Fort Cooper is a quiet place, a woodland on the shores of Lake Holathlikaha just south of Inverness, a place where families come to play and picnic and walk gentle trails where wildlife sightings are almost guaranteed. But the reason for this state park isn’t as blissful. During the Second Seminole War, a battalion of war-weary soldiers were making their way south on foot along the military trail connecting Fort King (Ocala) with Fort Brooke (Tampa) when Seminole warriors attacked the already-injured men. Their leader, Major Mark Anthony Cooper, directed that a log fort be quickly built for protection, and those who were able continued to stave off the intermittent attacks until the wounded were well enough to keep walking. You can hike in these soldiers’ footsteps along the very trail they followed, and enjoy interpretive walks in a variety of habitats around the lake.
Length: 5.5 miles in three loops
Lat-Long: 28.807342, -82.306062
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: Two at the picnic area
The park is open 8-sunset daily. Swimming is not permitted at the lake, but sunning and volleyball on the beach are encouraged. There’s a nice playground for the kids, and picnic tables and pavilions for a family outing. All trails are well marked with maps at trail junctions to help you find your way.
Trails are open to bicycles.
Fort Cooper State Park is south of downtown Inverness. From the intersection with SR 44 at Cooter Pond, downtown, take US 41 south to Old Floral City Road. Turn left at the light. You’ll cross the Withlacoochee State Trail, and turn right. Follow the signs 1.6 miles to the park entrance. After paying your Florida State Parks entrance fee, follow the winding road back into the woods. Start your walk from the second parking lot, at the Fort Site Trail.
All three of the park’s hiking loops can be accessed from several points along the roadway and parking areas. I started my exploration this time at the paved Fort Site Trail, a connector that leads through the forest towards the old Fort King Trail. You’ll see a rough-hewn wooden sign at the junction, marking the crossing of the old military trail between Fort King (Ocala) and Fort Brooke (Tampa), along with a large kiosk.
Head straight ahead to follow the paved path as it rises into upland forest and reaches the back gate of the park at the Withlacoochee State Trail. This connector breathes new life into the park, enabling bicyclists to peel off the main track and come explore this little gem. Backtrack a little to the paved apron on the right and follow the footpath into the woods.
Yellow footprint markers lead the way in the opposite direction. It’s wonderfully shady here, with ancient live oaks furry with resurrection fern. You reach a loop that provides a shortcut back towards the trailhead. To stay on the outer loop, turn right and head deeper into the forest. It’s here we saw white-tailed deer racing between the saw palmettos, and you might, too! The understory is very open, but the forest is nicely canopied.
The trail reaches a T intersection where you’ll need to turn left. You’re on a forest road, and it rises up past a shaded bench to an open clearing in the forest, the site of Fort Cooper and of the annual reenactment of this skirmish during the Second Seminole War. Walking towards Tampa, bedraggled and ill, after a month-long battle at the Cove of the Withlacoochee, a battalion led by Major Mark Anthony Cooper built a log fort to protect the men against attacks from the Seminoles as the men recuperated. The fort was abandoned when the soldiers were able to continue their journey. Replica fort walls are on the left, with some bleachers facing them. After you walk past the kiosk, the trail continues in a straight line down the old Military Road where the soldiers marched en route to Fort Brooke. You’ll pass the trail junction for the shortcut loop on the left, and soon reach the intersection with the rough-hewn sign, kiosk, and paved trail at 1.3 miles.
Continue straight ahead to start your walk on the newest trail at Fort Cooper State Park, the Sandhill Loop Trail. The trail is marked in only one direction – counter-clockwise – so turn right at the first footprint trail marker. This is an upland trail, focused on the highest, driest habitat in the park. Watch for gopher tortoise tracks and burrows, since there are many along this walk. In late spring, the gopher apple – a favorite of the gopher tortoise – is in bloom. The trail sticks to the ecotone between sandhill and hardwood forest, offering a good bit of shade up until you get to the junction with the incoming trail from the trailhead on the main park road. Keep going straight, and you’ll find yourself climbing uphill with a jog to the left. Wildlife is abundant here. Watch for gray squirrels leaping from tree to tree, and if you’re attentive, you might even see a Sherman’s fox squirrel. There are deer tracks, fox tracks, and raccoon tracks in the sand. The trail goes up and over gently undulating hills, rising into small patches of scrub habitat. Watch for more gopher tortoise burrows – I stopped counting them after a while. When you complete the loop, you’ve done 1.8 miles on this trail, and 3.1 miles overall.
Just beyond the restrooms and playground, you’ll see the sign for the Dogwood Trail. This 0.9 mile loop is good for the family, a romp through the lush hardwood hammock, where magnolias and oaks form a tight-knit canopy. When you reach the bench at the four-way junction of trails, turn right. Notice how odd the woods look on the left? These holes and undulating landscape are the legacy of phosphate mining. Florida’s phosphate boom started in the late 1890s and worked its way through this region in a series of small claim stake pits like you see here. Florida is still one of the top sources for phosphate in the United States, but these pits may have never yielded ore – it was hit or miss to find any. After 0.3 mile, you’ll see the sign for the Short Loop junction. You can return on this for a hike of 0.6 mile, or … my suggestion … turn right and walk out through the forest to the edge of Lake Holathlikaha to Coot Marsh. Just don’t trip over the limestone boulders! There are quite a few sticking out of the forest floor. We saw sensitive briar in bloom on our visit. Returning to the loop, turn right. The trail continues its meander through hardwood hammock, where magnolia leaves glisten after a morning rain. Passing by the second Short Loop junction, you’ll continue by a sinkhole on the left and soon return to the 4-way junction of trails. The trail to the right heads out to the park road; continue straight to return to the playground and picnic area to find your way past the lake back to the parking lot. Total mileage if you do all three trails at once, including the walks between the trailheads, is 5.5 miles.
0.0 Fort Site Trail begins
0.2 Military Trail junction
0.6 Side trail, ends at Withlacoochee State Trail
0.7 Return to Fort Site Trail, turn right
1.3 Return to Military Trail junction, go straight onto Sandhill Loop Trail
3.1 Return to Military Trail junction, turn left
3.8 Start Dogwood Trail
4.1 Side trail to Coot Marsh
4.7 Complete Dogwood Trail
5.5 Complete all three loops
For more information, visit the Fort Cooper State Park website