Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Croom: More Hog Island

The last weekend of February felt like Spring, but the first weekend of March did not. Back-to-back cold fronts plunged temperatures far below normal for a full week, and more than once my front porch delighted me with greetings like this:

Invigorated by the chill, I put Parker in my car, pointed us back in the direction of Hog Island Recreation Area, and proceeded to enjoy the low temps every bit as much as the prior weekend’s warmth. The forest’s bright green foliage stood out on photographs, which is one never-gets-old benefit we get from cloudy skies letting only a small amount of light get through:

Soon after starting our hike we came to the following spot, beyond which the path forks with the yellow-blazed Hog Island Nature Trail (HINT) going left and the orange-blazed River Trail going right:

I went left for the simple reason that I had gone right the time before. I was eager to see what the HINT’s two-mile loop has to offer, and almost immediately it turned up this:

Taking you northeastward then west, it is not long before the trail crosses the recreation area’s dirt road. We saw an armadillo scurrying around shortly before the crossing and four does bounding through the woods shortly after it. Interestingly, the armadillo made much more noise than all of the deer combined.

A double-blaze is the universally recognized signal that a trail’s route is about to turn. If you walk the HINT counter-clockwise like I did, you will find that it forks immediately after the first double-blaze you encounter, and that it seems as if you should take the right fork (which actually goes straight) because it is so much wider. Ignore that instinct, however, and instead follow the blazes down the narrow, nondescript fork on the left. Eventually it takes you to the Withlacoochee River, which looked especially handsome when we trod down to its bank:

The trail passes several old sinkholes that now hold water and are ringed by botany. It feels wrong to call sinkholes attractive so soon after one right here in our area caused a tragic death that generated international news – but there is no denying that they do look attractive after being reclaimed by the forest:

It is important to pay close attention to the blazes while walking the HINT, for there are several places where its path is not particularly distinct from the rest of the forest floor. And there is a place where one 90-degree turn is followed very quickly by another.

Although this trail is usually called a loop, it should be noted that it is really a horseshoe. When you reach the spot where it ends, you will find yourself needing to walk a short ways down the dirt road to return to the spot where your hike began. It’s probably best to start from the trailhead at the canoe launch, which means going in the opposite direction than I did. That will allow you to pick up a key that tells you what is identified by the 27 numbered signposts along the way:

For directions to the trailhead I used, please visit the post to which I linked in the first sentence of this one. To reach my recommended trailhead at the canoe launch, just keep driving past the one I used and it will soon be obvious on your right. Happy Trails!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Croom: Hog Island

I knew I had chosen the right place for a hike when the following scene greeted me through my windshield:

I had just driven into Hog Island Recreation Area, which is located in the northern reaches of the Croom Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest. Hog Island itself is created by the Withlacoochee River forking as it flows north, with the two forks rejoining downstream.

Because the Withlacoochee ain’t exactly the Mississippi when it comes to width  and Hog Island is long enough that you can not see either of its ends unless you are right next to one  it does not appear to be an island when you look at it from one of the river’s “mainland banks.” Instead it seems like you are simply looking across an ordinary Florida stream, as you can tell from this picture that was taken at the canoe launch:

There are two hiking trails, both of which traverse the forestlands east of the river. Marked by orange blazes, the River Trail is part of the Florida National Scenic Trail and parallels the Withlacoochee for seven miles from north to south. The Hog Island Nature Trail is a two-mile loop marked by yellow blazes. After parking my car, I strapped my 20-month-old hiking partner in place before hoisting him onto my back to start our little adventure:

I was soon reminded that walking parallel to a river does not automatically equate to walking beside a river, for at no point did the River Trail offer us a view of the Withlacoochee. It did, however, take us beside a few wetlands:

At the outset, the trails share the same path that is buried beneath a carpet of leaves, making it especially important to pay attention to the blazes. Shortly after starting out, we came to a spot where the River Trail branches off to the right and the Hog Island Nature Trail branches off to the left. While I have no doubt that the latter is good, seeing as how it passes by large sinkholes and is part of the State Forest Trailwalker Program, I opted to save it for a later date since it was already afternoon.

