By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Quarantined and cooped up for most of the year, it’s time to expand your horizons with participation in the no-cost 2021 Hillsborough County Hiking Spree.
Now through March 31, the spree is promoted as the nudge you need to take “a solo trip into the tranquility of nature” or to “get outside, see parks and trails, and spend time with friends.”
This year makes that invite even more compelling, according to County officials, who say it’s not only “a safe, fun way to exercise and relieve stress,” but also that “social distancing is easy in the great outdoors, so you can beat your pandemic-induced cabin fever.”
In all, there are 25 trails at 20 Hillsborough County parks and nature preserves selected for the 2021 Hiking Spree, which collectively include rugged trails for experienced hikers, dog-friendly routes and paved pathways for bicycles, strollers, in-line skaters or wheelchairs. The list of dedicated Hiking Spree trails changes every year, and this is the first time the lineup includes two state parks in Hillsborough County: Alafia River and Little Manatee River.
Participants who complete at least eight trails on the list before March 31 earn a patch, a medallion for a walking stick or a dog bandana.
South County area parks included in the 2021 Hiking Spree are the Ruskin/Baudette Neighborhood Park, FishHawk Sports Complex in Lithia and Stephen J. Wortham Park in Riverview. The 1,181-acre Golden Aster Scrub Nature Preserve in Gibsonton includes a marked three-mile hiking trail loop, much of it sandy and sunny, and the Apollo Beach Nature Preserve offers a short nature trail among its other amenities, which include a 2-acre sandy beach, shoreline fishing and a recently opened 37-foot wheelchair accessible tower. No swimming is allowed.
Also on the Hiking Spree list is the 477-acre Bell Creek Nature Preserve in Riverview, at 10940 McMullen Road, south of Boyette Road. County officials acquired the preserve “to provide protection for natural plant communities and associated protected species, extend a greenway, preserve a wildlife corridor that was being lost to development and provide numerous passive recreational opportunities.” Preserve trails take hikers through “different habitat areas with mature trees and a varied understory, as well as open areas dominated by grasses and herbaceous species.”
As for the state parks on the Hiking Spree list, Little Manatee River State Park is in Wimauma, at 215 Lightfoot Road, and features a river that “still follows the same winding, sinewy course it has for centuries,” according to the County’s park description. “It is one of the few rivers in Florida that never was significantly dredged or altered by canals or mining operations.”
Hiking trails include the eight-tenths of a mile Oxbox Nature Trail, a short stroll through sand pine scrub; the under three-mile Sand Pine Trail; and the six and one half-mile north wilderness trail through riverine hammock and floodplains, scrubby flatwoods, mature sand pine forests and remnant sand hills. The trail crosses Cypress Creek, a major tributary of the Little Manatee River. Also popular at the park are fishing, horseback riding, paddling, wildlife viewing and camping (including primitive and equestrian).
The Alafia River State Park in Lithia is at 14326 South C.R. 39. Previous and current mining companies donated the park’s 7,733 acres, which sit on a former mine in the area known as Fort Lonesome. Mining reportedly altered the landscape and created new landforms, including several small lakes and steep grades, which provide challenging trails for off-road bicyclists. Bicycle trails at the park have the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) Epic designation. Bicycle trails range from beginner to highly advanced. Also popular at the park are bird watching, boating, camping (including primitive and equestrian), fishing, paddling, horseback riding and more, including Geocaching, an outdoor, interactive, high-tech treasure hunt game using hand-held Global Positioning Systems (GPS).
To register for the hiking spree and get more information on County parks and trails, visit the 2021 Hiking Spree page at www.HCFLGov.net/hikingspree.