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!