Get off the beaten track, to experience Pasco’s beauty

Any sport can tamp down frustrations of everyday life. Hiking in the woods goes a step further. It soothes the soul.

Visit one of Pasco County’s trails and you’ll see. You can hike under ancient oaks, past cabbage palms and ferns, through pine, and along swamps and riverbanks.

You’ll hear birdsong, and smell pine needles, bay leaves and loamy lakebeds. You’ll see wild orchids, thick forests, and, maybe you’ll even taste salt air.

Scientists say getting out into nature may ward off depression, high blood pressure, even hyperactivity in children. Some doctors even prescribe a hike in the woods to relieve stress and anxiety, and to get their patients to cut down on screen time.

Guides lead “forest bathing” meditation tours to soothe worries. And studies have shown that merely looking at photographs of nature or even the color green can be calming.

Hiking is an enjoyable way to immerse yourself in nature and get exercise.

Here are just a few places in Pasco County to hit the trail:

Giant oaks, some dating back to before Florida became a state, line nature trails in Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, encompassing 8,300 acres in New Port Richey. (Karen Haymon Long)

Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park
10500 Wilderness Park Blvd., New Port Richey
Hours: Daily, dawn to dusk
Free entrance
Contact: 727-834-3247; PascoCountyFl.net

This 8,300-acre park has a 7.3-mile paved trail that leads to the Suncoast Trail, which runs 42 miles from Hillsborough to Hernando County. Bikes share the park’s paved trail with hikers, but it’s wide enough for both. Woods often line both sides of the paved path, so it feels more serene than urban.

Off the paved trail, signs lead to leaf-strewn nature trails through pine and oak forests, palmettos, fern beds, red mulberry, magnolias and other trees.

Trails are marked with green and blue slashes on trees, so it’s easy to find your way. One trail leads to the Pithlachascotee River, in a spot where it’s tea-colored and crossed with fallen tree trunks.

Birdwatchers have identified 177 species of birds in the park. Look for wood ducks, little blue herons, even sandhill cranes. The park also has a 10-mile equestrian trail, camping, restrooms, picnic shelters, tables and grills.

Nearby, Starkey Gap Trail starts on the south side of State Road 54 at Starkey Boulevard. Heading south, it crosses Trinity Boulevard (where there is a parking lot) and continues through grassy fields, past cow pastures and woods. After about a mile, it joins the Pinellas Trail.

This 42-mile paved trail passes through Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, running along the east side of the Suncoast Parkway.

Half the trail is in Pasco County. Benches, water and portable toilets are available in some areas. The trail passes through residential, agricultural and natural areas.

“There are many areas where you really can’t see the parkway,” says David Jay, site supervisor for the Suncoast Trail and Crews Lake Park. “It’s completely wooded to the west in many areas.”

He says most hikers (and bikers) access the trail at State Road 54 at the Suncoast Parkway. That’s the official trailhead, with a free parking lot, a picnic table, portable toilets and a fix-it station.

Pasco County’s other main access points, he says, are off Wellfield Road, where the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park Trail leads onto the Suncoast Trail; and off Shady Hills Road, a mile hike from Crews Lake Park in Spring Hill.

Other Pasco access points are at the Ridge Road Extension, State Road 52, Caldwell Lane, Lawless Road, Bowman Road and County Line Road.

Everywhere you hike in the Green Swamp, you’ll likely see towering trees and watery views. The Green Swamp is a vital recharge area for the Florida Aquifer. (Karen Haymon Long)

Green Swamp Wilderness West Tract
13347 Ranch Road, 5 miles from downtown Dade City in East Pasco County
Hours: Daily, sunrise to sunset
Free entrance
Contact: 352-796-7211; www.swfwmd.state.fl.us

This preserve, with an astounding 37,350 acres, has 65 miles of trails for hikers, bikers and horseback riders.

A section of the Florida National Scenic Trail meanders through thick woods shaded by towering oaks, pines and magnolias. Some stretches are lined with ponds and brown grasses, saw palmettos and cabbage palms.

On a portion of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, hikers may see deer, wild hogs, turkeys, alligators, wading birds and soaring, squawking osprey.

The Green Swamp is one of Florida’s largest wetlands, and because it is considered an environmentally sensitive habitat, hikers are urged to stay on designated trails.

The tract also has picnic tables, portable toilets and campsites.

Trails in Withlacoochee River State Park near Dade City wend through woods and past the picturesque river. (Courtesy of Experience Florida’s Sports Coast)

Withlacoochee River Park
12449 Withlacoochee Blvd., Dade City
Hours: Daily, 7 am to 6 pm
Free entrance
Contact: 352-567-0264; PascoCountyFl.net

This picturesque Pasco County park, on the western edge of the Green Swamp, has sandhill bluffs overlooking the Withlacoochee River, a forest, prairies and wetlands.

Eight miles of well-marked hiking trails and boardwalks loop through the park, past the Withlacoochee River, cypress trees and old oaks. The park also has a 1.7-mile paved trail for walkers and bikers. All trails begin at a kayak dock, the south parking area and the campgrounds.

The park is home to barn owls, woodcocks, ibis, limpkins and many other bird species, some that can be seen from an observation tower. Other amenities: picnic shelters, restrooms, cabins, and primitive and RV campsites.

At Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park in Port Richey, you’ll see springs, deep woods, and maybe even bald eagles and dolphins. (Karen Haymon Long)

Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park
8737 US 19 N., Port Richey
Hours: Daily, 8 am to sunset
Fee: $ 2 for walkers and bikers; $ 3 for vehicles with up to 8 people
Contact: 727-816-1890; FloridaStateParks.org

This tranquil park of bayous, salt marches, creeks and thick mangroves is just off busy US 19, but you’d never know it. It’s a peaceful place to hike, kayak and have a picnic.

Each park entrance has hiking trails. The half-mile Springs Trail leads to sinks and artesian springs, through oak hammocks and pinewoods. Just past Salt Spring, if it’s low tide, hikers may see a tidal waterfall created by a spring that is 351 feet deep.

Bald eagles are sometimes seen on the Eagle Trail, along with hawks, roseate spoonbills, great blue herons and snowy egrets. A boardwalk leads to a kayak launch, where you’ll see water views and, if you’re lucky, dolphins and otters.

From the launch, kayakers can paddle through bayous, salt marshes and creeks. The park also has restrooms, picnic tables and a pavilion.

A boardwalk trail makes it easy for hikers to see the Pithlachascotee River in the James E. Gray Preserve in New Port Richey. (Courtesy of Experience Florida’s Sports Coast)

James E. Gray Preserve
6938 Plathe Road, New Port Richey
Hours: Daily, sunrise to sunset
Free entrance
Contact: 727-841-4560; FloridaHikes.com

This 80-acre wildlife preserve is on a stretch of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, with 140 bird species, manatees, deer, wild boar, gopher tortoises and more.

Hikers can walk along a boardwalk past the Pithlachascotee River, take the shaded Palmetto Loop, with a river overlook, or follow the Uplands Trail Loop through a scrub habitat of palms, wildflowers and gopher tortoises.

Towering palms cast shadows on the river. Thick palmettos and cabbage palms line the boardwalk, and benches dot trails, all adding to the preserve’s tranquility.

The preserve also has a lake, playground, restrooms, a picnic shelter and an observation deck.

By Karen Haymon Long

Published February 09, 2022

.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.