Huge yellow Tiger Swallowtail butterflies flit through the air. Dragonflies nosedive into the gently rippling river. Birds caw. It would be silent, but for the never-ending symphony of animal sounds that let you know you’re in the backwoods.
This is Alafia River State Park, more than 6,300 acres of Florida wilderness south of Plant City on County Road 39 between County roads 640 and 672. Opened in 1998, the park consists of land reclaimed from an old phosphate mine which has sharp elevation drops popular with mountain bicyclists.
The park offers some of the most difficult off-road bicycling in the state, park officials say.
The land was donated to the state in 1996 by Cytec Industries. Called Lonesome Mine, the mine was named after the community of Fort Lonesome, where there used to be a U.S. Army outpost.
The area around the south prong of the Alafia River was preserved from phosphate mining and is in its original state. The stream is bordered by red maple, swamp tupelo, and water hickory trees.
To launch your canoe or kayak, take the back way into the park at Thatcher Road off County Road 39, about a mile south of the main entrance, says Catherine Lecas, a park ranger. You can pay your admission fee at the main entrance, head to Thatcher, turn east and drive a short distance on the dirt road until you get to the bridge. You can then launch your canoe or kayak under the bridge and float south for about two miles along the south prong of the Alafia, she says.
Or just enjoy quiet time with the fish gently splashing in the tan-colored waters. Commune with nature on a hike alongside the river, stopping for a picnic out in the wilds.
Alafia River State Park opened in 1998 and offers a broad range of recreational activities including off-road bike trails, hiking, horseback riding, bird watching, camping, paddling, picnicking, fishing and even volleyball in the picnic area by the trailhead.
The park, which opens at 8 a.m. and closes at sunset, does not allow swimming, hunting, or fireworks. There are a number of small lakes for fishing bluegill, catfish and even largemouth bass. A fishing license is required and it is suggested the bass be released.
From the picnic area you can check out the Old Agrico Hiking Trail, a 30-minute walk over hilly terrain. Watch for roots and be sure you have on walking shoes!
Choose from easy to very difficult biking trails. The more ambitious bike trails can have sharp drops, so don’t risk them unless you are an accomplished rider. Helmets are required for all bike trails.
Those with road bikes might enjoy the 1.8-mile paved trail at Hillsborough County’s Alderman’s Ford Park to the north on County Road 39.
Alafia River State Park is home to a wide assortment of birds, including the fairly uncommon Ruby-throated Hummingbird in summer. The Little Blue, Tri-Colored and Green herons — all permanent residents — are sighted daily. Other birds seen daily include the White Ibis, Mourning Dove, Barred Owl, Mottled Duck, Osprey, and Sandhill Crane.
There are 30 campsites at the state park’s Lonesome Lake and Alafia Lake campgrounds, where registered campers can put in their canoes and kayaks, state park officials say. Electricity, water, a dump station and hot showers are provided. The fee is $22 per night.
Equestrian sites also are available.
Admission to the park is $5 per vehicle with two to eight occupants. The charge is $4 for the single occupant of a vehicle and $2 each for bicyclists, pedestrians and extra passengers.
More information can be obtained by calling the park at 813-672-5320. To reserve a campsite, visit ReserveAmerica.com or call 1-800-326-3521.