Hiking in Florida? But there are no mountains! We don’t even have hills here.
These are my first thoughts when I hear about the 2022 Hillsborough hike. Hiking is not just for the mountains, I am a fast learner. Hillsborough Parks and Recreation encourages everyone to ‘get up, get out and experience the wild side of Hillsborough County! “
And I will find out. The website lists nearly two dozen parks and reserves scattered within a comfortable driving distance of my house in St. Pete. I choose the Lettuce Lake Conservation Park for its proximity and its promise of an easy hike suitable for beginners. Just outside of Tampa, the park spans nearly 250 acres of beauty, with a 1.25-mile paved exercise trail and 3,500-foot boardwalk. From an observation tower, hikers have a breathtaking view of the deciduous swamp forest. Inside the visitor’s center, hikers can visit a mini-museum filled with replicas of wild animals and learn about the various residents of the park. The park has plenty of restrooms, campgrounds, lodges, and kayak and canoe rentals (on weekends you can even schedule a guided tour.)
This adventure couldn’t have been better: After several days of COVID quarantine, my boyfriend Nate and I are hungry for fresh air and ready to explore. Mossy oaks greet us as we enter the park. The old gnarled branches bend towards the road and hug the street as we pass below. At the top of my wishlist today is seeing a hummingbird or bald eagle, although I know encountering either is rare.
We start with the promenade, which winds through a marshy paradise full of cypress and palm trees. The observation tower is a few stories high – not enough to intimidate my acrophobic self – and offers wonderful views of the wilderness. Herons, ibises and egrets inhabit the trees. After zooming out into the tower, we return to the promenade for a closer view.
I’m losing count of all the birds we see. They studiously monitor the swamp water, gently stirring the surface in hopes of teasing lunch. A yellow-crowned night heron prepares snails by crushing a snail shell against a rock with its long beak.
Once we have walked the stretch of the boardwalk, we further explore Lettuce Lake. Signs posted throughout the park explain prescribed burns in pine forests and how cypress trees grow “knees” to help them breathe.
After a few refreshing hours of exploring, it’s time to retire. I take a deep breath. The hardwood hammocks and flat pine woods feed a hunger that I even forgot. Grateful for this beautiful swampy paradise that I call home, I promise to explore a new park each month of 2022. My soul needs it.
And I still want to see this eagle.
Resie Waechter will write semi-regular dispatches from the great outdoors.
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