WIMAUMA — With gas prices soaring just in time for spring and summer vacations, many South County residents are searching for new ways to have fun closer to home.
One of the most obvious things they often overlook is the Little Manatee River State Park.
While many know about the nearby waterfront parks, like Simmons Park in Ruskin and Lithia Springs and even the newly-renovated nature park at Apollo Beach, The Little Manatee River State Park in Wimauma is often overlooked because it is off the beaten path.
Yet it isn’t even five miles south of the U.S. 301 State Road 674 intersection that separates Sun City Center from Wimauma.
Campers, fisher folks, and especially horse lovers that have found this local gem say they are completely sold.
“We come every Sunday to ride,” said Carrie Varrieur of Tampa. “And we come as often as possible to stay all weekend.”
That’s what this family of four was doing when I met them last week. Carrie and her husband Dave and their niece Jennifer and her husband James Fink were sitting around the campfire in front of one of their tents when I first came upon them. But they hadn’t been seated long. They had just recently put their horses in stalls after what they said had been a good long ride.
“These shelters are wonderful,” said Carrie, as she fed apple pieces to two of their horses to try and get them in the mood to pose for my photographs. “Not many parks have them.”
The family has enclosed horse trailers attached to their trucks, in which they bring their horses from where they stay during the week. Once at the park, they’re equipped with covered stalls so they can move around and are protected from the weather and they don’t have to tie them up.
“There are many trails for equestrians,” explained park manager Christy Burch. “Because we’re set up for people with horses, we also have a lot of special events.”
One equestrian event coming up soon is the Moonlight Trail Ride April 16 from 8 to 10 p.m. The evening will start with chili dogs and drinks at 6:30 p.m. at a cost of $10 per rider (with horse included!). Information and registration for this event may be made by emailing email@example.com or calling the park at (813) 671-5005.
“There’s a lot more to the park than horses though,” Christy said. Right now, she’s working on another event taking place April 9 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. called Behind the Scenes Tour which will feature a “discovery hike” that will include getting up close and personal with the parks many plants and animals.
The entry fee for that event is $5 for up to eight people in a car.
Christy is specially trained to guide such a tour, having spent her entire life in Florida’s state parks.
“I grew up in parks,” she told me in her office before driving me all around the park. “My dad was a park manager.” So she and her mother and brother and sister learned the names of flowers and plants and trees at every park where they lived.
They also met the wildlife there, which mostly includes gray fox and white-tail deer, bobcats, gopher tortoises and an occasional snake.
Her college education focused on environmental policy and environmental science, and at 23 she joined the parks service.
Now 35, she says she still loves her job.
“Right now we’re focusing on scrub jay restoration efforts,” she said. “The scrub jay is on the endangered list and we have them here.”
She checked her computer after making that statement because different species of wildlife go on and off the endangered list practically on a daily basis as counts are changed; a fact I had never known before.
As we talked she drove me to places where canoes can be rented; a park and playground; and showed me several of the six-and-a-half miles of hiking trails, portions of which meander beside the Little Manatee River.
Having lived on the banks of the Little Manatee River for almost 15 years near its mouth (the place where it joins Tampa Bay) I could easily see how the inland portions of the river are a completely different world.
The river at the Little Manatee River State Park looks like the “old” Florida, with plenty of Spanish moss and palmetto brush and native shrubs.
Dude Lake is amazing. It is large and round – but not so large as to prevent seeing all the way across it. And there are places where you can drive almost to the edge to fish or picnic without having to walk too far from the car.
When we left Dude Lake we stopped to talk to some volunteers planting long-leaf pines in an area that had recently suffered from a forest fire.
Bill Overcashier and his wife Suzanne from Ohio and Reinhard Zuber and his wife Patricia from Pennsylvania say they travel state parks all over the nation and especially love Florida.
“We’ve been to a lot of them,” Bill said. “And we really love it here.”
The two men said they decided to plant the trees as a way of giving back to a place that was giving them so much pleasure.
More information about the Little Manatee River State Park located at 215 Lightfoot Road (a right turn off U.S. 301 south of Sun City Center) may be found on line at www.floridastateparks.org/littlemanateeriver or by calling (813) 671-5005.