By Kristen Hare
Head half an hour east of Tampa, away from the city and the bay, and you’ll find a playground made of trees in the middle of a county park that was once a phosphate mine.
“It’s one of those parks that’s a little bit further out from the urban center of Tampa,” said Forest Turbiville, Conservation and Environmental Lands Management director for Hillsborough County. “And a lot of folks don’t even know about it.”
People who have discovered the park probably don’t know its story, said Jeff Horak, senior park manager at Medard Park.
“It’s amazing,” he said. First, he said, it helps explain why there are hills with trees in an area that is uniformly flat.
In the 1960s, the American Cyanamid Company mined the land for phosphate. The company donated the land to the county in 1969. It’s hilly because of that mining, and was revegetated with trees and shrubs more than 40 years ago. Over time, erosion has washed the sandy, silty earth away from the hills, leaving the roots of towering oak trees exposed.
“It’s just kind of a strange little phenomenon right there where you’ve got scraggly oak trees that have managed to hang on even though you’ve got that slope there,” Turbiville said.
The park has 40 camp sites, with electrical hookups, water hookups and restrooms. The 700-acre reservoir is regularly stocked with striped bass, bluegills, catfish and more, and it’s a popular area for boating and fishing. (Don’t forget to get a fishing license.
The park also has 3.5 miles of trails for hiking and horseback riding. You can find the means to the latter at nearby Turkey Creek Stables. The stables, which have operated next to the park for nearly 30 years, offer riders the chance to see the park from horseback. You’ll also see deer, wild hogs and hawks, said Kim King, an employee and the daughter of the stables owner.
“It’s really wilderness,” she said.
But it’s convenient wilderness.
“Medard is just one of 10 different regional parks throughout the county,” Turbiville said. “They’re natural areas but you’re never too far from a restroom or a picnic pavilion.”
And the jungle gym of trees is, for now, still open to the public. The foot traffic brought by the spectacle of roots above ground isn’t healthy for the trees long term, Horak said. The park has lost several trees over time, especially after rough hurricane seasons.
In the future, he’d like to see the trees protected with designated trails that allow visitors to see, but not disturb, the above-ground root forest.
Said Horak: “It really is one of those wonders that I hope to keep around for a long time.”
If you go…
Edward Medard Park and Reservoir
6140 Turkey Creek Road
Plant City, Fla., 33567
Photos by Joseph Garnett Jr. for VISIT FLORIDA