I visited Rye Preserve in Parrish, Florida recently and walked along the creek. It was a pretty nice place even if a bit small. There were cicadas, dragonflies, and grasshoppers everywhere but only a very few mosquitoes – and oddly passive ones at that. In one place the trail rose high above the creek and I found a nearly-hidden beach.
The sand was covered with shoeprints and bare human footprints, but no one was there at the time. It seemed like a nice place for sunbathing. I have encountered many creeks that twist out of sight making me wonder what lies around the corner. They are like trails themselves. Many have high banks covered with impenetrable vegetation and I have imagined wading barefoot down the middle of them for miles, but most of them are too deep, too dirty, or are filled with obstacles such as logs. In contrast, this creek was nearly perfect. However, I still wanted to see the rest of the preserve and I had no good way to carry my shoes. I moved on.
I followed the trail across the road to where it met the creek further upstream. It was shadier there. I crawled to the other side of the creek on a log and followed another trail away from the brook. This is where I found a picnic table, a cemetery, a dumping ground for all kinds of garbage, and then the trail kind of dissolved into the forest. I also found some red fungi. I eventually did get my feet wet just for a minute when I returned. The mud sucked – literally. Then I took off my shirt and just sat for a while watching the perpetual ripples before heading back to the car.
I visited Moccasin Lake Park in Clearwater, Florida, in June of 2017. There were spiders everywhere. Huge spiders hung over the trail and on all sides of it. The trees were full of them and their webs at all levels, sometimes layered over each other. I had to be careful to avoid walking into their ground threads and alerting them to my presence. I have never seen so many.
The trail itself passed over several boardwalks and one bridge over a large, dry gulley. There were shelters and bird blinds on the way. It was a good little walk. Gangs of peacocks roamed free. There was a beautiful pond surrounded by trees where I watched many birds and turtles from an observation deck. I also noticed a stone wall running through the woods and another overgrown stone structure depicted below, proving this park was once the home of humans before the spiders invaded.
The trail terminates in a wooden shelter surrounded by trees. I could see nothing but trees in all directions. That was where I found someone had left another magic stone just as at Starkey Park, Eureka Park, and Brooker Park. What does it all mean?
Brooker Creek preserve in Tarpon Springs, Florida offers a nice shady walk any day of the week. There is no admission cost. Thursday through Saturday the educational center and store are open. There are hands-on ecological exhibits, including a tortoise burrow replica big enough to crawl through. From the parking lot there are two ways into the woods:
The boardwalk leads straight to the center after passing under an artistic metal helix. It seems to be several strands of metal woven together. One end terminates in a set of flat rings; the other in glass bulbs. What is it?
Across the small field is the bridge over tiny Brooker Creek where alligators are often seen. From there one can walk a short distance to the bird blind or take the dirt trail around to join the boardwalk near the center. From the center a four-mile loop extends into the woods. I visited in May 2017.
And every park I go to I try to look for a pattern that kind of sums up what the place is about – something that makes it unique from all the other parks. Usually I find one. I don't know whether my observations represent a real pattern or whether seeing one example psychologically primes me to see others. This park had several thin trees bent over into arches, in most cases all the way to the ground. I saw them in several different places.
I also saw clumps of moss around the bases of many thicker trees located as much as twelve inches above the ground. I suspect that most of the park and its trails are underwater during some seasons. Fortunately it had been very dry in Florida this spring. You have to know when to go. The trails run through white sand, grassy areas, pines, palmetto, and more. There is plenty of variety. Different parts of the path have different names such as Flatwoods Trail, Blackwater Cutoff, Pine Needle Path, and Wilderness Trail. There were even trails with whimsical names such as Preserve Staff Only and Trail Closed. Strangely, these were not on the map. I was tired, thirsty, and in a hurry to get back so I didn't have time to check them out. Perhaps another time.
The main trail loop covers only a very tiny portion of the whole park. It makes me wonder what secrets might lurk out among the trees. What are the Rangers hiding from us?
Highlights: I briefly saw a very fast lizard with pale blue sides and black and yellow stripes running down its back. It looked exactly like a southwestern fence lizard, which are more common in New Mexico than Florida. I also found a sensitive-leaf plant. There are cultivated plants you can buy that will close up immediately with the slightest touch but the wild ones are very slow. I also saw an alligator and another painted stone…
3940 Keystone Road, Tarpon Springs, Florida
Lake Park is a fun place where the people of Lutz and Tampa congregate to ride their bikes, race remote-control cars, rent canoes, practice archery, or play volleyball and other games. There is also a playground. This cheery facade hides a dark and deadly past known to only a few.