Our hike took place last Saturday, and featured everything that makes Florida a wonderful place to be in late February: The temperature was a warm 82 degrees, but due to the lack of humidity I did not break a sweat even though I had a load on my back…Many of the trees, especially the maples, were erupting with new leaves bright and green...A hawk flew chest-high across the path no more than 15 feet in front me, followed moments later by a pileated woodpecker who did the same…If not for the calendar, you would have sworn it was Spring:

In a few places I had to navigate over or around fallen trees that presented barriers worthy of being mentioned. Here is the final and most cumbersome one we encountered:

Soon after clearing that barrier and following the trail past a boggy lowland, I discovered that this place comes by its name honestly. Spread out in front of us across a low hillside was a group of wild boars, including youths as well as adults and no doubt males as well as females. The young ones began running around, their hooves creating a noisy ruckus in the leaf carpet. The adults moved more slowly and warily, with the biggest of the bunch standing still and staring directly at me.

Deciding without a moment’s hesitation to cut our trip short, I took a few steps backward then turned on my heels and started moving swiftly in the direction whence we came. In the process, a hair trigger expletive escaped my mouth and I told Parker not to repeat it. Glancing back to make sure the boars were staying on the hill, I thought of how this was the second time in less than a year that a porcine presence hastened the end of one of my hikes. But oh well…there was plenty of woodland scenery to keep us happy on our return to the car, and that was an undoubtedly good thing:

Hog Island Recreation Area is located in the northernmost reaches of what can fairly be called the Tampa Bay Area. To get here, take I-75 to exit 309 (48 miles north of the I-4 junction) and turn west on County Road 476. When that road reaches a T intersection, turn left and continue 2.3 miles to County Road 635, where you will turn left and continue one mile before seeing the recreation area’s entrance on the right. After traveling a fairly short distance on the recreation area’s dirt road, you will see the trailhead’s parking area on the left, signed as the “Florida Trail.”

Interestingly enough, the seven-mile section of path on which we hiked last Saturday is not the only one in Croom that goes by the name River Trail. The other, which I have written about here and here, is in Croom’s far south where the preserve ends at the river instead of straddling it like it does up here.

The sprawling wilderness of this recreation area is not one you want to miss. Happy Trails!

Note: One paragraph has been removed from this post since it was originally published, because contrary to what I believed at the time, the Iron Bridge Day Use Area does not provide access to the Hog Island Nature Trail.  - JDS, 3/5/13

Monday, February 18, 2013

Upper Tampa Bay

Having already written one post about a place on Tampa Bay’s eastern shore and another about a place on its western shore, I have had it in mind to write about one on its northern shore, so recently I made my way to Upper Tampa Bay Park. Located a couple miles east of Oldsmar, it is just on the Hillsborough side of the Hillsborough-Pinellas county line.

I arrived on a cool morning with the sky alternating between gray and blue, and the breeze whipping up ripples on the water -- which is notable because northern parts of the bay tend to be smooth even when whitecaps are brewing elsewhere on its surface. This picture was taken at the end of the Eagle Trail:

Upper Tampa Bay Park has three trails, all named after animals you might encounter here. And while, yes, you should look up to see if any bald eagles are wheeling overhead, you should not forget to look down as well, for you are almost guaranteed to see fiddler crabs wherever it gets damp. In the first photo below you can see holes made by the crabs; in the second you can make out some of them swimming in the tidal creek, looking like scattered specks. Both photos were taken on the Bobcat Trail.

Meanwhile, the Otter Trail begins by using a short boardwalk to cross a saltwater marsh where cordgrass and needlerush grow. Then it takes you along a wide leisurely path beneath palm trees and stunted oaks, next to the shore. Though you can not tell from the next picture, sea water is nearby on your right and  meadows sit just beyond the palmettos on your left.

The Eagle Trail is the first one you will come to after entering the park, with the Bobcat and Otter Trails both beginning at the end of the mile-long park road. The Bobcat is the only one of the three that is a loop, and when I was there, part of it was closed for repairs due to having gotten washed out.

None of the trails are particularly long, but if you walk them all you will spend a substantial amount of time in the outdoors. You will have a good chance to see wildlife such as corn snakes and diamondback terrapins; and in addition to seeing coastal sights like those above, you will walk through inland forests like this one:

While Upper Tampa Bay Park is a fine place for adults, it is an excellent one for introducing kids to the outdoors. In addition to walking the paths, you can paddle a canoe over the bay’s open water, and among its mangroves, and inland by going upstream on Double Branch Creek. The park has a handful of smallish picnic shelters, plus a beach volleyball court and playground. And finally, it has a nature center where native fish reside in aquariums and bees reside in a glass-sided observational hive. Here is a picture of the center’s tin roof in the distance, taken from the Otter Trail:

Because this is a county park, there is a $2 entry free that you are expected to pay at the unmanned “iron ranger” when you arrive. Canoes may be rented near the nature center at a rate of $25 for four hours. To get here, turn south onto Double Branch Road from Hillsborough Avenue, east of (and within sight of) Race Track Road. Then follow the signs. Happy Trails!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Hillsborough River State Park

After 35 posts, I figure it’s about time to write one about the place that most often comes to mind when people are asked to name a wild destination in the Tampa Bay Area.

