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'Primitive' preserve adding miles of trails

The 10-mile trail expansion will include the newest addition to Swiftmud's Upper Hillsborough Preserve.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 1, 2002

ZEPHYRHILLS -- Ten miles of new hiking and horse trails will crisscross a 9,961-acre, publicly owned nature preserve swaddling the upper reaches of the Hillsborough River east of Zephyrhills.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District acquired the land in the Upper Hillsborough Preserve during the past 40 years, first to control floods and prevent pollution from spilling into Tampa's main source of drinking water.

But in line with the 16-county water district's plans for most of its property, including the 7,400-acre Cypress Creek Preserve in Land O'Lakes, land managers have marked the terrain with bike, hiking and horse trails.

Most of the Upper Hillsborough Preserve sits in Pasco, east of Zephyrhills and Crystal Springs. It's bracketed by U.S. 98 to the north, Chancey Road to the west, County Line Road to the south and the CSX railroad tracks on the Polk County portion to the east.

Twenty-two miles of trails, including 13 miles of primitive hiking paths, branch out across the property. Trails are accessible from main access gates on County Road 54 and Chancey Road east of Zephyrhills.

The 10-mile trail expansion will take in the newest part of the preserve, land bought from the Alston family in the 1990s, mostly in Polk.

The water district, known as Swiftmud, plans to build an entrance on a finger of the Alston land that juts into Pasco near the eastern extremity of County Line Road. Trails will lead to what water managers hope will be a campground for horses and their owners.

Linking the new trails to the old might require building a footbridge over the Hillsborough River, said Gene Kelly of the water management district. The river is a relatively narrow stream there. It widens farther south, fed by water from its main tributary, Crystal Springs.

"The Hillsborough River has always been a barrier to trail use," Kelly said.

Swiftmud's recreation preserves are relatively unknown to the public. The Upper Hillsborough land is next to the Green Swamp, a 102,000-acre preserve managed by the water district north of U.S. 98 and east of Dade City.

Save a stray portable toilet and some trail markers, the land offers few amenities for horseback riders, mountain bikers, hunters and hikers. Everything you need you have to carry in.

"We don't provide the embellishments of a state park," Kelly said. "The preserves are definitely more primitive."

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