Tampa – This city of more than 300,000 inhabitants epitomizes “sprawling.”
Extending from the compact downtown is an eclectic mix of neighborhoods and business areas covering 110 square miles. But tying it all together are some of the most beautiful water and foliage in the world, so appealing that Forbes ranked Tampa among the nation’s five best cities for enjoying the outdoors.
From downtown, Davis Islands and Bayshore Boulevard are just minutes away, blending almost seamlessly into the city center. A breathtaking view of the Tampa skyline sustains that connection, but the surroundings wash away your worries.
Need a retreat from all things electronic? Then farther out, 15 minutes from the University of South Florida, are the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve Park Trails.
We'll tell you about two parks in the preserve, along with another just outside of it, that offer jogging, hiking and bike trails (both on- and off-road), and fishing, kayak and canoe areas.
Five places in all to exhale. Let’s start downtown.
Urban Sanctuaries/Fort Lauderdale
Starting at the Platt Street Bridge downtown and winding south along Hillsborough Bay for more than four miles, Bayshore is one of the most scenic stretches in Florida.
The “Boulevard of Dreams” was a trolley route in the late 1800s before its regal transformation in the 1930s. A balustrade sea wall defines the waterfront. Four to six lanes of traffic are separated by tree-lined islands. Then come the stately mansions of upscale Hyde Park and Palma Ceia.
A major renovation project in the 1990s widened the sidewalk and added a limited cycling lane. Near dawn and dusk, this urban path is daily ritual for walkers and runners, two-legged and four-legged.
Every hundred yards, benches suggest a pause to consider the natural beauty – the sun’s yellow, orange and pink reflections on the water, or the blue-black arrival of a late-afternoon storm.
Dolphins and manatees have been known to congregate along the seawall. Bayshore is a place to see and be seen.
Beware of traffic. At some points, there are six lanes of cars going 40 or faster. But once you've reached the water side, relax. You've arrived at Tampa’s linear oasis.
If You Go: Parking in the downtown area is limited and metered. Drive south about 1.5 miles to Hyde Park and park along Rome Avenue, which is perpendicular to Bayshore. More free parking is at the southwest corner of Bay to Bay and Bayshore. The balustrades and sidewalk end 4.25 miles south of downtown at Gandy Boulevard, but you can walk south another half-mile to Ballast Point Park and Pier, next to the Tampa Yacht Club. The best times to use Bayshore for exercise are the early morning and late afternoon, particularly in the summer months. To measure your distance traveled, see the small brass medallions cemented into the sidewalk every half-mile and kilometer.
Looking south from downtown, all you can see is Tampa General Hospital. Look again, but closer.
A short bridge connects the city with Davis Islands. When you arrive here, the speed limits drop and so does the pace. Residents call it "Island Time."
Park along shaded Columbia Drive, near the Sandy Freedman Tennis Complex. Walk or run south. A small yacht basin has the Tampa skyline as its backdrop.
On Channel Drive, look across the water to Harbour Island. The Glazer family, owners of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and world soccer giants Manchester United, live here.
The fancy homes give way to Tampa's port, home to cruise liners and ocean-going cargo ships. On South Davis Boulevard, at the edge of Peter O. Knight Airport, is the city's newest "linear park" project, an asphalt sidewalk running along the airport's outer fence and southward 1.5 miles to the Davis Islands Yacht Club.
Near the yacht club, there is a protected cove and "seaplane basin," where sailboats anchor. There’s a new dog park, if you have canine company.
If you've traveled from the tennis complex to the yacht basin, you've covered three miles. This stretch of wide, low-traffic roadways and sidewalks is used by many walkers, runners and cyclists. Local drivers know it and tend to share the road with the exercise traffic.
If you're seeking a little more shade and a tour of the Islands’ mansions, bring a map or a Tampa native. From Columbia Drive, head west across East Davis Boulevard.
Derek Jeter lives here. The Yankees shortstop’s home on Bahama Circle covers three lots and 30,000 square feet. Expect to see like-minded wanderers armed with cameras. There's even a Segway tour of the islands that goes past "The House that Jeter Built."
