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!