It was the lack of blazes that caught my eye. Especially at intersections. Here and there, we’d find a diamond marking the route that the equestrian trails followed. But with Lenny leading the way, we simply followed.
The Oak Ridge Tract of Lower Hillsborough River Wilderness Area is another in a vast patchwork of lands – 16,000 acres, all told – that make up the largest natural woodlands in Hillsborough County. How did these, with the press of New Tampa against them, remain undeveloped? A little footnote to history called the Lower Hillsborough Water Detention Area, which sprung up as a government project in response to flooding in Tampa during Hurricane Donna in 1960. The Army Corps of Engineers built the Tampa Bypass Canal and a system of levees and canals through the Hillsborough River floodplain north of Temple Terrace to “hold back the waters” should the Hillsborough rise again.
Most of the area is part of Wilderness Park, that locals know as the best area for off-road bicycling in the region. Set aside for equestrians and hikers, the Oak Ridge Tract is a quieter, less used, more wild slice of wilderness.
Before John and I made our trip to Tampa to speak at Bill Jackson’s on behalf of the Suncoast Chapter of the Florida Trail Association, Lenny Chew asked if we’d be up for a hike. We said sure! Unfortunately, John’s having some muscle issues and can’t do distances, so he hung back at the trailhead while I headed out with the group, which pulled together on a Tuesday morning from several surrounding counties.
Although the skies were foggy when we arrived, it brightened up as we hiked. When we’d come to a junction, I’d mark it in my GPS. Most didn’t have an arrow, although a handful did. Lenny pointed out several side trails to places like “Pine Island” and “The Creek.” As he lives nearby, he’s explored all of these old forest roads and trails and knows them well.
Levees and drainage ditches belied the forest growing around them: humans did have an effect on the landscape. Whether it was cattle ranchers a century ago or the Army Corps of Engineers 50 years ago, it’s hard to tell.
Walking through cypress strands with a visitor from California on his first hike, it was fun to point out the water marks on the trees. I made a point of identifying major trees and plants along the route.
I was especially impressed by the old-growth patches of forest, featuring extremely tall, thick live oak trees. Some towered so high and branched so thickly I made the wild guess that they might be 500 years old.
We finished up the 7.2 mile circuit in a little under three hours. The Suncoast Chapter frequently leads hikes – a variety of lengths and configurations – through this area, so be sure to check their Meetup site for an upcoming trek.