All around the medium sized ponds among the trees are twisted, bare trunks – but these are no trees and they are not quite dead. These are the petrified hands of the great wizards of Lutz, the most feared beings ever to once walk Florida. What happened to them is the subject of legend and much speculation. Some say that it was Ponce de Leon himself who tricked them into this one location where he had set a trap. Others suggest the wizards turned on each other out of jealousy. However it was done, the wizards will never move again.
There are skeptics that claim these are but ordinary trees that have lost their leaves, not wizard hands at all, but if that were true, where are the leaves now? Leaves don't just get up and walk away. They should still be piled up on the ground. Such foolishness! The sinister origins of the park are obvious to anyone with a map. It is rectangular! What sort of shape is that for a park not tainted by evil magic?
17302 N. Dale Mabry, Lutz, Florida
I love long boardwalks – especially when they run through heavily wooded swamps. In April 2017, everything was green. The water was covered in green. The trunks of trees were covered in green. It was green as far as I could see, which wasn’t too far considering the density of the growth. I heard several birds, but couldn’t find them. Maybe they were green too. Green!
As at Starkey Park, I found this mystical stone, possibly left behind by an ancient race of sorcerers. What nefarious plot might they be up to? How long have they been there? Are they beacons to pave the way for an invasion? Some means of sabotage? Could they be bombs full of germs or evil spirits? Are they spy devices? What do the mysterious markings mean? I must inform the king of this at once!
6400 Eureka Springs Road, Tampa, Florida
On the western edge of Tampa facing Oldsmar is a gem of a park named Upper Tampa Bay Park. Packed into this quiet peninsula on the northern part of the bay is a nature center, three trails, a good playground, water fountains, plenty of parking, and most importantly plenty of restrooms. There are many covered picnic tables and pavilions. You can also rent canoes there.
The trails are wide and come in a variety of surfaces. Some are dirt, some are shell fill, and some are grassy. There are also boardwalks. I first walked along the east side of the park where there was water access, but no swimming allowed. Along the path heading south it seemed much like an ordinary Florida coastal park but as if an artist had added just a few subtle highlights to give it a totally new look. Blackened palms from controlled burns stood out against the surrounding green and brown. Red runners reached across the white sand. One trunk had the most interesting burn design.
I hadn't yet seen any animals. This is because they were all hiding on the second trail. I saw a cardinal, a white butterfly, a yellow butterfly, and was unfortunately seen myself by a deer fly, but I got rid of it. This area was grassy.
I went back to my car and sat in one of the pavilions to write while small grey birds poked through the grass next to me and the breeze caressed my skin. I was impressed with how quiet it was. It's a great place to spend a Friday afternoon in March.
8001 Double Branch Road, Tampa, Florida
Sometimes treasures are hard to find. That is especially the case with Jay B. Starkey Park. It was an epic of frustration trying to find the place this March – a gem only the bravest and most patient of heroes could ever hope to capture.
The first problem getting there was that it's in an area far away from any major roads. Route 75 passes nowhere near it. I couldn’t even find any unpaved back roads that would lead me right to it. This left me with two options: I could first go south several miles, take the Skyway Bridge north to 19, and then take 19 all the way north up the peninsula to Ridge Road or I could instead take 75 north to Route 4, cross busy Tampa, take 275 south, attempt to cross several lanes at the knot of mangled roadways next to the airport, and then take 589 North and hope that a sign would tell me what exit to take since I could find none on my map. Since Pinellas Peninsula is always choked with traffic everywhere and Route 19 is dotted with numerous traffic lights, I chose the second option.
Just as I took the ramp onto 589 I saw that it was a toll road. This was not indicated on any map! Due to the uncertainty of knowing whether there was an exit leading to the east side of the park, I quickly got onto Route 60 and crossed the bay to take 19 instead. I didn't want to have to turn around and pay the toll multiple times trying to figure out where to get off.
That day Route 60 was even more crowded than usual. I was trapped in mind-bogglingly slow stop-and-just-stop traffic that ended up tiring me out. By the time I got to 19 I was exhausted and 19 was similarly slow. I eventually had to stop for lunch instead of eating at the park as originally planned and this delayed me even further. Finally after what seemed like days I reached Ridge Road and then Decubellis road to the west side of the park. The park demons had done their best to defeat me but I was determined to have the treasure for myself! I looked around for a sign.
