Also known as the Oak Ridge Equestrian Area, the Oak Ridge Tract of Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve is crisscrossed by 18 miles of marked forest roads and trails.
These burrow deep into both upland hardwood hammocks and floodplain forests along the Hillsborough River floodplain.
Although the habitats show signs of former ranching, with ditches draining wetland areas and stands of planted trees, there are pockets of giant oaks and cypresses within the preserve.
This route is one of many possible using the network of forest roads and trails through the preserve.
We were led along this particular hike as part of a group activity with the Suncoast chapter of the Florida Trail Association.
Resources for exploring the area
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Length: 7.2 mile round-trip and loop
Trailhead: 28.1139, -82.3067
Address: 14302 Morris Bridge Rd, Thontosassa
Fees: $2 flat rate fee for parking at Flatwoods Park to access this tract
Restroom: At the Flatwoods Park trailhead
Land manager: Hillsborough County
Phone: 813-987-6240 (call 813-426-5583 for ranger assistance)
Trails open dawn to dusk. No dogs or bicycles are permitted.
Drones and other remote controlled vehicles are not permitted in the preserve.
From Interstate 75 exit 266, follow Morris Bridge Rd (CR 579) north. After 3.5 miles, you’ll cross the bridge over the Hillsborough River at Morris Bridge Park. The entrance to the Flatwoods Park trailhead is another 1.4 miles on the left. We started our hike there and it is described from there.
The official Oak Ridge Tract equestrian trailhead is north of Cross Creek Blvd at 15847 Morris Bridge Rd. We didn’t use it for this hike as it lies north of Bassett Creek, which has no bridge over it.
To get to the loop requires a walk back out along the entrance road. Leaving the Flatwoods Park trailhead, walk out to Morris Bridge Rd, turn left, and walk north facing traffic.
After 0.4 mile from the trailhead parking area, the Washburn Gate is on the opposite side of the road. Watching the road for traffic, carefully cross the road and make your way through the gate.
Turn left. Follow the forest road into the woods. At the next junction, a T intersection, make a right. At the next T, turn left. You’ll see the Pine Island Trail going straight ahead.
At the Y intersection soon after, keep to the right side. The trail meanders through a floodplain forest paralleling a canal.
Cypress knees are sprinkled across the trail as it draws you into a hammock of tall old-growth pines and oaks, which yields to a palm hammock.
Two miles into the hike, southern magnolia stand tall above the cabbage palms of this lush palm hammock in the floodplain.
After 2.6 miles, reach a T intersection in an upland area. Turn right, and the trail goes deeper into the palm hammock, the canopy overhead becoming more tightly knit.
As the surroundings get swampy, big mud puddles form across the forest floor and intersect your path. Wading may be necessary.
Cinnamon ferns poke out from around the cypress knees at the base of the towering trees. Look carefully at their trunks for the water marks: they were three feet up the trees on our visit.
At 2.9 miles, an arrow on a tree points left. Dropping down into a small ditch, the trail rises up into higher, drier woodlands.
Overhead, live oaks of spectacular size shade the forest, their limbs dense with resurrection fern.
At 3.1 miles, there is a trail junction. Continue straight ahead. The trail to the right goes to the Oak Ridge Trailhead.
Cabbage palms rise to the sky over this part of the forest, with the showy live oaks below.
Obvious against the surrounding greenery by their changing leaves, sweetgum and red maples are interspersed along the floodplain.
Following a causeway – perhaps an old railroad tramway – through the swamp forest, the trail reaches an immense live oak at 3.5 miles.
Soon after, the footpath emerges into an open area where tall grasses and woody shrubs have taken over a former man-made clearing.
Turn left at a turnoff where the straight-ahead option leads to Basset Creek, where continuing that way would mean wading the creek.
By 3.7 miles, the trail re-enters the swampy palm hammock, offering up more puddles to skirt around.
Shoelace fern dangles from the mossy trunks of the cabbage palms, which in turn are shaded by another grove of ancient live oaks.
At 3.9 miles, we met another junction of trails. The one straight ahead ends at a fence line. Being baffled by the depth of Bassett Creek from making a loop, this was our turnaround point.
Coming back through the palm hammock, it’s a joy to walk beneath the ancient oaks of the Oak Ridge Tract, but you do need to watch your footing for the mushy mud.
Back at the T intersection, turn left at 4.2 miles. Reaching a sharp turn at 4.9 miles, follow the arrows.
At 5.2 miles, pass a trail to the left with a “4” on a tree. This is a junction with another trail on the right.
Emerging from the immersive palm hammocks into an oak hammock, the trail winds through tall grasses at 5.9 miles.
Heading up into the palm and oak hammock, it is less damp on this side of the loop, with the feel of a climax sandhill forest.
Cross a floodplain of cypress and cypress knees at 6 miles. A nice mix of elms adds in soft greens in springtime.
Reach a white diamond sign at 6.2 miles. An opening in the forest is an old forest road.
Off to the right is a berm and another canal from the old ranch, with a line of cypress beyond it.
At the next grassy junction with a forest road, there is a barbed wire fence boundary off to the right along the edge of the preserve.
This area has an open understory where the forest floor may be torn up by hogs. Laurel oaks and a smattering of slash pines and wiregrass surround the trail.
Tall stands of grasses line this forest road. Off in the distance, past the large slash pines in the foreground, a cypress strand forms a line in the background.
At 6.6 miles is another trail sign and the number “9” on a pine tree on the left. Turn left, passing a water control structure.
Reaching a Y intersection within the next quarter mile, bear right. The sounds of traffic along Morris Bridge Road are noticable as you walk through the sandhills.
The final T intersection is at 6.9 miles. Turn right to emerge at the Washburn Gate and walk back down along Morris Bridge Rd to the entrance road to Flatwoods Park.
Returning to the trailhead by walking up the entrance road, you wrap up a 7.2 mile hike.
Learn more about Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve
See our photos from hiking the Oak Ridge Tract
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
In addition to the 6.9 mile paved bike path loop at its core, Flatwoods Park at Lower Hillsborough Wilderness provides many different routes for outdoor exploration
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
Discover a surprising play of whitewater across the Alafia River where the river churns as it winds through a deeply eroded channel.