Hiking and camping in Pasco County, FL creates a laid-back getawayBy Kellilynn Hann
It's no surprise that the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Preserve is a favorite destination for nature lovers. Located in Pasco County, about 15 minutes east of New Port Richey, it boasts more than 8,300 acres of pristine wilderness. In addition to offering camping, hiking, biking and horseback riding opportunities, it connects to the 42-mile Suncoast Trail, a paved, multi-use trail that's part of Florida's greenway and trails system. The Starkey Preserve is also part of Audubon's Great Florida Birding Trail, with more than 150 species of birds spotted within its borders. So, when my friends invited me to tag along on an overnight family camping trip, I jumped at the chance!
I met my friend Kat, her husband Mike, and their kids (Allie, 10 and Tyler, 8) at the campground around 3 p.m. We were all staying in one of the park's cabins for the night, and as I walked toward the cabin, with its door propped open, I saw the kids jumping and racing up and down the bunk beds like a couple of crazy squirrels. Hearing their squeals of glee, I could already feel the joy of the weekend.
The Starkey Preserve has an amazing network of trails for everything from causal strolls to intense mountain biking, but our main target was the 6.5-mile paved bike trail. I hadn't ridden a bike since I was a kid, but Kat had brought one for me and talked me into it. I was a bit reluctant to put my balance to the test but, bike in tow, I followed them the short distance from the campground to the bike path entrance.
It was incredible! The path was wide and flat, and it felt like I was floating. Kat and I coasted lazily through the spiky green sea of saw palmettos and rust-colored pines while Mike and the kids raced ahead and looped back. A few times we stopped under a canopy of trees and rested, enjoying the shade and dappled sunlight, and once I even raced the kids (and lost). It was a gorgeous day, and having the breeze on my face made it even more enjoyable.
We arrived back at camp hungry and tired. Our cabin campsite had everything we needed—a grill, picnic table, water access and public restrooms with showers nearby. (I took advantage of them later that evening and it felt great to wash off all the sweat and dirt and go to bed clean.) The bunk beds even had sleeping pads.
I hadn't felt that free and relaxed in a really long time. Kat, Mike and I spent the evening grilling, chatting, and laughing while Allie and Tyler ran around playing tag and digging in the sand. It brought back those memories of camping as a kid, fingers all sticky with ketchup and dirt, the smell of ash and trying not to show how sleepy you were as the grownups talked into the night.
Back to nature
The next morning I woke up early and went for a hike on a trail near the cabin. I was really struck by how quiet it was. There was no traffic noise, no human sounds, just the birds. I ended up walking more than I'd planned because the narrow dirt path was curving through the brush and canopy in a way that whispered, “Just see what's around the next bend.” I'm glad I let myself be tempted, because about 30 minutes into the hike I spotted some white-tailed deer and silently watched them for quite awhile before they bounded off.
Back at camp, everyone was awake and we opted to go over to the playground near the campsites to let the kids burn off some energy before heading back to Tampa. Mike wandered off on a trail, and Kat and I found a shaded bench and reminisced about our college days.
I was sad when it was time to go, yet surprised that, even though we'd been there less than 24 hours, I felt so refreshed. Maybe that's because, if just for a little while, there was nothing else to do but enjoy nature, the quiet, and the company of friends.
Discover more great hiking in Pasco County.
Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve
While you're in Pasco County, don't forget to visit the Green Swamp Wilderness preserve. Part of a larger wilderness area that spans four counties, Pasco County hosts the West Tract section of 37,350 acres in which visitors can enjoy over 46 miles of multi-use trails, including part of the Florida National Scenic Trail.
The biggest draw here is the Withlacoochee River, a quiet, slow-moving river that winds gently through cypress forests. It's a designated Florida Outstanding Waterway, and is considered one of the top scenic paddling routes in the state. The river is also a favorite spot for fishing, giving anglers the thrill of catching large-mouth bass, perch, catfish and more.
Keep in mind that the West Tract of the Green Swamp Wilderness is a very active hunting area as well, so take appropriate safety precautions like checking for area closures, obeying signs and wearing bright colors.
The best way to access all the preserve has to offer is via the Withlacoochee River Park west of Dade City. Here you'll be able to find scenic hiking and horseback riding trails, access paved paths for rollerblading or biking, launch your canoe or kayak, and enjoy the picnic and playground area. There is also a boat ramp on River Road.