At last I finally saw a sign for Jay B. Starkey Park. It pointed directly at a driveway to the left of the street where there was an open gate. Someone was just leaving. Behind this was some sort of building I took for a ranger station. I had found the park at last! Entering the driveway, I then saw the signs prohibiting trespassing, solicitation, and warning me I was being watched. This was a private residence! A private residence that looked like a ranger station complete with a park gate! The park demons had tricked me. I had been delayed even further. I was tempted to knock and ask for directions, but instead I turned around and decided to drive further down Decubellis.
I thought that the sign might refer not to the driveway but to the street at the very next traffic light so I took a left there. I drove along looking for a second sign to indicate the park. Finally I saw one but this sign pointed directly at an obvious residential neighborhood. I was on to the demons’ tricks by now; I knew it must refer to the very next street. I kept going. There never was another street. I drove and drove and finally decided that I must've been tricked again and the park was indeed hidden behind the residential neighborhood. I’m sure they must love park goers driving through there all the time (sarcasm). Unfortunately there was nowhere to turn around. I was stuck on a narrow, two-lane road with no breakdown lanes. High curbs prevented me from pulling onto the grass. Traffic both ways prevented me from stopping. I must have driven for three miles before finally stopping in a turning lane next to a gated community. This was where I was finally able to make a U-turn and go back the way I came. The demons would not keep me away forever!
The park entrance was indeed in the back of the residential neighborhood. Entering the park I saw nowhere to pick up maps and there was no one around to ask. That’s okay; surprise is part of the fun. I saw an ominous sign that said “hikers be prepared no water on hiking trails.” My first thought was that law prohibited carrying water bottles with you while hiking. Perhaps too many people had left behind their litter and ruined it for the rest of us. I once visited a restaurant on a beach in a different county where straws and lids were prohibited by county law due to the litter problem. I had to drink my soda awkwardly with ice cubes hitting my face until I was ready to bring back the guillotine. Could that be happening here as well? The park demons were trying to provoke me. I eventually decided that interpretation unlikely and my second thought was that I was being warned that the trails were dry and that there were no streams or mud puddles. In the past I have been warned of wet areas and I know some people enjoy water, so I thought the sign was a way of warning them not to get their hopes up. I eventually decided that interpretation even more unlikely and my third thought was that I was being warned not to expect water fountains or concession stands out in the middle of the woods. Since I have never heard of such a thing and only total fools would expect such a thing, I decided that interpretation the most unlikely of all. What’s next? ATMs out in the middle of the woods?
Now worried that I would be arrested if seen carrying water with me, I drove around looking for a trailhead. Eventually I stopped in a parking lot with a sign that said “trail parking.” The first trail I took simply went from one parking lot to the other. I had made a horseshoe turn driving in and the only trails leading from my lot simply cut across the woods to the road I had entered in on. The space between the roads was a web of interwoven paths. There was also a playground. Was this all there was?
On the north side of the road there were additional trails, but these turned out to be even more frustrating. They would go perhaps 30 or 60 feet into the woods before abruptly ending. Some of them were so unclear they may have been animal trails. Others terminated in clearings containing picnic tables. Others simply looped right back to the road. I went down one after the other. I was becoming increasingly frustrated and thinking the park was a complete waste of my time. Finally I found one trail that ran alongside the road for a long ways without going deeper into the woods. I was very disappointed. The demons had won.
Just as I was thinking of going back to the car to sit and read I found another trailhead that lead deep into the woods towards the south. This area looked promising. I followed the trail deeper and deeper into the woods until I was distracted by a side trail – possibly an animal trail – that led me to a paved trail in turn leading me to a paved road. There was a sign promising a scale model of the solar system a mile long. One sign represented the sun. It was followed by Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and way off in the distance was Jupiter. Across this road is where I picked up yet another dirt trail and then discovered paradise. I had found the treasure at last!
This is quite possibly the best park I have ever been to in Florida. It is my new favorite. The weather was amazing! It was just the right temperature and there was an intermittent breeze. There were stunningly beautiful zones of thin trees that let in much sunlight. In other places the brush was thicker, creating semi-secluded areas. The ground was soft and covered in crushed pine needles in most places. One spot to the side of the trail had pine needles piled up so thick that they made a sort of crunchy mattress. There were also places of white sand. I could not help taking off my shirt and shoes. It was too nice a day not to. I had no choice. The best thing was that there were no flies at all. I saw a couple bees that day but that was it for insects.
