Hiking in Florida? But there are no mountains! We don’t even have hills here.
These are my initial thoughts when I hear about the 2022 Hillsborough Hiking Spree. Hiking’s not only for mountains, I soon learn. Hillsborough Parks and Recreation encourages everyone to “get up, get out and discover Hillsborough County’s wild side!”
And discover it I shall. The website lists nearly two dozen parks and preserves scattered within comfortable a driving distance of my St. Pete home. I choose Lettuce Lake Conservation Park for its proximity and promise of an easy, beginner-friendly hike. Just outside of Tampa, the park stretches across nearly 250 acres of beauty, with a 1.25-mile paved exercise trail and a 3,500-foot boardwalk. From an observation tower, hikers have premium views of the hardwood swamp forest. Inside the visitor’s center, hikers can tour a mini-museum full of wildlife replicas and get info about the park’s diverse residents. The park has ample restroom facilities, campsites, pavilions, and kayak and canoe rentals (on weekends, you can even schedule a guided tour.)
This adventure couldn’t come at a better time: After several days of COVID quarantine, my boyfriend Nate and I are thirsty for fresh air and ready to explore. Mossy oaks greet us as we enter the park. The old, gnarled branches arch toward the road and hug the street as we pass underneath. At the top of my wish list today is to see a hummingbird or a bald eagle, although I know encountering either one is rare.
We start with the boardwalk, which curves through a swampy paradise full of cypress trees and palms. The observation tower is a few stories high – not enough to intimidate my acrophobic self – and offers gorgeous views of the wilderness. Herons, ibis, and egrets fill the trees. After zooming out for a time in the tower, we get back on the boardwalk for a closer view.
I lose count of all of the birds we see. They studiously watch the swamp water, gently stirring the surface in hopes of teasing up lunch. A yellow-crowned night heron prepares escargot by smashing a snail shell against a rock with its long beak.
Once we stroll the stretch of boardwalk, we explore more of Lettuce Lake. Signs posted throughout the park explain about prescribed pine forest burns and how cypress trees grow “knees” to help them breathe.
After a few refreshing hours of exploration, it’s time to retreat. I inhale deeply. The hardwood hammocks and pine flatwoods nourish a hunger I forgot I even had. Grateful for this beautiful, swampy paradise I get to call home, I promise myself to explore a new park each month of 2022. My soul needs it.
And I still want to see that eagle.
Resie Waechter will write semi-regular dispatches from the great outdoors.