A Guide to Florida's State Forests
Let nature pamper you. Florida's forests and parks welcome visitors with sparkling waters, unspoiled wilderness and miles upon miles of hiking and biking trails.
On a cool morning in late October, an eerie mist rises over the sandhill scrub in the Citrus Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest. As the first rays of sunlight filter through the pine trees, a thunder of wings echoes the woods.
"Whoo! Whoo-whoo-whoo!" the great bird cries. "Whoo! Whoo!"
The horned owl, one of the forest's great hunters, is returning from its nocturnal work. We sit quietly and wait, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious bird. Then, after a few minutes of awkward silence, we are rewarded when the owl takes flight again, its five-foot wingspan casting a shadow on the forest floor.
It is moments such as this that brings us back, again and again, to Florida's state forests. I have spent many long days wandering along empty, tree-lined trails, with birds, deer and wild hog my only companions. These vast, publicly-owned lands are one of the state's best- kept secrets.
A CROOKED RIVER
With more than one million acres of undeveloped wilderness, Florida's 35 state forests are a veritable playground for backpackers, birders, paddlers and off-road cyclists. From northwest Florida to the Everglades, these public lands receive just a fraction of the use than the more highly publicized state parks.
Withlacoochee State Forest, the third largest forest in the state system, is conveniently located within a two-hour drive of major airports in both Tampa and Orlando. The word Withlacoochee comes from the language of the Seminole Indian Tribe and means "crooked river." It is an appropriate name because this wild waterway twists and turns for 70 miles from its headwaters in the Green Swamp all the way to Gulf of Mexico at Yankeetown.
Withlacoochee State Forest, like most in the state system, offers seasonal hunting opportunities. Anglers will also find sport fishing opportunities plentiful in the slow-moving river. But it is the forest's trails - for hiking, cycling and motor biking - which draw the most interest. Crowds are never a problem and it is not unusual to find the place all to yourself. It is no wonder that the World Wildlife Fund once declared Withlacoochee State Forest one of the "Ten Coolest Places You've Never Been in North America."
The forest is divided into three main tracts.
Richloam, 10 miles north of Dade City, has combination trails that vary in length from five- to 10-mile loops.
The Croom Tract, located east of Brooksville, has three loops that make good day hikes. Withlacoochee State Forest's Croom Tract is one of the few places in Florida where off-road motorcycle enthusiasts have found a home. Dirt bikers and ATV riders have more than 2,600 acres of land to play in at two different day-use areas.
The Citrus Tract, southwest of Inverness, has a variety of trails, that when put together, form the longest backpacking loop in Florida. The rugged 43-mile trail rolls over sandhills and through forests of oak and pine. Wildlife, such as the previously mentioned great horned owl, is abundant, which also is a reason why the area should be avoided during hunting season.
The Forest's Tillis Hill Recreation Area has two equestrian trails, a one-day, 12-mile loop and a two-day, 24-mile loop. But the Silver Lake Recreation Area, 10 miles south of Nobleton, is one of Withlacoochee's most popular. With a canoe/boat launch and three riverfront campgrounds, Silver Lake is a popular destination for both visitors and residents alike.
To the north, you'll find the terrain quite different, which is why many local inhabitants joke that they should be considered residents of another state. North Florida does have its unique attributes, the most notable being elevation.With a highpoint of 290 feet above sea level, Blackwater River State Forest has its share of hills, a rarity in Florida. Located about three hours west of Tallahassee, the forest's 209,000 acres, combined with the land of an adjacent national forest and air force base, comprise the largest single stand of longleaf pine trees in the world. But this Florida state forest's greatest treasure is the waterway from which it draws its name.
Poll the state's veteran canoeists and kayakers and they will tell you that the Blackwater is one of Florida's great, unspoiled rivers. Don't let the dark water fool you. The tea color comes from the tannins of the pine trees that leach through the porous soil. If you cupped your hands and examined the water more closely, you would find it's actually clear - crystal clear. Just like its tributaries - Juniper, Coldwater and Sweetwater Creeks.