I eventually went back the way I came before going down a side Trail. This led to yet another trail that had some brush growing across the entrance. Generally parks don't like you to go off trail much but this very clearly was a true trail. It merely had been a while since someone had checked on it to see if it needed maintenance. I walked in a ways and encountered another barrier. This was followed by another and another. Trees had fallen across the path in different places. The bushes were overgrown. I have heard that snakes sometimes hide in bushes and so I beat each one before pushing through.
Could there be more treasure beyond these barriers? A gem within the gem of a park that this clearly was? Each barrier was easily passable for me but I knew would deter the average hiker. I knew I would not be followed. I hoped that there would be a clearing deep in the woods that would make a nice secluded picnic spot that perhaps I could show to someone else one day. The terrain was such that I put my shoes back on, but the air was so nice that I took off my pants for a moment to let it wash over me. It was too nice a day not to. I had no choice. Unfortunately the barriers began to annoy me and I got dressed again. I eventually gave up without ever finding the end of the path or a good place to stop.
Returning the way I came I went down yet another side trail for a long ways and then returned by a wider, straighter, sandier trail where I had seen people biking before. It was only upon returning to the trailhead that at last I found some maps and realized that I had explored less than 5% of the park! I was extremely surprised. It had felt like I had been out there all day. I was also surprised to find that the trail where I had found the mattress of pine needles was much shorter than the last trail that I took. It had felt like it was the other way around. The trail with all the barriers was not on the map at all.
Another surprise was that the wide, straight, sandy trail where I had seen people biking was labeled as a hiking trail whereas the narrow twisting trails I had explored on foot were labeled as bike trails. This is completely backwards! Bikes go fast and might unexpectedly cross and spook an animal going around those turns. More importantly, who wants to walk in a straight line? The wide hiking trails are incredibly boring in the extreme. If that was all I was expected to walk on it would not have been worth the time to drive there; it would not have been worth it even if I lived next door. It would not have been worth the two dollars I paid to park there; I would have to be paid to show up. It would not be my favorite park in Florida; it would be my most hated park in Florida. Fortunately, unlike at Alafia River State Park, the signs had indicated that hikers were welcome on the bike trails. That’s a relief.
There were all sorts of oddities for me to photograph. There were many live oaks, reminding me of Crews Lake Wilderness Park. I saw a lot of “tree balls,” reminding me of Little Manatee River State Park. I saw a tree with four holes right through it. I also saw this giant lever in the middle of one trail, which I guess must be the switch they use to turn the forest off at night.
I also saw some lichen and some strange roots.
I saw two gopher tortoises and their burrows were everywhere, reminding me of Weedon Preserve, Honeymoon Island, and Alafia River Park combined. As usual, they were very bold. I also saw two armadillos. One ran from me into the bushes just like at Camp Bayou and the other walked right up to me as if I didn’t exist just like at Weedon Preserve. I also saw squirrels, a woodpecker, a bright green lizard, a bright white mushroom, and a small snake.
I came across two mysterious structures in the forest. Could this be where the park demons live?
Then there were these magical gems I found able to grant love, happiness, and…I guess stripes to whoever possesses them. Since I had already found all this by exploring the wilderness, I left them behind for the next hero daring enough to penetrate the moat of frustration surrounding this vast, amazing, and beautiful domain.
Now outside the park again, I again experienced bad luck and frustration. The park was closed for several weeks due to a massive fire. It must be cursed. While posting this story, my browser crashed after every second photo I loaded. Some of the photos uploaded upside-down and I was unable to correct them. If you can brave the terror around it, it's a great place to spend a day.
Pinellas Heritage Village is just that – an entire village of houses built between 1850s and the 1910s all around Pinellas County and carried there in the 70s and 80s. Most of them you can now go inside and see what they were like. They often have interesting artifacts laid out and two of the houses have docent tours. They tell you in detail how people used to live and what all the artifacts do.
The upper classes of the nineteenth century had some pretty neat kitchen gadgets, including the swiveling teapot and the waffle maker. I thought it was strange that the bed was beautifully carved on the side facing the room and plain on the side facing the wall. You’d think they would like to move things around once in a while but I guess people were very stuck in their ways back then. They lived in the same house their entire life. It makes you wonder how much dust is under the bed. Also interesting is that the rich used to have very long curtains that dragged on the floor because they wanted to show everyone that they could afford to waste fabric.
