Living on Florida’s densely populated coast, it’s almost impossible to believe that a 37,350-acre wilderness exists just an hour or so inland.
Known as the West Tract of the 110,000-acre Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve, this environmentally protected land offers glimpses of what Florida used to look like, and, hopefully, will look like way into the future.
This important natural treasure is a vital recharge area for the Florida Aquifer and contains the headwaters of four Florida rivers – the Hillsborough, Withlacoochee, Peace and a fraction of the Ocklawaha. It reaches into not only Pasco, but Polk, Lake, Sumter and Hernando counties.
Just 5 miles from downtown Dade City, the swamp’s West Tract offers 65 miles of trails for hikers, bikers and horseback riders.
On our recent visit on a Monday, we walked a half-hour from the parking lot on an unpaved service road just to get to the hiking trailhead that leads into the woods. This stretch, a section of the Florida National Scenic Trail, winds through dense woods overshadowed by giant old oaks, soaring slash and longleaf pines and mature magnolias.
I’ve hiked all over the country, in many state and national parks, and have never seen so many ancient oaks in one place. For the next hour, we were alone in the peaceful woods, often with ponds and grassy waters on both sides of us.
The Green Swamp is known for its wildlife – white-tailed deer, hogs, bobcats, turtles, turkeys, raccoons, gray squirrels, alligators and all sorts of wading birds, but on our visit, we saw just birds – little blue herons, white ibis, a great blue heron and osprey. We did see evidence of hogs in one stretch of trail, where they had foraged in the muck.
Part of the trail we took is a section of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, and, on just about the whole length of our hike, we heard a chorus of birds calling back and forth.
The trail was easy to follow — thanks to orange paint slashes on trees along the way — so we never got lost. Twice, we had to climb over or walk around huge trees that had fallen across our path.
While I called the trail “wild,” my husband described it as “primitive,’’ but we both liked it that way.
We saw cypress domes ghosting from water.
Vast swaths of brown grasses swayed in the breeze.
We watched for snakes in clumps of brilliant green saw palmettos, and admired stately cabbage palms, Florida’s state tree.
And, just around every turn, we saw ponds or pools of water, some of it green, but some tea colored, too.
The Green Swamp is technically not a swamp, but “a mosaic of several different ecosystems,” according to the story anthology, “Rivers of the Green Swamp.”
One of Florida’s two largest wetlands – along with the Everglades – the Green Swamp is managed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD). Much of it is considered an environmentally sensitive habitat, and visitors are urged to stay on designated trails.
A map available at the tract entrance and online left much to be desired, with some roads bisecting the trail not marked or named and no trail lengths. We figured since the Florida Legislature long ago designated the Green Swamp “an area of critical state concern,” the state may not want hordes hiking in the area, so purposely makes maps vague.
If that’s true, that’s fine with us. The fewer hikers the better to enjoy the solace of a good, long walk.
By chance, the trail we took was dry the day we went and closed to hog hunters. Dates when it is opened for hunting are posted at the main gate next to the parking lot and on SWFWMD’s website. (See Tips for the Trip).
We had read online that trails are sometimes too boggy to take, and, in the summertime, mosquitoes can be lethal. So we chose a dry, cool day to walk, and we were glad we did.
It was amazing how few people we saw – just one other hiker, two men on bikes, one with a dog on a leash, and a few men in pickup trucks driving on the service roads. We didn’t see anyone on horses. They are not rented out there, but horse owners are welcomed to bring them in if they stay on designated trails and carry proof of their horses’ current negative Coggins test.
The West Tract also has equestrian and primitive campsites, with pit and portable toilets, picnic tables and grills. Free permits are required, and campers are given the front gate lock combination so they can drive their gear into the campgrounds. There are no concession stands, so visitors should go prepared.
We don’t know if we would go back to camp there, but we’d like to return, maybe next time with our bikes.
Even now, I think of the quiet, of the watery beauty, and of those magnificent oaks — some older than our own state of Florida.
Tips for the Trip
The Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve West Tract is at 13347 Ranch Road (off the U.S. 98 Bypass) about 5 miles from downtown Dade City, in East Pasco County.
- Admission is free and trails are open daily, except when hunting is permitted. Before going, be sure to check on those hunting dates at tinyurl.com/y6m2wtsa.
- Hours are sunrise to sunset. Maps are on the above website and at the tract entrance.
- Picnic tables, portable toilets and campsites are also in the West Tract. Kayakers and boaters can put into a stretch of the Withlacoochee River, just down the road from the West Tract entrance.
- For tract details, see tinyurl.com/y6m2wtsa, or call (352) 796-7211, ext. 4470.
- Another place to visit the Green Swamp is Colt Creek State Park, at 16000 State Road 471 in Lakeland. For details, see FloridaStateParks.org.
By Karen Haymon Long
February 20, 2019