Hiking the Hillsborough River

 

Bridge over the River

When we first moved to Florida I searched the area for hiking spots near our house.  Most of the nearby hiking trails were less than a mile long, so hiking didn’t seem a viable exercise option. During the last couple of years though,I missed my woodland activities, so, I signed up for a hiking trip to Greece. New boots in need of breaking in, I began the hunt for places to hike, preferably, with some hills and less than two-hours away by car. Ah you say, hills in Florida, that’s not going to happen. Well there are some, apparently, though a bit of a drive.Map of Possible Hiking Destination

I set as my goal to have a 100 miles logged onto my shoes by mid-April. Admittedly, some of that would be treadmill hill climbing.

As of this post I have reached about one-third of my goal.  My last couple of trips were up to north Hillsborough County to the Hillsborough River.  In order to hike the river, you need to know who owns the land.  The  lands surrounding the river may belong to a county (Hillsborough, Pasco or Hernando), a municipality, the State (as State Parks or State Forest),  Water Management District (affectionately known as Swift Mud by us locals), or even the Federal Government. The SWFWMD site  and the Fish and Wildlife Site are the most helpful in choosing trails as they have the most up-to-date information. But…and it is a big but, the descriptions of hikes are often somewhat vague.  Google and other online maps may or may not show all parks from all jurisdictions. You may want to check alltrails. com , for the reviews. However, their maps seem to be out-of-date, as do the existing books.

I needed hikes that would be greater than five miles, so the SWFWMD properties seemed to fit the bill. But beware, a lot of the trail here is paved. The unpaved trail is a lightly used hiker-biker trail. The best parking area is the Flatwoods Site.  After paying your $2, walk about a quarter-mile, to the Central Kiosk where there is water and everyone gathers.

If you need information there is usually someone who is familiar with the area.  From here you can do up to sixteen miles hike on the Main Eubanks Trail, a loop trail.

Signage is good at the Flatwoods Park The trail here is well-marked with numbered posts (this wasn’t true at the other parking lots where I couldn’t find the numbered posts).  February is a great time to hike as there are no bugs and the humidity is manageable.

About ten miles north of the SWFWMD property (or according to one map just an extension) is Hillsborough River State Park. The park has a number of well-maintained stacked trails, including part of the Florida Trail.

White Lilies

There are lovely old trees and many flowers and quite a few remnants of the Civilian Conservation Corps as this park was one of ten Florida Parks built by the CCC.

CCC Picnic Table

The trail here follows the river so has some awesome views. Three stacked trails, including the nature trail, the Barnyard Trail and the Seminole Trail allowed for a seven-mile goal on my visit to the park (could have gone ten). It was slightly hilly.

Botanical Gardens In and Around Tampa Bay

Bromeliads at the Florida Botanical Gardens

February begins Spring in Florida. Many tourists head this way, tired of the cold weather that is likely to last up north until May.  One great way to enjoy Florida is through visits to one or more of the botanical gardens throughout Florida.These are great places to run, walk, sit or best of all take photographs of birds and lovely flowers. I took many of these on my morning run this week, through the Florida Botanical Gardens, using my 25-50mm lens set to a macro setting, compensating for the incredibly lovely sun, or using my 75-300 mm telephoto lens.Watching Birds is a Favorite Pastime

Snowy EgretBe sure to check out the website of your local botanical garden before you leave. Determine if they are members of the   American Horticultural Society.  As a member you get reciprocal admission privileges throughout the country. This can really add up to some great savings as some gardens charge as much as $25 for a single visit.

February in Florida fills with color as we have the tail-end of the camellia season and the beginning of the azalea season in Central and Southern Florida. Succulents also bloom in the Spring.

 

Easy day trips for those in Tampa Bay are the Florida Botanical Gardens, Marie Selby Gardens, Sunken Gardens, Bok Tower and the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens. Check out some of my photos from this and previous years. Afternoons bring out the butterflies and napping among the Flamingos (at Sunken Gardens).

Flamingos at Sunken GardensFlorida Botanical Gardens Butterfly Gardens

 

St. Leo’s Benedictine Abbey

 

San Antonio, Florida, in Pasco County, has many photo opportunities:  The San Antonio Pottery,  lovely places to hike, and the St. Leo Benedictine Abbey,  justify a trip to this tiny town north of Tampa.  Often in passing through town to do the other two, I had seen a sign on the campus of St. Leo’s University for the Abbey.  Last week after a quick visit to SaintLeoAbbey.org, I set out with my trusty Olympus OM-D, EM5, to take some photos.

On arrival, sandhill cranes congregated in the parking lot and made me feel welcome as did the welcome center.

