Hillsborough County’s annual Hiking Spree is back, with some new twists, turns and challenges.
The hiking extravaganza, now in its fourth year, encourages people to exercise, explore the outdoors, and experience nature through the county’s numerous parks and preserves.
The 2020 Hiking Spree trail list features 24 trails at 21 locations throughout the county.
Five of those parks sit within The Laker Lutz News coverage area: Carrollwood Village Neighborhood Park, Lake Conservation Park, Lettuce Lake Conservation Park, Upper Tampa Bay Trail— Lutz Lake Fern, and Brooker Creek Headwaters Nature Preserve.
The Hiking Spree is designed to offer something for everyone from hiking rookies to seasoned outdoor enthusiasts. Hikers can walk paths near their homes, but also are encouraged to explore new terrain throughout the county.
Here’s how it works: Hikers who complete at least eight trails between Nov. 1 and March 31, 2020 can earn a patch, a medallion for a walking stick or a dog tag. Hikers may repeat any trail twice for credit provided they occur on different dates. Participants may hike on their own, with a dog, with others or on guided park staff hikes.
Most trails range from less than a mile to more than 4 miles, labeled from easy to strenuous.
To captivate more daring hikers, lengthier trails ranging from nearly 7 miles to over 9 miles are new this year — at Alafia River Corridor Nature Preserve North and South locations in Plant City and Lithia, and Lower Green Swamp Nature Preserve in Plant City.
Incorporating some longer trails was requested by Hiking Spree participants last year, said Hiking Spree program coordinator Chris Kiddy, who also works for the county’s conservation and environmental lands management division.
Said Kiddy: “We’ve introduced a lot of people to hiking over the last few years with this, and some of the feedback we were hearing from last year was, ‘Hey, I love this, but I’d really like some longer hikes.’”
The Hiking Spree has shown to be a hit since introduced in 2016 by the county’s parks and recreation department.
About 1,000 people participated in the inaugural year, growing to about 3,700 participants in 2018-2019. County parks and recreation officials this year are hoping for as many 5,000 participants.
Kiddy has witnessed the surge over the years, as he gets trails ready each year and participates in the hiking challenge himself.
He put it like this: “What we hear more than anything from people is that they’re just amazed by how many opportunities that they have to see nature in Hillsborough County. We have over a million people in this area and you kind of think that it’s just this huge, urban area, (but) we have these little hidden places all over the county that are just places you can go to escape and get in touch with nature.”
While most parks and preserves and trails are rotated in and out of the Hiking Spree each year, a few locations are constants because of their popularity.
That includes Lettuce Lake, one of the county’s most visited parks, at 6920 East Fletcher Ave., in Tampa.
More than half of the park’s property lies in the natural floodplain of the Hillsborough River, consisting of a hardwood swamp forest. The remainder of the park consists of hardwood hammocks and pine flatwoods plant communities.
Within the park is a 1.25-mile paved exercise trail and 3,500-foot boardwalk with an observation tower that provides scenic views of the Hillsborough River and the opportunity to see all sorts of wildlife, from wading birds and songbirds, to alligators.
Kiddy said of the spot: “Pretty much everything you can possibly see in nature you see right there in that small area, I think that’s why people enjoy that so much.”
Another hiking favorite is the 1.25-mile Singing Bluffs Trail at Edward Medard Conservation Park, 95256 South County Road 39 in Plant City.
“That’s another one where you see a lot of wildlife,” Kiddy said, “and that one is also really cool and unique because it uses some old phosphate mines as part of the trail, so there’s some elevation changes on that trail that people seem to really enjoy.”
Organizers this year also have added a new adventure challenge called “Trail Magic.”
Each week, hikers will be given clues and directions on the county’s social media accounts to locate a hidden “Trail Magic” spot on a trail and then become eligible for a free prize.
The hidden spot will rotate between each of the designated Hiking Spree trails and will have signs showing off the giveaway you could win, once you locate it. Giveaways will range from hiking supplies to massage gift certificates.
Kiddy said the concept derives from thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail to describe an unexpected act of kindness or goodwill that lifts a hiker’s spirits. In that environment, it’s often something as simple as being offered a snack or drink by a passing hiker or an onlooker offering a hot meal and a shower at their cabin.
“We just kind of wanted to play on that and approach providing some ‘trail magic’ of our own for the hiking spree,” Kiddy said.
This year’s Hiking Spree will be celebrated with a kickoff party on Nov. 9 at 9 a.m., at Upper Tampa Bay Park, 8001 Double Branch Road in Tampa.
The event will include games, nature arts and crafts, outdoor workshops, and classes on orienteering, knot tying, how to make your own hiking stick, and more. A variety of hikes will be offered, including a plant ID hike, birding hike, bug walk, and kids hike.
Registration for the Hiking Spree is available at hcflgov.net/hikingspree. Cost is free, though there is a $2-per-vehicle fee to enter some parks.
Also of note: The county is seeking volunteers to join its new Trail CATS (County Associated Trail Stewards) stewardship program, to help county staff maintain existing trails and explore new trail opportunities. Duties may include blazing and trimming trails, inspecting trails, installing signs, and other trail-related tasks.
Here is the list of parks and trails for the 2020 Hiking Spree:
Neighborhood Parks and Recreation Centers — short, paved, trails with water and facilities
- All People’s Life Center: All People’s Fitness Trail (0.4 miles)
- Branchton Neighborhood Park: Gray Fox Fitness Trail (0.75 miles)
- Carrollwood Village Neighborhood Park: Laurel Oak Fitness Trail (1 mile)
- Dover District Neighborhood Park: Arrowhead Fitness Trail (1.2 miles)
- Jackson Springs Neighborhood Park: Conejo Fitness Trail (0.5 miles)
- Ruskin/Baudette Neighborhood Trail: Quiet Pines Fitness Trail (0.5 miles)
- Stephen J. Wortham Park: Bluestem Hiking Trail, Sand Pine Trail (3.1 miles total)
Conservation Parks — mid-range, well-maintained paths and trails
- Alderman’s Ford Conservation Park: Two Rivers Loop, Rivers Edge Trail (2.2 miles total)
- Edward Medard Conservation Park: Singing Bluffs (1.25 miles)
- Eureka Springs Conservation Park: Peaceful Paths Trail (0.75 miles)
- Lake Conservation Park: Tortoise Trail (3.2 miles)
- Lettuce Lake Conservation Park: Limpkin Loop, Cypress Dome (2.2 miles total)
- Upper Tampa Bay Conservation Park: Bobcat, Eagle, and Otter Trails (1.7 miles)
- Upper Tampa Bay Trail—Lutz Lake Fern: Robin Trail (3.3 miles)
Nature Preserves— No facilities, subject to daily conditions
- Alafia River Corridor Nature Preserve-North: Old Mine Trail (7 miles)
- Alafia River Corridor Nature Preserve-South: Chito Branch Trail (6.7 miles)
- Alderman’s Ford Nature Preserve: Riverbend Trail (3.5 miles)
- Brooker Creek Headwaters Nature Preserve: Ramblewood Trail (3.6 miles)
- Camp Bayou Nature Preserve: River Ramble Trail (2 miles)
- Lower Green Swamp Nature Preserve: Cone Ranch Trail (9.5 miles)
- Wolf Branch Nature Preserve: Salty Trail (2 miles)
For information or to register, visit hcflgov.net/hikingspree.
Published October 30, 2019