The more manicured part of the 16,000-acre Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve, Flatwoods Park lies north of the Hillsborough River.
It differs from Wilderness Park both in habitats – uplands here, swamps there – and in human activity, which presses against its edges.
It’s not uncommon to see county employees in trucks along or off the loop, and the reason for that is this part of the park is also a municipal water facility.
You’ll notice the structures off side roads along the loop, the wells of the wellfield that supplies water to Tampa area residents.
They’re set in the woods, and don’t distract from your ride. As we did, most people come here to tackle the paved Flatwoods Loop.
It’s one of those rare places in a city environment where you can ride for an hour and not deal with a road crossing.
We jumped on the paved trail at the Bruce B. Downs trailhead, as we stayed nearby. We suggest you start from the Flatwoods Park trailhead as it’s less urban and less busy.
It’s also the original access point for the loop. The park office, a small sheltered picnic area, and restrooms are here.
Pay your fee at the machine and, if you need to work on your bike or add air to the tires, there are tools at the ready, and a bike wash should you go offroad.
Resources for exploring the area
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Length: 13.4 miles
Trailhead: 28.1137, -82.3060
Address: 14302 Morris Bridge Rd, Thontosassa
Fees: $2 flat rate fee charged at both entrances. $50 individual, $100 family annual passes available online or by phone.
Restroom: At the trailhead
Land manager: Hillsborough County
Phone: 813-987-6240 (call 813-426-5583 for ranger assistance)
Trails open roughly dawn to dusk. Exact closing time is posted at the trailhead and at the shelters at the loop junction.
Leashed dogs permitted except where posted. Drones and other remote controlled vehicles are not permitted in the preserve.
While the trailheads and trails are managed by Hillsborough County, Southwest Florida Water Management District is the underlying land manager.
From Interstate 75 exit 266 in Tampa, follow Morris Bridge Rd (CR 579) north, passing Morris Bridge Park on the left after 3.5 miles. Continue another 1.4 miles to the park entrance on the left. Follow the entrance road to the trailhead.
The loop portion of the Flatwoods Loop is 6.9 miles. However, to get to it, you have to ride to it from either trailhead on a paved spur trail.
Our overall mileage of 13.4 includes both the loop and riding the spur trails out and back to each of the trailheads, no matter which one you start with.
If you start at Flatwoods Park trailhead and skip the spur out to the Bruce B. Downs trailhead, you can trim this trip to 8.1 miles.
Starting the ride at Bruce B. Downs and skipping the Flatwoods Park spur trims it to 12.2 miles.
Starting from the Flatwoods Park trailhead, it’s 0.6 miles through the open pine flatwoods up to the trail junction, where you’ll find a water station shelter.
For cyclists, the trail is one way once you reach the loop. Turn right to start the counterclockwise route.
From this access point, mile marker colors in yellow mark your loop mileage.
Starting on the north side of the loop, you ride through oak hammocks and pine flatwoods, with open stretches of prairie grasses and saw palmetto.
Look for posts off to the side that show where side trails – some for hiking, some for off-road biking – peel off the main trail.
Despite the close proximity of the forest to the bike path, there is no canopy overhead. The path is often in full sun with just splashes of shadows from the pines.
You come to the North Loop water station shelter at 1.8 miles, up against the line of pines.
The trail parallels a cypress strand to the north, intersecting it at a low spot called Clay Gully, 2.9 miles in from the trailhead.
A causeway lifts the bike path above the flow of the strand, which is shallow enough to attract herons and egrets.
Beyond Clay Gully is a bench on higher ground as the trail rises into a pine forest with dappled shade.
A slow, easy grade follows, leading to the west junction of the Flatwoods Loop at 3.8 miles.
It is marked by both signage and another water station shelter, 4 Corners. Continue straight ahead to ride the spur out towards the Bruce B. Downs trailhead.
The mile markers are now tipped with red to inform those starting at the Bruce B. Downs trailhead of their overall mileage.
Cyclists ride both directions along this spur, so stay right.
The pine flatwoods are again punctuated with open grassy areas, with younger pines clustered close to the path, providing evening shade.
To circumvent a cypress strand, the trail draws close enough to the northern property boundary of the preserve that you can see a subdivision pressing against the fence.
At 4.9 miles, the trail crosses the cypress strand at Trout Creek on a long causeway like the one at Clay Gully. A separate path and footbridge are in place for hikers.
We took the time to walk along it, as it’s a reasonable hike in from the Bruce B. Downs trailhead, and saw otters swimming in the depths of the tannic water.
Soon after Trout Creek, the trail reaches a T junction. An off-road trail along a levee takes off to the left to connect south to Wilderness Park.
Another paved trail heads southwest. We didn’t follow it but think it leads to a nearby school or neighborhood.
The main paved trail joins the levee heading north. Turn right at this junction.
