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!

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