If You Go: From downtown, take Hyde Park Avenue or Bayshore Boulevard to the one bridge that takes all traffic to Davis Islands. The closer you are to Tampa General Hospital, the more likely the streets have parking restrictions. After 6 p.m., the parking lot of Hillsborough Community College is usually open for free. There is also parking at the extreme southern end of Davis Islands, at the beach area along the seaplane basin.
Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve
Less than nine miles from the University of South Florida, Flatwoods Park might be the best-kept secret in Tampa. A seven-mile paved road and several miles of off-road trails loop through the park. Deer, gopher tortoises, birds and, yes, the occasional snake cross your path.
The Visitors Center, near the main entrance on Morris Bridge Road is staffed by a ranger. Bathrooms and water fountains are available as well as maps of the site. It’s hard to get lost. Most of the trails are located within the circumference of the paved loop.
Biking, jogging, walking and in-line skating are common activities on the hardtop. Mountain bikers, hikers and cross-country runners populate the trails. There are water stations every two miles or so.
A caution: Look left and right for fast-moving bicycles. Look up and down for a few critters you hardly see in the big city.
If You Go: Flatwoods can be reached from the north on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. The more commonly-used entrance is at 14302 Morris Bridge Road, in Thonotosassa. At present, there is a $2 fee per car for use of the state's parks. Fees can vary, however. Pay stations with envelopes are available to be dropped in a locked box if no ranger is available. Picnic tables, shelters and grills are available at several well houses along the paved loop. The park is usually open from sunrise until sunset.
Trout Creek Site
Just east of I-75 on Morris Bridge Road/Fletcher Avenue, Trout Creek Site is located on the Hillsborough River. Of all the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserves, this is the easiest to reach from downtown. In 20 or 25 minutes, you can be fishing, canoeing or having a picnic in the woods. And with plenty of restroom facilities, running water and shelters, it's a great place for small kids to have a "mini-adventure" in the wilderness.
Looking for exercise? Trout Creek has off-road trails for mountain biking and cross-country running. Some trails are marked better than others, so it's easy to lose your bearings. Most local coaches tell their athletes to listen for car traffic or, in the late afternoon, head west toward the sun.
As with all the parks mentioned here, watch out for snakes and insects. Bug spray, an attentive eye and common sense are usually enough to stay out of trouble.
The park is listed among the 100 best sites of the Great Florida Birding Trail, with egret, ibis and wild turkey. Trout Creek also offers a launch site for canoes and kayaks.
If You Go: Trout Creek is less than seven miles from the University of South Florida and less than 19 miles from downtown Tampa at 12550 Morris Bridge Road, Thonotosassa. The park entrance is about a half-mile east of I-75. A fee per car, currently $2 with a maximum of eight people, is required for entry. Look for pay stations, where money can be placed in an envelope and dropped into a locked box, or a park ranger, to pay the fee. Usually open from sunrise until sunset.
Hillsborough County Parks and Trails – Lettuce Lake Park
Lettuce Lake Park off Fletcher Avenue in northeast Tampa has something for just about any age: wooded picnic areas and a playground for families; a bicycle path/jogging trail for the athletic; a learning center with exhibits for the curious.
The park’s showpieces are the 3,500-foot boardwalk and three-story observation tower. From these vantage points, it’s common to see alligators, turtles, egrets, ibis, hawks, eagles and, along the Hillsborough River, a variety of freshwater fish.
The boardwalk has a calming effect: immersed in nature but safe from the elements. A hardwood swamp forest serves as a reservoir for floodwater and a natural filter to remove excess nutrients from the water. The remainder of the park contains hardwood hammocks and pine flatwoods.
For a different perspective, see the ranger about canoe and kayak rentals.
If You Go: Lettuce Lake Park is at 6920 East Fletcher Ave. in northeast Tampa. Entry is $2 per vehicle. Canoes and kayaks can be rented for $25 for up to four hours. Shelters can be rented for $75 for an entire day.
Bill Ward has covered high school and Olympic sports for the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times for more than 30 years. He and his family live in Tampa.