With Tucker Hill Fire Tower looming behind me, the sign at the trailhead presented two options: Turn right to head south or left, across the limestone road, to head north. I chose the former, and saw a rabbit sitting in the middle of the trail as soon as I turned onto it. A couple minutes later I encountered two deer who were also in the middle of the trail, and after eyeing me for a few seconds, they sauntered away without displaying any distress about my presence.
My southward course was chosen only because I wanted to be alone and had seen a group of people start walking north when I parked my car. However, I was inexplicably more curious about what lie to the north than what lie to the south, so after 30 minutes or so I turned around and backtracked -- and found myself on topographically appealing terrain immediately after crossing the road. The trail descended through hardwood forest and passed through dense undergrowth before emerging in a relatively open forest of pine:
So went my introduction, in April 2006, to the interwoven A-B-C loop trails in the Croom Tract of
I have returned many times in the years since, and trust me when I say that
whatever they lack in the way of imaginative naming, they more than make up for
by leading into some of the wildest backcountry in Central Florida. Withlacoochee State Forest
Totaling 14.7 miles, the Exterior Loop resembles an immense cookie whose edges are irregular and southeastern quarter is bitten off. Roughly one-third of the way “up the cookie,” at is narrowest point, a 1¼-mile trail called the B-C Connector bisects it from one end to the other. At another relatively narrow point, roughly two-thirds of the way up, it is bisected once more by a 2¾-mile path called the A-B Connector. These trails subdivide the Exterior Loop into three interior ones, and you can get a sense of the layout by looking at the trail map:
The so-called A Loop encompasses the entire A-B Connector, plus the northern arc of the Exterior Loop above it, for a total of seven miles not including the 0.2-mile approach hike…Meanwhile, the C Loop encompasses the B-C Connector plus the southern arc below, for a total of six miles not including the mile-long approach…And lastly, across the middle of it all is the 9.9-mile B Loop. It incorporates the A-B Connector as its northern border and B-C as its southern, linked together by part of the Exterior Loop’s western flank and a goodly chunk of its eastern one.
With mileage that allows you to log many hours on the trail and geology that allows you to see many habitats, it is hard to imagine a better trail existing in the Tampa Bay Area. Spend time here and you will witness the gamut from tall hills to low bogs, like the one pictured below. There are even a few modest ravines and reforested quarries.
Trees include everything from water-loving cypress to dryland pines, from long-boughed oaks to cone-shaped cedars. A few orange trees grow in scattered places throughout the woods, so if you hike here when they are bearing fruit (usually from November to February) you might be able to pluck a snack right from their limbs.
The understory teems as if refusing to be overshadowed by the canopy. One Labor Day weekend I walked into a thicket filled with blossoms that resembled wild orchids. Lantana blooms almost all year and is a favorite food source of the hummingbirds that reside here in spring and summer. And it seems like every songbird on earth enjoys feasting on the forest’s endless bounty of beautyberries:
Though there are rises and falls all throughout the loop, there is no denying that its northern half is the hilliest and its southern half provides the longest stretches of level land. You will find the tallest hills along the Exterior Loop’s northernmost stretch, and while hiking there you are sure to notice that the hills on the approach are continuous even if they’re not very high or steep. Spending time on this half of the loop, whether on the exterior or the A-B Connector, means you are always on or surrounded by some level of vertical relief:
The exterior route is marked by rectangular orange blazes and the connectors by rectangular blue blazes. These serve as important navigational aids since the loop is intersected multiple times by slender bike trails and also by dirt roads, a.k.a. “forest roads,” which I assume are there so rangers can access the backwoods without having to do so on foot. It is tempting to use the forest roads as alternate hiking trails, but if you do so, be aware that they are not quite as straight as they appear on the trail map, and therefore it is easier than you might think to become marginally lost.
There are two trailheads from which the loop can be accessed directly, both of which are on
Croom Road. The western
one, Tucker Hill Trailhead, is also the most conspicuous because of its large
parking area, picnic tables, full-service restrooms, and fire tower:
To reach Tucker Hill from Brooksville, drive north on U.S. 41, turn right on
Croom Road and continue for two miles. To
reach it from practically everywhere else in the Bay Area, drive north on I-75
to exit 301, go east on State Road 50 for approximately one mile, then turn
left on Croom Rital Road; four miles later you will pass the entrance to Silver
Lake Recreation Area on your right, and eventually you will come to the
trailhead several miles beyond that,
after the road has turned west and changed from pavement to limestone and switched its
name to just Croom. There is an unmanned pay station where you are expected to
deposit a $2 day use fee, or $10 overnight fee if you plan on going backpacking
and staying at one of the trail’s two primitive camping zones.
On the other hand, the eastern trailhead is located shortly after
Rital Road turns west and changes its name. There
are no facilities there, but then again, there is also no pay station. Because
this trailhead is not specifically marked, be sure to keep an eye out for the
small Florida Trail signs that appear on each side of the road where the path
I have enjoyed these loops many times by myself, and twice in the past few months have brought Sarah out to introduce her to them as well -- so obviously, I encourage everyone to do the same whether alone or with friends and family. Go here for a downloadable copy of the map. Happy Trails!