Part of an extensive corridor of natural lands – more than 10,000 acres worth east of Tampa – protecting the flow of the Alafia River, Alderman’s Ford Nature Preserve offers a surprising treat for a Central Florida hike: whitewater. The Alafia River flows over limestone boulders as it winds through a deeply eroded channel, forming noisy, churning stretches of hydraulics that are mesmerizing to hear and watch. With open fields for birding, ancient live oaks in the dense river bluff forest, and historic reminders of the traditional crossings along the river, this is a trail system that doesn’t look like much from the trailhead, but don’t let that fool you – I’m glad I made the trek, and you will be too.
Length: 3.3 miles
Lat-Long: 27.879559, -82.170972
Type: Loops with spurs and connectors
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: mostly moderate except for the difficult river bluff scrambles
Bug factor: moderate in the uplands, irritating near the river
We’d guess this property was once the local swimming hole by the sheer number of signs and warnings that Hillsborough County has posted at the trailhead about No Swimming, $300 fine … and once you get to the river, you’ll see rope swings that folks once used. Call it our litigious society, since the rocks in the river make it dangerous to make a jump or dive off the bluffs. There are a lot of “NO” signs at the trailhead, which isn’t appealing, but we saw no evidence of littering or other urban issues along these trails. Bicycles are not allowed, but local equestrians do use the trails through the open fields.
The preserve is open from sunrise to 5 PM. The gate is closed and locked by a resident attendant so be sure to time your hike to exit the trailhead before 5 PM. Much of the upper loop is in the open, so wear adequate sun protection. The lower loop is in deep shade, so expect to encounter hordes of mosquitoes as well as poison ivy off-trail. Use repellant!
From I-75 exit 257, Brandon, follow SR 60 east for 2.7 miles. Turn right on Lithia-Pinecrest Road. Go 1.1 miles to the second traffic light and make a left on E. Lumsden Road. Make an immediate right at the gas station to follow Durant Road, a heavily canopied road through residential areas, for 6.2 miles to the community of Durant. At the stop sign with Turkey Creek Road, turn right and drive 1.2 miles to the intersection with Keysville Road in front of Durant High School. Continue straight down Turkey Creek Road (signposted as a Dead End) for another 0.4 mile to the well-hidden trailhead entrance on the right. Look for the No Parking signs along the road to find it. The street address is 8911 Turkey Creek Rd, Plant City.
Slip through the pass-thru from parking area to preserve and walk around to the kiosk to check out the trail route. What’s shown on the map isn’t as extensive as what’s actually in place, but this is a relatively newly opened preserve managed by Southwest Florida Water Management District and Hillsborough County as a watershed for the Alafia River. A large chunk of the landscape, including the part you’re walking through to start, was formerly pastureland next to an orange grove. It has been replanted in places with longleaf pines that are just now tall enough to provide a small amount of shade. The trail turns right at the kiosk and parallels the treeline along Turkey Creek Road, which provides morning shade across an otherwise wide-open walk. The trail is marked with diamond-shaped markers with a hiker in the middle.
Coming up to a trail intersection, continue straight on a gradual descent along the edge of the field. After 0.2 mile, the trail turns to the left to slip into the deep shade of a hardwood hammock. Braided alluvial streams course their way down through the lush forest, with pools of standing water being a breeding place for mosquitoes. Did I mention there are a lot of mosquitoes? Use a strong repellant. It’s worth the trouble just to see the beauty that lies at the end of this trail. The trail goes downhill fast, through dense stands of cinnamon fern with interspersed cinnamon fern. The footpath is covered in oak leaves, with tree roots creating a stairstep effect as you descend quickly to a high bluff above the river.
You hear the sound of a cascade before you spot where it’s coming from. As you approach a picnic table at a prominent bend on the river, turn left to look down into a deep gully for the source of the splashing: water running down across the limestone bedrock of the bluff, creating a waterfall just a couple of feet tall. Okay, it’s almost a stretch to call it a waterfall, but the stream – fed by the braided streams that you passed along the trail makes a drop down through the layers of rock and sluices down a deeply cut channel into the Alafia River.
The official trail map shows a trail going to the left here, but there’s no safe or easy way to cross the cascade unless you want a handful of poison ivy as you scramble to the far side. However, an unmarked trail leads off to the right. I followed it, of course. This is a beaten path created by folks who used to come to the river to swim, and it takes you to a couple of incredible sights along the natural levee. First, the big oak. You can’t miss it, given the sheer girth of the tree that extends out over the river, and the rope swing dangling from it. From there, this rough trail narrows and drops down the bluff to river level. The river’s a bit rough here, so watch yourself on the scramble down and back up. It’s worth the exploration, however, because the roar of rapids bounces off the bluffs as you climb back up and look down on a stretch of churning hydraulics, whitewater that a kayaker would salivate over. What fun!
The rough trail ends here after 0.4 mile, so turn around and retrace the riverside walk up and down the bluffs, past the old oak tree, and back to the picnic table. Enjoy the view before you head back up the hill. I found pink flagging amid the braided streams that seemed to be the eastern trail under construction, but following it got me into massive thickets of poison ivy. I don’t recommend taking that route until it’s properly cleared.