Set aside in 1938, Hillsborough River State Park is one of the oldest state parks in Florida and remains one of the most popular, due mostly to its large campground and excellent paddling opportunities:

Unbeknownst to most people, its hiking trails are fine enough to have been mentioned in Backpacker magazine, which chose to go succinct by summing them up in three sentences: “Walk beneath a crown of live oaks, palms, and magnolias so thick they can block the sun. Best time for wildlife: March through May. Look riverside for fallen trees and rotting logs -- they make ideal gator-sunning spots.”

I can personally attest that the Hillsborough River is teeming with alligators, for although my visits have always been in autumn rather than the March-to-May period cited by the magazine, I have never left without seeing some of the prehistoric-looking reptiles. And I’m talkin’ bout big ’uns:

The park contains a variety of habitats that are all accessible on foot. There are moist areas with riverine forests and cypress heads, plus dry areas where longleaf pines rise above fields of palmetto. There are spacious oak hammocks that look beautiful when dappled by the morning sun -- for an example, check out the photo just above the “About Me” section at the top of this blog, which I took during a visit here in 2008.

While trails reach most sections of the park’s 4,000 acres, it seems they all lead back to the river, and that is probably as it should be. The Hillsborough is a fine waterway that flows steadily yet seems laconic, perhaps because many of the things you see along it lend a tropical feel -- things like wading ibis, basking turtles, and a handful of overhanging palms:

However, there is one spot where the river courses over limestone outcrops to create something rarely seen in Florida -- rapids! -- and in that spot it definitely does not seem laconic. The following sight awaits you at the end of the 1.2-mile Rapids Trail:

Because this is a state park, there is an entry fee of $4 for single-occupant cars and $6 for multiple-occupant cars. In my opinion, a better option is to book a campsite for a night or two, which will run you $24 per night and ensure that you have more than enough time to to hike every mile of trail without feeling the least bit rushed, and then go canoeing as well. Every one of the campground’s 112 sites has electricity, running water, a picnic table, and a fire ring with a foldover grate that allows it to double as a grill.

As you may have gathered from the park’s appearance in the aforementioned magazine, backpacking is also available here, at a primitive campsite located along a 3½-mile section of the Florida Trail. There is no cost to book this site, but unlike those at the full service campground, it will not get you out of paying the entry fee when you arrive at the park.

Camping, regardless of whether you choose to drive to your site or hike to it, allows you the priceless chance to sit beside a campfire under the stars while sipping your beverage of choice. Coyote sightings by campers have increased in recent years but are far from guaranteed -- contrary to sightings of raccoons and squirrels, which you are almost guaranteed to see around your site no matter if it’s day or night:

Hillsborough River State Park is located on U.S. 301 east of Thonotosassa. It is less than 25 miles from downtown Tampa, which is impressive given how much of a wilderness it is. Happy Trails!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


The last thing I expected to see was a tall, steep-sided rise giving a Wyomingish appearance to a spot barely outside of Tampa. But there it was:

Later, when looking at it from the opposite direction on the return leg of our hike, I saw something that made the Western resemblance even stronger: A trio of riderless horses walking along its ridge. Although two of them promptly vanished down the other side when my sister called out to them, I managed to capture a photo of the third before he too walked out of sight. Unfortunately, given the distance from which I shot and the fact I was shooting with a cell phone camera, in the next view it’s not real easy to make him out (just to the left of the high point) and it’s hard to tell he’s an equine:

I am not na├»ve enough to believe I was looking at a natural feature created by tectonics. The rise is almost certainly the remains of an abandoned landfill that Nature has since beautified with growing grass -- which is fine by me, since it is now part of Nature’s canvas no matter how it came to exist.

At the end of the day, however, that rise is a microscopic cell compared to the total acreage of Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve. We were walking on a 10-mile trail network located south of Cow House Creek in the preserve’s western reaches; for a point of reference, back in December 2011 I wrote about another trail network that is also in the western reaches but north of Cow House Creek.

