As the weather gets cooler, now is the time for Floridians to get outside and enjoy a variety of recreational activities. Each issue of WaterMatters features a different District property ready for you to explore. These public lands are close to home and are free or very inexpensive to use.
This issue features the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve (Preserve) in Hillsborough County.
The 16,000-acre Preserve is a natural area that provides many diverse recreational opportunities. Within the Preserve is Hillsborough County’s Wilderness Parks and Trails System, the largest regional park in Hillsborough County. This system offers five individual parks and 82 miles of premier trails for hiking, biking, equestrian and nature appreciation. The Preserve features 13 miles of the Hillsborough River &emdash; one-fourth the river’s length.
Located northeast of Tampa, east of I-75 and north of US 301, the five parks within the preserve include Dead River Park, Flatwoods Park, John B. Sargeant Park, Morris Bridge Park and Trout Creek Park. Following severe flooding from Hurricane Donna in 1960, the Preserve was designed in partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers, Hillsborough County and the District to provide flood protection for the cities of Tampa and Temple Terrace.
The Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department manages and maintains the five parks as well as the boardwalks and trails within and around the parks. The Jefferson and Oak Ridge equestrian areas, also located within the Preserve, are managed by the District.
“Every recreation area within the Preserve has something special to offer,” said Colleen Kruk, District senior land use specialist. “With so many diverse activities available, there’s something for everyone.”
Flatwoods Park is a popular urban county park with paved trails that are great for biking, rollerblading, running and walking; John B. Sargeant, Trout Creek and Morris Bridge parks all feature places to launch your boat, canoe or kayak.
When it comes to biking, the Preserve offers paved and unpaved opportunities. Some of the most popular trails are the off-road biking trails, which meander off of Morris Bridge, Flatwoods and Trout Creek parks and are maintained by the Wilderness Trails Association (WTA). The WTA is a volunteer group of bikers who appreciate and help to maintain the trails.
The Old Fort King Trail, the most recent addition to the Preserve trail system, connects John B. Sargeant Park and the Hillsborough River State Park. This hiking and equestrian trail allows visitors to venture from the Hillsborough River State Park into the Preserve. The trail runs along part of the supply route used to support U.S. troops during the Seminole Wars, and it was also used during the Civil War.
For those looking for an equestrian experience, the Jefferson and Oak Ridge equestrian areas collectively offer 28 miles of equestrian riding trails. Located off Fowler Avenue and Morris Bridge Road, these trails are close by and easily accessible to Tampa residents.
In addition to equestrian activities, the Jefferson and Oak Ridge equestrian areas both offer hiking. The Oak Ridge Equestrian Area also offers camping. These areas require a free reservation, which can be obtained on the District’s web site at WaterMatters.org/recreation.
“These properties are popular camping and equestrian destinations,” said Margaret Blommel, District land use specialist. “For the past three years, use of these areas has increased based on the number of camping or day-use reservations and people who sign in at the properties.”
In addition to the parks and equestrian areas, the Preserve also includes Nature’s Classroom Environmental Education Center. The 320-acre site is managed by the Hillsborough County School Board and was developed in conjunction with the District to offer Hillsborough County students the opportunity to learn about the environment. This successful environmental education project brings public and private partners together in support of environmental awareness.
For more information about the county-managed parks, please visit the Hillsborough County web site at Hillsboroughcounty.org/parks/parkservices and click on “regional parks.” Visit WaterMatters.org/recreation for more information about District lands.