hard- and softwood forests covers the hills.

These landscapes offer a stunning variety of recreational opportunities from which to choose, including more than 30 miles of hiking trails and 50 miles of mountain biking trails -- and that does not include the multi-use Withlacoochee State Trail, a portion of which passes through Croom. Within the tract you will find two named recreation areas; four developed campgrounds; two backcountry campsites you must hike to; and two more you must paddle to. Plus, there is a 2,600-acre area set aside for ATV’s and motorized dirt bikes, and at least three designated spots from which to launch a canoe or kayak into the river.

No matter what recreational endeavors you pursue, be on the lookout for scenes of nature both big and small. You are sure to be impressed by how tall the magnolias grow here, but don’t let that stop you from noticing the small bunches of grapes that ripen in late summer:

All manner of wildlife can be viewed in Croom. Although I have hiked in many states across America, this is the only place I have ever seen a bobcat in the wild. When it comes to birds I have seen everything from the heftiest to the tiniest, since bald eagles make themselves visible year-round and ruby-throated hummingbirds make themselves visible in spring and summer. Canoers should keep their eyes peeled for otters frolicking in the river.

What really stands out, however, are the woodpeckers. I have never come here without seeing some, and over my years of hiking here I have encountered every single species known to live in Florida. Even the rare red cockaded woodpecker has a stronghold in the tract’s pinelands.

Like I alluded back in September, as this hiking season unfolds I will intermittently post reviews of specific hikes in Croom. The first of those reviews should be up by the end of this month, so please say tuned. However, if you can’t wait until then to check out the tract, just make your way to Croom Rital Road, which is the most conveniently located place for entering the tract. Turning north from State Road 50 about a mile east of I-75, it leads to main trailheads at Silver Lake Recreation Area, which is almost four miles from State Road 50, and Tucker Hill Fire Tower, almost six miles past that. And between them are several well-marked spots where paths cross the road. Happy Trails!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Withlacoochee State Trail

For those who love spending time outside, the rails-to-trails movement is one of the most positive developments of the last quarter century. And fortunately for us, our region is home to one of that movement’s crowning achievements.

The Withlacoochee State Trail starts in Pasco County and runs north all the way through Hernando County, continuing into Citrus County before coming to an end after 46 miles. Bicyclists are its most common users, seeing as how it is twelve feet wide and paved with a mixture of asphalt and recycled tire rubber, but hikers should also make a point to get out and enjoy it. One of the trail’s main assets is that it takes you through every aspect of rural Florida -- not just deep woods, but also the open, rolling countryside that is home to cattle ranches and small towns:

The beginning is in Trilby, a Faulkneresque dot on the map (population 419) where the trail passes beside this quaint post office:

After about five miles the Withlacoochee utilizes the bridge pictured below to cross over State Road 50. On the opposite side sits the extremely popular Ridge Manor Trailhead.

Three miles further north, the trail passes the entrance to Silver Lake Recreation Area and proceeds to enter the Croom Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest. Many users consider Croom to be the prettiest and most tranquil section of the entire trail. Here are a couple pictures I took while walking there last Sunday:

Wildlife viewing can be very productive on the Withlacoochee. In the morning, late afternoon, and evening it is common to see deer munching on trailside grass, and in spring and summer it is almost impossible to spend any time here without seeing swallow-tailed kites soaring overhead. Back in 2003, I incorporated Withlacoochee walks into my recovery from surgery, and on almost every visit during that time, I saw the same barred owl perched in one tree or another just north of the Ridge Manor Trailhead.

Trailside amenities, which include covered picnic tables and clean restroom facilities, are another positive feature of the Withlacoochee. Most people will agree that relieving one’s self in the brush is much less ideal than doing so in here:

I have not walked the trail’s farthest miles north of Hernando, i.e., the ones that extend beyond what most people would consider the Tampa Bay area. Those miles are surely worth experiencing, but from what I understand, some of them run fairly close to U.S. 41 and therefore might not seem as wild as the Pasco and Hernando sections. It is also worth noting that the northernmost miles pass through the towns of Istachatta, Floral City, Inverness, and Citrus Springs. An alluring sign in the woods just south of Floral City states: “Shamrock Inn – Good Food – Cold Beer – Next Left.”

To reach the Withlacoochee’s southernmost access points, take exit 293 from I-75 and drive east for 2.6 miles. Then, turn left onto Pasco County Road 575 and continue six miles to Trilby. This route is so winding and hilly you might find yourself wondering if you got transported to Northern Georgia or Western Maryland or some other non-Florida locale.

In Trilby, there is parking for a few vehicles at the spot where the trail crosses the road next to the post office pictured above, about a mile north of the trail’s actual beginning. If you want to start from the actual beginning, keep driving past the post office, turn right at the flashing light, and continue until you see the trailhead on your right.

To reach the Ridge Manor Trailhead, take exit 301 from I-75, drive east for a mile on State Road 50, and turn left onto Croom Rital Road. The trailhead will be on your right and is very obvious because of its ample parking lot. FYI, its facilities are considerably more immaculate than those at the first two trailheads.

For what it’s worth, however, my personal favorite place to hop on the Withlacoochee is at a spot on Croom Rital Road several miles north of the Ridge Manor Trailhead. If you just keep driving, you will enter the borders of the state forest and come to my preferred trailhead at a spot where the road turns left and is crossed by the trail. There is parking for a few cars both before and after the crossing.

Happy Trails!

Update, 11/19/12: Less than two weeks ago the "facilities" at the trailhead by the Trilby post office consisted of a port-a-let. But yesterday, when I walked from there to the Ridge Manor Trailhead, the port-a-let was while Ridge Manor continues to be kind of a lap of luxury with flush toilets, hot water sinks, and multiple picnic tables, the Trilby post office trailhead has gone from being one of modest facilities to one of no facilities. I will let you know if that ever changes.