Extreme Nature: Withlacoochee Adventures
That old saying, "If you don't like the weather, wait a minute" is true enough of our Florida summers, but any time of year, you could say, "If you don't like the terrain, just drive a mile." Our state's sheer size ensures layer upon layer of natural discoveries. We Floridians enjoy the luxury of becoming intimate with what's truly special and hidden about Florida's outback.
Like most, you may have first become acquainted with Florida nature at the beach. Sooner or later you are drawn into the mystery and retreat of its mangroves, its forest hammocks, pinelands, scrublands and swamps. You can find, beneath the state's polished veneer, an infinite variety of unspoiled landscape where you can get close to the elements and catch a good nature buzz.
Florida is extreme nature. Extreme in its mood swings. It ranges from essentially tropical islands and deep drifting dunescape to mucky wetlands, limestone caverns, viney jungle, and magnificent forests of oak and magnolia. Each bioscape offers its own brand of feel-good recreation - paddling, diving, swimming, camping, surfing, hiking, cycling, spelunking - you name it.
Native Americans called it "crooked river." So it felt fitting, if not serendipitous, that we would find ourselves camping at a slight elevation above a scenic C-bend in the Withlacoochee River. It cupped us in its embrace and even laid out a splat of sand beach for our own private use. My son pronounced it the best camping spot we'd ever had. In the cool of the morning, as the fog spirited off the water and tangled in the shroud-like strands of Spanish moss hanging from the cypress, I had to agree. Something mystical was going on here.
We hadn't been quite ready to admit its superlative qualities back when we were trying to find River Junction Recreation Area. We had completely missed the turn into the Croom Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest, figuring that little old dirt road next to the sign just couldn't possibly be where we were expected to drive. After eliminating all other possibilities, we finally turned down the road and into a forest of pure enchantment.
At the end of the road (dirt, yes, and a bit rutty, but well-maintained) lay River Junction at a widening in the Withlacoochee River known as Silver Lake. The River Junction recreation area comprises 20 campsites, a restroom-shower facility and a dump station for RVs. That's it. This was a little more primitive than we were accustomed to, big fans of Florida's state parks that we are. Withlacoochee appeals to a cut-loose brand of camper who's not quite ready, nonetheless, to give up basic conveniences such as picnic tables, running water and fire rings.
But like 157,479-acre Withlacoochee State Forest itself, the forest's appeal ranges far - beyond camping, beyond one road. Sprawling its seven separate tracts across four counties - Hernando, Sumter, Pasco and Citrus - Withlacoochee's recreation areas have something to appease every outdoor interest. Croom Tract, which straddles Interstate 75 less than an hour north of Tampa, is most accessible and recreationally-friendly. Yet thoroughly backwoods: we drove for hours and never ran out of tree-canopied forest lanes.
Silver Lake Recreation Complex, across the river from River Junction, is Withlacoochee's largest park with more than 83 campsites (57 with electrical hookups) dispersed among three separate grounds to retain a feeling of small community. At Croom's north end, Hog Island Recreation Area is popular for its convenience to canoeing and bicycle rentals. That weekend, it was filled about 50-50 with tenters and RVers. River Junction (with my son's favorite campsite) is usually only open on the weekends; it is off the beaten path and attracts principally tent campers.
Croom Tract is a favorite because it's close to the interstate, and because both the Withlacoochee River and the Withlacoochee State Trail traverse its 21,359 acres. This is good news not only for fishermen and bikers. Paddlers with their own vessels can launch at scenic Iron Bridge Day Use Recreation Area, where we flopped down on our backs alongside the river - twice as wide here as at our campsite - just to stare up at the clouds and thank the heavens for places like this.
The Day Use Area gets its name from the existing remnants of an old phosphate mining bridge, a memory of Withlacoochee's boom days. You can rent canoes and kayaks and hitch a shuttle ride with Nobleton Canoe Rentals, which is located just outside of northern park boundaries. A primitive canoe camping zone lies down river from Iron Bridge.
One of Florida's most successful rails-to-trails projects, Withlacoochee State Trail runs 46 miles, its paved surface ideal for biking or in-line skating. Volunteers have built benches and restroom facilities along the way, and restore and maintain the facilities and landscaping. En route to Floral City, Inverness and Citrus Springs up north, it passes through woodlands, parks and historic mining towns. Another access to the trail is found at Silver Lake Recreation Area.
Hikers can of course also use the state trail, plus the Croom tract provides miles of wilderness hiking, including parts of the statewide Florida Trail. Gentle slopes interrupt the trails' general even keel. Horseback riders love Withlacoochee State Forest for its designated hoofing trails and handy parking areas. As we drove and hiked through the forest, we encountered dozens of riders emerging from the woods or clopping along the dirt roads. Besides thick, sun-dappled forest fuzzy with resurrection fern, moss and lichen, Withlacoochee Trail users may encounter fruit trees, homestead vestiges and mining pits. Most satisfying, they find peace, utter silence but for the distant purr of civilization, and the occasional tattoo of a pileated woodpecker.
Croom even caters to off-road motor-bikers with a 2,600-acre facility in an abandoned mine and borrow pit. The recreation areas are spread out enough to give you a deep sense of wilderness. You can't help but feel you're getting away from it all here. Way away.
Hunters head to nearby 56,000-acre Richloam Tract, one of five hunting tracts, largely undeveloped and home to re-introduced Cracker ponies and cattle. Much of the state's foresting efforts are headquartered here. Jumper Creek Tract, 10,068 acres, also comprises principally undeveloped land. Birdwatchers, hikers and horseback riders come here for reprieve. The river runs along its western border and wild hogs, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and sometimes even black bears seek shelter here. Check seasonal hunting dates at myfwc.com.
Forest Headquarters and Citrus Tract provide more in the way of recreational facilities. Forest Headquarters, west of Croom, has day-use areas for picnicking and hiking. Its 1,230 acres include a two-mile nature trail.
Citrus Tract, with nearly 50,000 acres in Citrus County, holds three recreation areas with camping. Tillis Hill Recreation Area is the largest with 37 campsites with electrical hookups and a horse stable. Horseback riders also have a primitive campground for overnight roughing-it on the trail. Citrus Tract's hefty deer herd population attracts archery hunters. Hikers have an opportunity to spot squirrels, foxes, hawks and a wide variety of other birds. Soil is sandier here and the terrain scrubbier - an extreme departure from the low-lying cypress swamps of Croom Tract.
The newest tracts in the state forest are the Homosassa Tract and the Two Mile Prairie Tract, which both contain hiking trails and excellent birdwatching.
Croom's swamps are so diverse, they might be flooded with rains and alive with creatures, or dried down to a moist ravine. Here, pencil-straight tree trunks with their flouncy "skirts" appear as though they're melting into the ground. Their gnome-like knees poke out mischievously, keeping amateur botanists guessing at their purpose. Sporadic stands of pines look like a feather-duster army come to sweep the sky. They spread their carpet of needles, instant heady incense when trod upon. The smell triggers flashbacks of campfires, hooting owls in the dark night, and early morning awakenings in the woods.
Withlacoochee will do that to you. Play with your sense of reality and mingle it with prankish chimera. The forest is enchanted and the river is twisted. And at the end of a few days, we found ourselves a little of both. It was only fitting.