As you emerge from the woods, the cloud of mosquitoes lifts. Continue back along the fenceline to the marked trail junction. Turn left. This is the lower portion of a loop trail that takes you along the rim of a large field that looks as if it was once pastureland. The trail keeps to the edge of the field, working its way around a drainage area dense with sweetgum and red maple trees. Colorful wildflowers appear in patches throughout the field, including stands of purple dayflower. Take care not to step in the fire ant nests that dot the broad path through the grass.
Continuing along the edge of an oak forest, the trail looks like it might enter it, but then makes a hard right at 0.9 mile to continue through the fields. Patches of goldenrod, tall dog fennel, and the bright purple blooms of terrible thistle add color to the landscape. A cool breeze flows out of the forest, perhaps off the river hidden behind the floodplain forest. Shade is at a premium, with occasional lone oaks providing a spot here and there, especially as you get closer to the end of the loop. An oak toad scrambles out of sight beneath a poison ivy leaf as a red-shouldered hawk creels overhead. A splash alerts you to the presence of an oxbow lake off to the left behind a screen of trees. It’s a portion of the river left high and dry as it settled into its current deep channel, and is a gathering place for wading birds.
After 1.5 miles, the trail comes to a prominent trail junction with a swale off to the right. Turn left to continue. Views of the oxbow lake are more open here, enabling you to watch for birds and be alert for alligators along its bank. Frogs are croaking amid the American lotus blooming on the surface. Underfoot, the trail becomes bright white sand as the habitat transitions into a patch of sand pine forest. Take the left fork.
The sound of rapids travels well up the river valley and catches your attention about the same time you can see the Alafia River down the steep bluff to the left. Oaks swaddled in resurrection fern arc well over the river. Here’s another stretch of whitewater, a bit longer than the first, and from the angle you’re viewing it from, very reminiscent of the Big Shoals of the Suwanneee. There’s no easy way to get down to the water’s edge here except to scramble down the sand bluff, using roots as handholds.
As the trail continues above the river, it’s wide as a forest road. You catch glimpses here and there of the river, including a place where steps were nailed to trees for diving, before the trail pulls away from it. Sand pines surround you. At another fork in the trail, blazes direct you down under low-hanging oak branches before rejoining the more-beaten path surrounded by young hickories. You pass a gopher tortoise burrow with prickly pear cactus growing at the mouth of it – a tasty treat for the tortoise. The trail narrows down to a forest road crowded by sand pines and oaks. Although you’re still very near the river bluff, you can no longer see the river. The trail takes a slight downhill, passing beneath large cedars and cabbage palms, as it comes up to a trail junction at 2 miles.
Continue forward past the junction a little ways to emerge into an open area under a power line. Look to the left, and walk down through the grass if you’d like a closer look, to see a pair of railroad trestle piers. Part of the original Plant System railway, these historic piers are built from brick and covered in Virginia creeper. This is the far western end of the trail system, so turn around and continue back to the trail junction. Turn left to explore this loop. The trail is a bit squishy in places, with blue-eyed grass emerging from soggy spots. Spanish moss sways from massive live oaks. A partridge dashes through the underbrush as the trail turns to the right, passing the large oaks. Skirt the soggy spots as you pass a nesting box near a patch of tickseed.
The loop ends as the trail reaches the sandy forest road at 2.2 miles. Turn left. Back along the straightaway, you have one last opportunity to check out the rapids on your way to the trailhead. Once again, you hear them well before you see them. From this perspective, peek through the trees and you can see a place where you can clamber down to the edge of the rapids more safely than from the opposite direction. It’s worth the short scramble to experience the splash of whitewater at the river’s edge.
The trail continues along a palmetto-dotted open area. At the fork by the oxbow lake, keep left. Take one last opportunity to scout the lake for birds and alligators before you return to the intersection with the pasture loop at 2.5 miles. This time, continue straight to take in the north side of the loop. The trail drops through the swale and quickly rises up into the pastureland.
Cows moo in the distance as you approach a fenceline, with the lights of the Durant High School football field in the distance. The trail turns right to follow the fenceline. Masses of wildflowers in bright pinks and purples lean out into the not-so-well-maintained trail. Dragonflies court overhead as the trail passes gigantic live oaks in this part of the pasture, some large enough to have started their own hammocks, and the trail leads you past and around these gentle giants.
Passing a trail marker, you’re on a straightaway with what looks like the parking corral up ahead. Planted longleaf pines are growing nicely in the patch of pasture to the right. An abandoned trail leads through the pines off at a diagonal on the right; if you find it open, use it for a more scenic return to the trailhead. Currently, the trail comes smack up against a fenceline, but not for the parking corral – it’s the back of the on-site residence.
Emerging at the on-site residence, the trail makes a sharp left and continues along the fenceline back to the parking area, Turn left and go through the pass-thru to exit, completing a 3.3 mile hike.