The levee you are on is the outside boundary of the floodplain incorporated into the Lower Hillsborough Flood Detention Area, protecting Tampa.
Well below it is a paralleling two-track road for municipal trucks to follow. Hikers take advantage of it as well, for in the morning it’s in the shade, unlike the levee.
Following a gentle curve above the pines and floodplain forest, the levee points straight towards Bruce B. Downs Blvd. You can see traffic well before you reach the trailhead.
At 6 miles, the paved path empties into the trailhead parking area, which has picnic tables, restrooms, a bike wash, and a water bottle filling station.
Turn around and head back the way you came, crossing Trout Creek en route, to reach the west junction of the Flatwoods Loop at 8.2 miles.
The signs straight ahead at the junction signal that you must turn right and follow the loop one way on its south side.
This part of the trail has a completely different character than the north side of the loop. The flatwoods are more open to start, with a solid understory of saw palmetto.
As the pines crowd in, they offer shade. A hiking trail comes in from the left, as does the Main Trail of the offroad singletrack, with benches in the shade at Marker 37.
While no houses appear in the distance, there are lots of side paths to the municipal wells, increasing in number as you continue down the trail.
As we discovered, the puzzling worn track on the left is from maintenance trucks against bike traffic riding with one wheel off the bike path.
Oak hammocks provide more density to the pine flatwoods as the trail approaches the South Loop water station shelter at 10.2 miles.
Birdsong rises from a wet prairie nearby. The trail continues through more mature pines casting dappled morning shade.
Reaching a cypress strand, it crosses the gated outflow of a big swamp to the north through a large culvert beneath the trail.
This tannic outflow continues through floodplain forests to the Hillsborough River, which is less than a mile south.
At 11.9 miles, the trail meets the Y intersection at the east junction and its water station shelter.
Continue straight ahead for the last stretch through the pine flatwoods to finish up after 12.3 miles at the Flatwoods Park trailhead.
On a hybrid or a mountain bike? Flatwoods Park lets you mix up your ride by connecting paved and unpaved trails together.
Singletrack crosses the paved loop before you soon as you reach the water station shelter west of the Flatwoods Park trailhead.
Look for Marker 24, Main Trail, on the left. This trail leads down to Morris Bridge Rd and the Hillsborough River to connect with the greater offroad trail network of Wilderness Park.
If you continue up to the water station and the loop junction, hop on the singletrack into the woods behind it at Marker 25.
It splits the difference between the two sides of the paved loop, reaching the far side of the loop at Marker 37.
Cross the loop again, and Marker 39 leads to the Panther Loop, a stand-alone loop, before the Main Trail hits the west side of the preserve within earshot of Interstate 75.
Here you can head north towards Bruce B. Downs trailhead and catch the paved trail back to Flatwoods, or head south on singletrack to Trout Creek to loop around to Wilderness Park.
Volunteers from SWAMP – the Southwest Association of Mountain Bike Pedalers – started their involvement with these public lands in 1992.
They continue to maintain this extensive trail system, and are always looking for volunteers to assist here and at other local parks with offroad trails for cyclists.
SWAMP Trail Details SWAMP Trail Map (PDF)
While any of the paved trails are also open to hiking – and are paralleled by a rut that makes for a slightly softer surface – there are dedicated hiking trails as well.
See the dotted lines on the full map. From the Flatwoods Park trailhead, the footpaths enable you to cross the forest looped by the Flatwoods Loop and make shorter loop hikes.
We saw quite a few people walking the service road below the levee from Bruce B. Downs trailhead in the morning, when the trees cast shade.
Only a 2.2 mile round trip, Trout Creek makes a good destination on this side of the park.
A pedestrian bridge leads up to the cypress-lined waterway, where we watched otters at play.
If you walk the paved loop, directionality is not a problem. Cyclists must follow it counterclockwise but hikers aren’t restricted.
Be mindful of the distances and the heat if you take on the whole paved loop. The water station shelters are a great help.
Learn more about Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve
Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve
As the largest natural area in the Tampa Bay region, Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve is a major destination for recreation, with seven entrances across 16,000 acres
See our photos of Flatwoods Park
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Oak Ridge Tract
A mosaic of cypress swamps, pine flatwoods, and sandhills, the Oak Ridge Tract of Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve offers an immersive day hike destination with many hiking options
Morris Bridge Park
While the gentle loop boardwalk at Morris Bridge Park is a major reason to stop and savor the Hillsborough River, the park also provides cyclists a trailhead to off-road adventure
Lake Conservation Park
A forested escape north of Tampa, Lake Conservation Park features a network of trails where you can loop nearly four miles around a series of small lakes.
Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park
Explore an expansive landscape of pine flatwoods, prairies, scrubby flatwoods, and open scrub along nearly 50 miles of trails just east of New Port Richey