In the summer months, the Blackwater River is a popular weekend getaway as every bend in the river seems to hold a private beach of fine white sand.
The possibilities for watersports enthusiasts are boundless, as the Blackwater's 50-mile run and the three adjacent creeks can combine for a variety of day and overnight trips. But fans of flora and fauna will find Blackwater River State Forest's backcountry areas equally appealing. Hike off the beaten path and you'll see white-tailed deer, wild turkey and the Sherman's fox squirrel. The Florida state forest also has a healthy helping of carnivorous plants including butteworts, glistening sundews and the pitcher plant.
The North and South Karick Lake Recreation Areas have full-service camping and ramps for boats and fishermen.
North Hurricane Lake also has campsites with electricity, as well as the six-mile-long Wiregrass Hiking Trail.
The Sweetwater Trail, at the Krul Recreation Area, has 2,900 feet of handicap-accessible boardwalk.
The Bear Lake Recreation Area has both hiking and mountain biking, in addition to camping and a dining hall with kitchen available by reservation. Thirty to 40 miles of horse trails, along with horse stalls, are available at Coldwater Recreation Area. The Sweetwater, Bear Lake and Wiregrass trails are all part of the State's Trailwalker Program.
GOLDEN GATE ESTATES
While northern Florida has its own allure, the southern part of the state has its own inherent beauty. The area around Picayune Strand State Forest near Naples was once considered wasteland.
It was here in the 1960s that the one of the greatest "swampland scams" in Florida history was hatched. Investors from around the country were flown to "Golden Gate Estates" during the dry season and sold large, 2.5-acre lots. The only problem was the property flooded during the summer, so most of the land south of Alligator Alley could not be developed. The development eventually went bankrupt and the state stepped in and purchased the property rights from 17,000 landowners with money made available under the "Save Our Everglades" program. Once the restoration work is completed, the natural sheet flow of freshwater will resume and help preserve the continued health of The Everglades and 10,000 Islands.
While the word "picayune" may mean something of little worth, this 78,615-acre state forest in Collier County is priceless when it comes to its value to wildlife. Part of the Big Cypress Basin, much of the land here is inundated during times of heavy rain. The wet prairies, pine flatwoods and subtropical hardwood hammocks provide ideal habitat for a variety of rare and endangered species, including bald eagle, wood stork and black bear. The chance of seeing a Florida panther on state forest property is rare, but in recent years, several females have borne cubs on this wild piece of property.
Located about five miles east of Naples, Picayune Strand State Forest is a great place for a day hike. The 3.2-mile Sabal Palm Hiking Trail has two loops. Bring plenty of water, because it can be hot, even in the winter. Don't forget your binoculars, either - Picayune Strand is known as one of the best birding spots in the country.
The forest's 28-mile horse trail has an oak-shaded primitive campsite located at its mid-point. Visitors can bring their own animals. Horses can also be rented at a nearby stable. The 45 miles of canals, an ill-fated attempt to drain the land, now hold trophy-size largemouth bass. Anglers can fish from shore or boat. A ramp is located on the Fakaunion Canal.
State forests off the beaten path tend to get fewer visitors, so if solitude is what you seek, you may want to explore one of the following:
Cary State Forest, located in northeastern Florida near Jacksonville, is home to the eastern indigo snake, gopher tortoise and black bear. Three primitive campsites make this an ideal destination for backpackers.
Volusia County's Lake George State Forest, near Barberville, is rich in archaeological history and offers access to the St. Johns River. There's no boat ramp, so bring a canoe or kayak that can be launched from the bank.
Lake Wales Ridge State Forest, located in Polk County near Frostproof, provides habitat for 24 plants and 19 animals under state or federal protection. This naturalist's dream contains 20 miles of the Florida Trail system.
Water flowing through Southwest Florida's Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest feeds the Big Cypress Preserve. The forest has several "hidden" areas that offer excellent fishing opportunities.
Editor's Note: Check local hunting regulations before venturing into any state forest.