Gathering in Greeting in the St. Leo’s Benedictine Abbey Parking Lot

I’ve always wondered about San Antonio as It seems fairly isolated. The 1880s, though, things were hopping.  The South Florida Railroad passed through nearby Dade City and the Orange Belt Railroad stopped in San Antonio on its way to St. Petersburg.

In 1889, Benedictine monks established a monastery and Catholic high school and founded the town of St. Leo (later incorporated into San Antonio). The monastery became an Abbey in 1902. The Benedictines constructed the first concrete block building in Pasco County, St. Leo Hall, begun in 1906, completed in 1911 and still standing.

St. Leo’s Hall

The construction of the Abbey church began in 1931 and the church was finally consecrated in 1948.  The  Abbey website has more detail on the history and construction. I love the part of the story where the monks barter oranges for church furniture and building material with another group of monks in Indiana. Great stuff!

The lovely abbey, typical of many important pre second world war buildings, is in the Florida Mediterranean style. I have more description of this architectural style in a couple of my posts: Wakulla Springs and Bay Pines VA.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The intensely hot, bright July day proved attractive to multiple butterfly species.  It gave my telephoto lens quite the workout.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I hope to go back on a day where I can photograph the lovely stained glass windows (the light was just too much) and the grotto on the grounds. Stay tuned for Part 2!

 

 

Rainbow Springs State Park: An Antidote to the Florida Heat

Rainbow River

According to the Website floridasprings.org, “Rainbow Springs is Florida’s fourth largest spring and is designated a National Natural Landmark…The spring pool is about 250 feet wide and shallow, with especially clear blue water flowing over the beds of green aquatic plants and brilliant white limestone and sand…Seven vents contribute to the first-magnitude group near the spring bowl and are augmented by five more springs and hundreds of sand “boils” to create the Rainbow River. The river runs about 5.6 miles before joining the Withlacoochee River.

During the early twentieth-century the area was home to phosphate mines, parts of which can still be seen on park hiking trails.

Waterfalls built on old phosphate mining waste

The 1930s brought tourists and the spring became a theme park that included a zoo, gardens, rodeo, monorail, a swimming pavilion and artificial waterfalls built on old phosphate tailings.

Like many of Florida’s older tourist attractions, it couldn’t compete with the mega attractions in Orlando so closed in 1974. It reopened as Rainbow Springs State Park in the 1990s. after local volunteers supported the acquisition and restoration of the park.

Today pleasant  gardens and shady hikes invite a visit.  Butterflies and ancient trees abound.

Monarch enjoying a meal

 

Zebra: A common Florida Butterfly

 

Gulf Frittilary

The  Park provides a great place to escape the heat and swim in seventy-two-degree water in the head springs or kayak or tube down the river.We try to visit the park about once a year as this is the closest major spring to the Tampa Bay region. Florida springs are the perfect antidote to beat the Florida heat.  The gulf water and pools around our areas are all in the 90s.  The spring water though, ah a lovely seventy-two degrees!

Rainbow Springs State Park Swimming Area

The park tubing concessionaire, Nature Quest, rents tubes and provides tram service every twenty minutes up the river.  You grab your tube, float with the current, and two hours later you are pleasantly cool.  Tubing is available between April and the end of September (Before Memorial Day and after Labor Day rentals are limited to weekends)

Nature Quest Rents Tubes and Kayaks at the Park

We arrived around eleven: a reasonable time for a week-day but we probably would have been too late on the weekend as the park closes when the parking area fills. Early arrival is also advised because of frequent afternoon thunderstorms in the summer. For people, desirous of a quieter experience, I suggest a visit during the week or early or late in the season. Between the entry and two tubes, it cost us $45.  This includes the state park admission, tube rental and the tram ride north.

We floated two miles in about two hours. All manner of boats, tubes and kayaks take advantage of the cool water.  Given the crowds, we still saw quite a few birds, including anhingas, blue herons, and ibises. The water is clear, and feels just wonderful, as the air temperature was in the nineties.

A few important details: alcohol, coolers and disposable packaging (water bottles, food packaging and the like) are all prohibited on the river. The outfitter will keep your keys for a small fee. Additionally, even if you bring your own tube, you will still pay the $15 per person fee.

Perhaps the only drama occurred when I tried to pose for a photo at the end.  I did find out that the current near the end is strong enough to make it difficult to paddle the tube against the current.  Thus, into the water I went to paddle back to the ramp and off floated a sandal and hat.  Just a word to the wise.

An Unplanned Ending to a Great Tubing Trip (Photo Courtesy of Caity Mellicant)