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.
My name is Dan. I am an author, artist, explorer, and contemplator of subjects large and small.