Tucked just off busy McMullen Road, not far from crowded retail centers and service stations, there’s a trail that leads in to the heart of old Florida, through scrub oaks and open grasslands. It is a place of serenity, just past suburban chaos.
It is called Bell Creek Preserve, one of the many conservation lands purchased by the residents of Hillsborough County to keep at least some of the land as nature intended — part of the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program.
It is also one of 20 hikes on this year’s Hiking Spree list, an activity sponsored by Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation. Those who complete at least eight of the trails before March 31 are rewarded with either a medallion for their walking stick or a patch for their collection.
At the same time, the county is seeking volunteers to help clean up damage and debris left behind in county parks due to Hurricane Irma.
“We wanted to find a way to let people know about the different parks and trails we have for hikes,” said Dana McDonald, special events coordinator for the county department. This is the second year for the Hiking Spree. Some 1,000 people participated in the 2016 event, and already this year, more than 850 hikers are signed up for the challenge.
The Bell Creek trail is one of the more challenging on this year’s list, but there are also plenty of other trails for beginners looking for an easy walk of a mile or less.
“They are all over the county, and we wanted to let people know where to find them,” McDonald said. “We chose these particular 20 because we wanted to show how many local resources we have in our backyards. We are showcasing different types of trails. We rate them, so you know what kind of trail you are getting in to.
“One of the parks we recently visited was Edward Medard Reservoir Conservation Park,” southwest of Plant City, she said. It’s one of the trails people don’t necessarily know about, and it’s only $2 per car to get in the park.” Many are free. “If you are looking for something for the family to do, that’s a good one. It’s called Singing Bluffs Trail and it is 7-tenths of a miles long.”
Last year, Claire Brantley was looking to lose some weight before she turned 50. She joined Weight Watchers and lost some weight, but knew she needed to exercise, something she loathes. At the prompting of a friend, she Googled “hiking” and found the Hiking Spree.
She completed all eight hikes last year and dropped 50 pounds once she began hiking, she said. And she hasn’t stopped. Not only has Brantley enjoyed more trails in Hillsborough County, but has expanded to hike in neighboring counties.
“I liked them all, honestly,” Brantley said. “Some are just beautiful. I liked all the Hillsborough River trails, all those with some kind of water nearby. You see more water birds. It’s just beautiful. They all had something to offer. Some made me realize there were parts of Tampa I never even knew existed.
“Eureka Springs is sandwiched over there by the municipal airport and The Hard Rock Casino. Tucked in the middle of all that noise and traffic, there is this beautiful little park. It’s not even a mile long and it’s a boardwalk so you could take a baby stroller or a wheelchair.”
There is a Hiker’s Choice among the 20 recommended trails, meaning participants can hike anywhere they want on earth and include it in their eight trails, McDonald said.
To volunteer to clean up trails damaged by Hurricane Irma, go to www.hillsboroughcounty.org/en/residents/citizens/volunteers/action-folder/apply-to-volunteer-with-parks.