The fact that these 10 miles of trail pass by the rise does not change the fact that they are, as a whole, just as level as the network I previously wrote about. For much of their distance they pass through lush oak hammocks like this one:

In many places the hammocks are draped by very old vines:

This network is best described as a single trail that happens to fork in a few places and circles back on itself so as to contain its own loops. It travels generally from west to east, or parallel to the preserve’s southern boundary, though its westernmost expanse consists of a loop that is elongated from south to north. The west flank of that loop travels atop a grassy berm overlooking the Tampa Bypass Canal, a 14-mile waterway which connects the Hillsborough River to McKay Bay and serves the defined purposes of diverting floodwaters from the river and providing drinking water to the city of Tampa. Incidentally, the canal has also proven to be a fine canoeing and fishing spot popular with humans and waterfowl alike.

I previously wrote that some sections of Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve have their own names and signage. Well, this trail network counts as one of those sections because the sign at the trailhead identifies it as Jefferson Equestrian Area. The name does not mean that it is for horses only, however. Instead it means that horses are allowed on the trail as well as hikers, which is not the case in most of the preserve.

There is only one point from which to access Jefferson, and it is located off Fowler Avenue just east of I-75. Turn north from Fowler onto Jefferson Road, which passes between Terrace Community Middle School and the Big Top Flea Market and ends at the trailhead after a distance of about one block. You will be pleasantly surprised to find that this location has a gateway to such fine wilderness.

Go here for a printable copy of the trail map. Happy Trails!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Croom: The Windmill/River Loop

My after-Thanksgiving post described my aborted attempt to hike the River Trail while pushing Parker in our jogging stroller. I mentioned seeing a blue-blazed side trail called the Windmill Loop, and wrote that according to the map it is “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.”

Two Saturdays ago I set out to explore that loop and see what it has to offer. The problem of Parker constantly wanting out of the stroller was solved by letting him ride in our kid carrier backpack. And he must have liked the view from up high, because not once did he agitate to get down and do his own walking:

I decided to do the loop clockwise by walking the Windmill from its beginning to end, not from its end to beginning, if that makes any sense. You will reach that beginning at a well-marked junction several minutes after starting out on the River Trail:

From there the Windmill travels 1.2 miles over often hilly terrain before meeting back up with the River. It takes you through upland woods whose canopies let through lots of sunshine. You will see quite a few red cedars, which many people think of as Florida’s native Christmas tree:

Although mostly an upland path, the Windmill drops to the edge of cypress swamps in a few spots:

Eventually you reemerge on the River Trail at a sand bluff overlooking the Withlacoochee River. From there, a right turn completes the loop by leading about 1¾ miles back to the trailhead, mostly under the shade of an oak canopy that is much denser than the canopy back on the Windmill. For almost a mile the trail travels along the top of the bluff offering fine views of the Withlacoochee:

Because the river marks the boundary of the state forest, the woods on its opposite bank are private property and a few homes are visible over there. However, you can rest assured that they are not of the cut-everything-down, subdivision variety, for they are owned by river lovers and most of them are well-hidden in the trees. The home in the following photo is practically invisible in the upper right hand quarter, while the dock shows that its owners prefer spending their time outside:

Since you must walk both the Windmill and the River Trail to complete this loop, you should know that there are qualitative differences between them, starting with the fact that the Windmill is not as well maintained as the River. Its route is incredibly circuitous and the woods through which it passes are more open than most Florida woods. This makes it especially important to keep your eyes out for its blue blazes, in order to keep from straying off course.

Unfortunately the blazing leaves a lot to be desired, because there are many places where you reach a blaze and find that the next one is not visible until you go a ways further. Even more concerning, there are many places where double blazes, the universally recognized signal that a trail’s route is about to turn, should be used but are not. Conversely, the River Trail’s orange blazes are always readily visible, and its double blazes are more numerous than the Windmill’s -- even though it is harder to lose sight of it in the first place since its pathway is wider, straighter, and better defined than the Windmill’s.

Having said all that, this loop is definitely worth the visit. You can complete the Windmill without incident simply by being aware and keeping your eyes out. Just be sure to use appropriate care when clearing obstacles like the following tree, which had fallen across the trail when I visited. It happened to do so in the middle of prime rattlesnake habitat, and a large portion of rattlesnake bites occur when people head across barriers without looking to see if serpents are on the other side.

Check out my after-Thanksgiving post for directions to the trailhead. Happy Trails!

