Tampa’s trails

Take a Hike Day is Nov. 17 annually, providing nature enthusiasts with another reason to hike, camp or observe wildlife during autumn.

Though often referred to as “National” Take a Hike Day, there are no congressional records declaring it a national holiday. Information about the day’s origin is also scarce.

This doesn’t stop people and outdoor facilities from enjoying the holiday, however. That includes those in the Tampa Bay area as well.

The USF Riverfront Park is off Fletcher Avenue next to the Hillsborough River. The park admits students, faculty and staff with a USF ID and is open every day campus is from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Aside from an 18-hole disc golf course and a section of the river available for canoeing or kayaking, the park also features group campsites for $25 per night.

John Koepkey, an Outdoor Resource Center staff member and USF junior majoring in criminology, said the park’s campers generally belong to student organizations such as the Surf Club.

“It’s a pretty nice place to camp,” Koepkey said. “We’ve got volleyball (nets) and pavilions and grills.”

Lettuce Lake Park is another recreation spot a short drive from Riverfront Park on Fletcher Avenue. In addition to its 1.25 mile-long paved trail, the park has two boardwalks and an observational tower overlooking a cypress swamp.

Cathy Stedman, a USF Outdoor Recreation coordinator and outdoor experience professor, said Lettuce Lake Park provides a more casual nature walk.

“If you want to go someplace where there’s not a lot of rough terrain, the boardwalk’s built so you can just walk out,” Stedman said.

Stedman’s outdoor experience class often goes backpacking and hiking, with lessons on everything from using tents to repackaging food properly. This semester, the class backpacked and camped on a Florida Trail segment north of Zephyrhills.

“We didn’t see anyone else when we were out there and got to go through some classic Florida ecosystems,” Stedman said. “You know, pine scrub, forest (and) swamp.”

For students wanting a more serious hike closer to campus, Stedman recommends the Hillsborough River State Park (HRSP), which is located between Morris Bridge Road and Highway 301.

“That’s a great hike,” she said. “We actually do that as a day hike for my class along the Hillsborough River.”

The park has five separate hiking trails, ranging from 1.1 to 6.7 miles long.

HRSP services specialist Patrick Potts said these trails preserve “the real Florida” and the park’s appearance since it opened in 1938.

“‘The real Florida’ is an understanding of what Florida might have looked like back in early times,” Potts said. “We try to maintain the integrity of the Florida ecosystem.”

HRSP also contains 114 campsites at $25 per night. They are equipped with electricity, running water and bathroom facilities with washers and dryers.

Despite these modern comforts, Potts said the park still shelters deer, bobcats and “a tremendous amount of different types of birds.”

“You’ll still see a variety of wildlife,” he said. “It’s still seen as somewhat wild, even though there’s a lot of development up and around here.”

Matthew Epperson, a USF senior majoring in creative writing, camped at the HRSP’s primitive backpacking area – within the Florida Trail – last month.

Primitive camping offers no modern amenities, but Epperson said that’s why it’s so appealing.

“Primitive camping is just a lot more peaceful,” Epperson said. “There’s no electrical hookups (and) there’s usually maybe one other person out there.”

Epperson has camped in other Florida areas, including Fort DeSoto and Ocala National Forest, but said he appreciates a campsite only 15 minutes away from campus.

“There’s so many good camping areas, but not all are as convenient as Hillsborough River State Park,” Epperson said.

Stedman said her class enjoyed hiking and camping on the trails as well.

“People in my class, they appreciate the fact that you could go out there and get away for the weekend,” she said. “If you have a busy schedule, that may just be what you need.”

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