With its extensive waterfront on Lake Tarpon and Brooker Creek in Palm Harbor, John Chesnut Sr. Park has always been a popular natural getaway for folks near Tampa and Clearwater Beach. Pop in any weekend and you’ll see the picnic pavilions busy and people headed out on the water from the boat ramp. In this 255-acre urban woodland, three trails provide different takes on the waterways, forests, and marshes that make up the park. Family-friendly and dog-friendly, the trails are comfortable for hikers of all ages, covering 2.7 miles two loops.
Location: Palm Harbor
Length: 2.7 miles
Lat-Long: 28.085158, -82.702635 (South Loop) and 28.096832, -82.709669 (North Loop)
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate to high
Restroom: at the parking areas
Open 7 AM to sunset. The trails are wheelchair-accessible with slight assistance needed on natural footpaths.
From the junction of SR 60 (Gulf to Bay) and McMullen Booth Road (CR 611) in Clearwater, drive north on McMullen Booth Road. Four miles north of Safety Harbor, it crosses CR 752 (Tampa Road) in Oldsmar on an overpass. Continue north on CR 611, which now changes its name to East Lake Road. Continue another 2 miles. The park entrance is on the left just after you cross Brooker Creek. Once you’re inside the park, follow the road to the South Parking Loop to find the trailhead for the Peggy Park Nature Trail.
Start your hike at the Peggy Park Nature Trail, named for a local wildlife officer who gave her life in the line of duty. Beginning in pine flatwoods, you quickly enter the floodplain forest along Lake Tarpon, where the trail rises up on a boardwalk to keep your feet dry. One stately bald cypress towers well above the rest. Tannic water sloshes beneath the boards, massaging the roots of cinnamon ferns and giant leather ferns. Elephant ears and royal ferns cluster between the bases of the cypresses. The boardwalk swings left as it reaches the edge of Lake Tarpon, providing your first glimpse of the dark, undulating surface of the lake. Watch out for gray squirrels trying to get a little too close -- they’ve been fed, and they think you’ll feed them too.
As it veers away from views of the lake, the boardwalk curves through the dense cypress forest, meeting Brooker Creek close to where it enters Lake Tarpon. As the boardwalk ends, a trail continues along the placid creek, with many opportunities to you to sit on benches along its shore and watch for turtles and alligators. Crushed white shells crunch underfoot beneath the cabbage palms, slash pines, and live oaks. Don’t be surprised to see people fishing along the creek, as there is boater access upstream and from the lake.
After a half mile, there is a sign that indicates a short cut back to the trailhead to the left. Turn right to continue following Brooker Creek through the cypresses, slash pines, and gnarled oaks. As the road noise increases, the trail turns left, away from the creek, then left again to loop back towards the trailhead, entering a forest with a tall canopy of laurel oaks and slash pines. This path merges into the shortcut trail. Turn right and walk along the crunchy shell path, passing several picnic tables inside oak hammock. After 0.8 mile, you reach the trailhead. But your hike isn’t over! Walk along the edge of the parking lot away from the trailhead until you find a break in the woods. A path slips through the oaks to emerge at Pavilion 1. Work your way along the pebbled path past the boat ramp to reach the Lookout Tower Trail, which starts at the boardwalk on the other side of the boat ramp.
There is no railing along the side of the boardwalk facing the canal for boat access to Lake Tarpon, but there are plenty of benches for enjoying the breeze plus a bunch of dead-end side trails, boardwalks leading to picnic tables hidden inside the cypress strand. Where the canal meets the lake, the boardwalk makes a sharp right and you’re facing a 40-foot-tall observation tower after 1.1 miles. Climb up to the top and take in the view across this massive lake. Yes, Tarpon Springs is on the far shore.
As it follows the shoreline, the boardwalk stays along the edge of the floodplain forest. Views through the vegetation let you glimpse moorhens and coots poking around the shallows. There are side trails to sheltered observation platforms at many points along this section, enabling you to enjoy some excellent birding. The third turnoff is perhaps the best, as it overlooks a small bay protected from the main portion of the lake by cattails and reeds.
At the next trail junction, continue straight. The boardwalk leads to more picnic tables, more platforms along the lake, coming to a dead-end after 1.2 miles. Turn around and return to the trail junction; turn left. The boardwalk heads into the cypress swamp, coming to a T intersection. Turn right; the trail to the left leads to the north parking lot. The boardwalk ends and the trail becomes a footpath of crushed seashells, winding through the cool shade of the cypress swamp. Cinnamon ferns and cypress knees crowd close. As the trail swings to the right, zigzagging back towards the boat ramp, the understory of the cypress swamp becomes a sea of waving ferns. At the T intersection, turn left, retracing your steps back around the boat ramp and pavilion 1 to return to the south parking lot, completing your 1.8-mile hike.
The northern loop starts within sight of Lake Tarpon at a spot that was once the park’s beach. You’ll need to drive to the trailhead, or plan a couple of extra miles of walking. From the boat ramp, follow the park road north past the dog park and playground. Keep left at the fork past the bridge. The parking area adjoins restrooms and Pavilion 10. Look for the trail to the left of the restrooms, a crushed shell footpath paralleling the shore of Lake Tarpon. Just as the boardwalk begins, there’s an observation deck off to the left lifting you up over the cattails for another view of the lake.
Returning to the boardwalk, turn left and follow it as it makes a sharp right. The cypress swamp here is not as old and grand as the one along Brooker Creek, but its secluded location within the park makes it a more likely place to see wildlife. Well-shaded by the forest canopy, the boardwalk is long and narrow, and shows its age. It’s probably due for an upgrade, like the other boardwalks have undergone since my first visit. When it ends, you’re on a crushed shell path, with cypress swamp on the left and pine flatwoods on the right. Coming to the next narrow boardwalk at 0.2 mile, there is a bench overlooking a willow marsh with deeper water, where a red-shouldered hawk glides in and lands on a low branch.
The boardwalk ends, and the trail is once again a crunchy shell path as you pass a “Stay on Trail” sign within sight of houses behind the trees. A trail comes in from the left. On the right is a landscaped marsh around a retention pond. The next boardwalk begins and passes a bayhead. Older cypress knees rise from the shallows, including one that looks very much like a planter covered in colorful bromeliads.
After a half mile, the boardwalk ends within sight of a long, linear waterway. Cross the path and take the bridge over the small canal. This is one of the many “islands” providing picnic spots in this part of the park. Turn right to walk along the canal. Turn right again and cross the canal on the wooden park road bridge. Turn left near the “Pavilion 13” sign and start following the shoreline. Do watch out for alligators! An obvious path eventually veers right past a picnic table to lead you back towards Pavilion 10. Cross the road and you’re back where you started, walking 0.9 mile on this loop.