Note: State forest literature is what told me the blue-blazed side trail is 1.2 miles. Because I did not bring my Garmin on this hike, all the other mileage mentioned in this post is estimated based on my walking pace and the time it took me to complete the side trail. On those same bases, I would now estimate this loop to be a total of 3.2 miles, rather than the 3½ I guessed before walking it.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Croom: The HighLow

Sunday morning had already turned up proof that in some places, those rectangular blazes painted on trees really are needed to help keep people from wandering off a trail:

Now it was turning up proof that there is no time of year you can truly count on avoiding standing water in one of Florida’s riverside forests. We know they are swampy during the wet season, but this is not the wet season, and that distant blue blaze on the left side of the next photo said I would need to slog to stay on course:

I looked left and right and noticed a spot where I might be able to keep my boots dry, for some broken logs were lying over the water at its narrowest point. After closely scrutinizing the area and becoming comfortable that there were no water moccasins lurking there, I headed across. Unlike logs that lie across mountain streams with each end sitting on solid ground, these relied unsuccessfully on mud to keep them steady. As they bobbed under my weight I hunched over and grabbed the tops of cypress knees for balance.

On the opposite side, the trail made its way to the western bank of the Withlacoochee River and continued southward. It reached a bench land several feet above the water’s surface, which is where I saw a pair of vultures take flight from the ground. As I approached where they had been, I was struck by the smell of death and found myself looking at the still-uneaten carcass of one very large fish. I think it was an alligator gar based on its snout, teeth, and lack of spots, no matter what FWC says about that species not living this far south in the state. Because of the way the fish was turned, its head was reminiscent of a predatory bird from prehistory:

I was in Croom, walking on a 3½-mile loop where it is obvious that Nature’s wildness can not be stymied. Although the trail is one continuous loop, the powers-that-be have given a different name and differently colored blazes to the 2.4-mile segment which comprises its eastern and northern flanks. That segment is marked by blue blazes and known as the Low Water Trail, while for most of the trail’s western flank it is marked by orange blazes and known as the High Water Trail.

Those segment names do little for clarity because the words “high” and “low” refer to the level of the land, not the level of the water. Therefore, the Low Water Trail is the one where you are more likely to encounter high water, while the High Water Trail comes close to lacking any water whatsoever.

All of the woods through which you pass on this hike are pretty, but it is the ones right beside the river whose sights are most fantastical, for lack of a better phrase. One of the cypress trees is literally gigantic, as you can tell from its girth at the bottom of the trunk:

After snapping the above photo, I decided to give context by taking another one with my backpack hanging:

Not only does the Withlacoochee’s methodic flow create low bluffs by scouring sand away from its banks -- it also exposes the gnarled roots of trees like this oak:

Away from the river, the trail passes through a classic mixed hardwood forest typical of the lower South. I encountered a woodpecker-riddled tree while walking through this forest on Sunday, and if the trunk itself does not convince you that the woodpecker’s visit had just occurred, the shavings at its base will:

There are two trailheads from which the loop may be accessed. One is near its southernmost point and the other along its northern curve, and at first glance, neither of them appears to be a gateway to such a fine trail.

The southern trailhead is at Silver Lake Recreation Area, which has a $2 entry fee and is known for its canoe launch and trio of campgrounds. Take I-75 to exit 301, drive east for a mile, then turn left on Croom Rital Road and continue for almost four miles until you see the entrance on your right. After parking your car, simply walk down to the canoe launch, turn left and follow the orange blazes, which lead under the interstate at the spot where it crosses the river. The trail begins in earnest after entering the woods on the other side, when the orange- and blue-blazed sections fork to commence the loop.

To reach the northern trailhead, skip the entrance to Silver Lake and keep driving on Croom Rital until you reach the point where it is crossed by the paved Withlacoochee State Trail. There is parking for a few vehicles on each side of the crossing, and a picnic table and clean outhouse right beside the paved trail make it obvious that biking is meant to be had from here. However, if you look you will also see the hiking trail departing in both directions; and if you head out going west from the paved trail, be sure to follow the rectangular blazes because the circular ones denote a path that is specifically for mountain bikes.

I figure that after mentioning the Withlacoochee River so many times, it’s only fair I show you what it looked like when I hiked the loop on Sunday:

The loop’s western flank connects with a well-marked side path, which leads westward for a half-mile before depositing hikers on the 14.7-mile loop I wrote about last month. Since that one has two primitive, hike-in campsites…while this one (the one I’m writing about today) passes right through a primitive, paddle-in campsite on the Withlacoochee…and Silver Lake has those three developed campgrounds alluded to above…this is a place where you can not only get away from the crowd, but stay away for quite some time. Happy Trails!