There was also a cabin that used to be out in the middle of the woods. It had no windows and the kids used to have to heat and pour boiling water through the spaces between the floorboards to drive away the animals that would otherwise take up residence underneath. It had two separate rooms connected by a wrap-around deck. It seemed cozy and I think I wouldn’t mind living there except for the mosquitoes.
There was also a train station, a schoolhouse, and a church. The church I had thought had a very interesting story. It was actually picked up and dragged intact by a hurricane at one time and then another storm many years later took its roof off. Later it was fixed up and moved to its present location.
There is a little mini-museum visitor center near the entrance giving a little bit of the history of Pinellas County. It was very big in the sponge business. A sponge press was used to press the air out of the sponges to pack them into bales for shipping. Later it became a prime tourism spot and St. Petersburg was among the first cities to actually have a tourism department the specialized in marketing the city.
I learned a little bit about the parks in Pinellas County and how they began too. People used to just put their dead wherever or else they had a family plot but then when the land changed hands the records were lost so at some point they started to put the dead all together in one place. These first cemeteries were well maintained and in time people began to visit often to get away from the cities. When the first parks were created, they had to put up fences to keep out the chickens and pigs both domesticated and wild that used to roam around all over the place.
I found it very interesting. I like history. I like seeing how the stories of different people and things are all interconnected in subtle hidden ways. This place is just as good as any history museum only much much much bigger because it's like a whole bunch of museums in one – each one a treasure. You can walk around there almost all day. The village is free courtesy the city of Largo, Florida.
11909 125th Street N. Largo, FL 33774
Separated from Honeymoon Island by a monster hurricane in the 1920s, Caladesi is reachable only by boat. I took the ferry over from Honeymoon State Park. Posts mark out a safe pass through the shoals and birds of all kinds sat on these and watched me pass sometimes as close as thirty feet away. After we docked, I ran off into the woods to explore the trails.
There are some decent-length trails that pass through sandy areas of palmetto and cabbage palms. Towards the south, these give way to wooded areas carpeted by pine needles. The trails are intersected by a few service roads leading to restricted areas. What are the authorities hiding there?
Other than the birds on the way in, there were few animals around that day. I did see one large snail in one of the coves. I photographed it through a narrow gap in the brush at the end of one of the short side trails. I also saw the twin pine, which is a large tree with two trunks joined by a saddle-like structure that people apparently like to photograph themselves in.
I walked along the beach on the west side next. Since it was February, it was too cold to go swimming that day. Along with Honeymoon Island, Caladesi is known for the large numbers of beautiful shells that wash up on its shores. On this particular day, the wind and surf were up and most shells were broken. One discovery I made was the squeaking sand. In some areas, the sand would squeak as I stepped on it. This has never happened before. Apparently, this phenomenon occurs under very narrow humidity conditions with very round sand grains and is much more spectacular in other parts of the world. I was lucky to have encountered a weak case of it on Caladesi.
The island is equipped with restrooms, changing stations, and a concession stand as well as some great picnic areas and pavilions.
It may be an art museum, but it’s actually a history museum. There are paintings and sculptures from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas – some over 500 years old. It is impossible to get through it all in only two hours. With its high ceilings, fancy wallpaper and mirrors, and incredibly diverse collection, the museum is a work of art itself.
I have too many favorites. I saw amazing glass work by Richard Ritter and Frederick Carder. I saw a rough-surfaced abstract by Enrico Donati (1909-2008), who is reported to have used coffee grounds, sand, and vacuum debris in his work. I saw masks and figures from Nigeria, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. I saw a stone figure of god-of-death Michtlantecuhtli (I love that name!!) from Mexico dated sometime between 1100 and 1500. It had slits to allow incense smoke to rise out of it. There was even a gold bird from Costa Rica. Since many of the artifacts from that area were used to make noise, it is hypothesized that the eyes were originally tiny bells whose clappers have fallen out. I also liked the Jain shrine with its intricate woodwork and tiny figures behind the windows. In the seventeenth century the central doors would have opened to reveal one of the twenty-four holy men in Jainism, but they must have been busy when I went (LOL).
255 Beach Drive NE, Saint Petersburg, Florida
My name is Dan. I am an author, artist, explorer, and contemplator of subjects large and small.