Weekend Backpacker: Tampa
The World Wildlife Fund called it one of the"10 Coolest Places You've Never Been." With nearly 155,000 acres spread over nine distinct tracts, it's Florida's second largest state forestÂ—and arguably the most popular for outdoor recreation. Depending on the land use of each particular part of the forest, you can hike, ride horses, mountain bike, fish and hunt, climb into caves, or ride ATVs. Hikers find these forests hog heaven, from Hog Island to Holder Mine. More than 92 miles of hiking trails crisscross Withlacoochee State Forest, including important segments of the westerly wilderness loop of the Florida National Scenic Trail. Ecosystems range from the "long green tunnel" of dense oaks and maples up in the northeasterly portions of the forest to swaying bald cypress along the tannic Withlacoochee River, miles and miles of longleaf and slash pine scrub, thick forests of southern magnolia, and sweet gum and hickory trees.
With nearly 155,000 acres to ramble through, 11 different hiking trails provide plenty of backpacking possibilities in the Withlacoochee State Forest. The trails are broken up into three districtsÂ—Citrus, Croom, and RichloamÂ—with Citrus providing the most mileage for some serious backpacking. Putting together the outer perimeters of the four loop trails within the Citrus Tract, you can do a 40-mile loop on high and dry hilly terrainÂ—some serious elevation changes are guaranteed on this hike. Dense hardwood forests, oak thickets, and dozens of limestone sinkholesÂ—some leading right into trailside cavesÂ—make hiking the Citrus Tract an enjoyable experience.
Take I-75 north to the Wildwood exit; turn left, following SR 44 into Inverness. Cross U.S. 41, then turn left on SR 581. Watch for signs for Holder Mine Recreation Area. Driving time: two hours.
Individuals do not need to obtain a permit to use the primitive campsites along the trails. Groups, however, should contact the Recreation/Visitors Center at (352) 754-6896 to register and obtain their free permit.
Â PRACTICAL INFORMATION
Several access points reach the hiking trails in the Citrus Tract; the closest one to civilization is the Holder Mine Recreation Area, off SR 581 south of Inverness. Look for the trailhead at the far western end of the recreation area, conspicuous with its Florida Trail sign. You should sign the trail register before entering the forest.The Citrus Tract is one of the drier sections of Withlacoochee State ForestÂ—no swamp tromping on these trailsÂ—so water sources can be a problem in times of drought. Ponds and springs may run dry, so be sure to plot out your water sources on this hike. Thanks to horse trails through the forest, there are several permanent horse troughs along the trail; be sure to filter the water. There's also good water available at the trailhead at Holder Mine. Withlacoochee State Forest participates in the Florida Trailwalker Program, which encourages participants to hike certain trails in Florida State Forests to receive a Trailwalker patch and a certificate from the state. For information, call (850) 414-0871 or email.
GUIDEBOOK AND MAPS
The Recreation/Visitors Center along U.S. 41 hands out free maps of the hiking trails in the forest. The visitors' center on US 41, seven miles north of Brooksville, is open Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. to noon, and 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Since this is such a popular hiking destination, virtually any guidebook covering Florida's trails will have basic maps and descriptions of the three major trail areas in the forestÂ—Croom, Richloam, and Citrus. For a serious outing, however, you'll want the full set of detailed maps from the Florida Trail Association, showing campsites and water sources; visit the website to download an order form.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication