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What a difference 15 years makes. The county now sports 34 public parks and almost every recreational opportunity imaginable.

By BARBARA L. FREDRICKSEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000


Fifteen years ago, the Pasco County parks and recreation system was meager, to put it mildly. Ballparks were usually little more than sand lots. Recreation centers were non-existent. Beach parks were either empty lots or dumping grounds. Wilderness parks, such as they were, were more wilderness than park.

"It wasn't much," said Jim Slaughter, Pasco County Parks and Recreation director since 1995.

That all changed in 1986, when the voters approved a $23-million bond issue and designated $13-million of that to build parks, with the rest for libraries. Since then, Pasco County has developed a system of 34 public parks on 9,276 acres, with every type of indoor and outdoor recreational amenity imaginable -- three wilderness parks, four gulf front parks, four swimming pools, one lakefront park, four community centers, three recreation centers, and a plethora of meticulously maintained baseball and soccer fields with concession stands, restrooms and even three press boxes.

The county parks budget stands at $6-million, which pays, among other things, 150 employees to manage and keep up the various facilities, said Slaughter, a graduate of Wichita State University in Kansas who was once in charge of recreation programs at 54 Air Force bases in Europe.

Admission to all parks is free, but there are some fees for using certain amenities. The community centers, for example, can be used for wedding receptions or anniversary parties for free, with $8 to $15 an hour for staff time only, according to Martha Campbell, the administrative services manager for six years.

Picnic shelters and large pavilions can be reserved for free by not-for-profit groups. Private groups can also use the shelters for free, if they're not reserved. The fee is $20 for shelters and $25 for pavilions.

The county is also home to three state canoe trails: Pithlachascotee River Trail, Hillsborough River State Recreation Trail and the Withlacoochee River Canoe Trail. In addition, the southern terminus of the Withlacoochee State Trail, a linear state park, is in Trilby.

And that doesn't even count several city parks scattered around the county.

Wilderness parks

The park land is owned by the Southwest Regional Water Management District and the state but is managed by the county.

It has five picnic shelters, each with seating for 50 people, four restroom buildings, a large playground, two volleyball courts, an athletic field, a 25-station educational nature trail (1.6 miles long), 13 miles of hiking trails, a series of short trails that connect facilities, and fire pits for bonfires. A pavilion for groups of up to 200 and two of the shelters, as well as all restrooms, are handicapped accessible.

The shelters have small barbecue grills; the pavilion has a large grill, running water and electricity. They can be reserved up to 30 days in advance.

As for reservations, "The earlier the better on those, so we can plan," Slaughter says.

The park also has eight rustic cabins with electrical outlets and four bunk beds, one light and a fan. A picnic table, grill and fire ring are nearby. Campers can arrange a week's stay in the cabins with a month's notice. Groups reserving all the cabins can book time up to 90 days in advance. Cost is $15 a night for as many as four people and $2 for each additional person. No more than eight can stay in a cabin.

There are 16 tent sites, with a restroom/shower building, picnic shelter and two fire pits. Water faucets are nearby. Cost is $5 a night for each tent site.

Backpackers can camp at three back-country camp sites, with a picnic table, grill and a fire ring. These sites are free, but reservations are required.

Hitching posts, a watering trough and 9 miles of horse riding trails are also available.

Reservations can be made at the kiosk near the entrance up to 30 days in advance or by calling (727) 934-4198. Groups reserving all cabins can reserve them up to three months in advance. Cabin 6 is handicapped accessible.

Withlacoochee River Park

The 408-acre Withlacoochee River Park, east of Dade City, is perhaps the county's most under-used park, according to those who go there. (Take Sumner Lake Road east off U.S. 301 for 3.5 miles, turn south on Auton Road, then east on Withlacoochee Boulevard.)

It has 10 primitive campsites, a large picnic pavilion for day use, four picnic shelters, three restroom buildings, two playgrounds and a 30-acre recreation field. The campsites are free, but permits, available at the park office, are required.

The park also has a canoe launch on the Withlacoochee River, a 10-foot observation deck, a 3.5-mile nature trail and a 1.7-mile hiking trail.

Crews Lake Park

It's a favorite place for a quick, quiet getaway from West Pasco noise and has been the site for everything from family reunions to weddings and a series of jazz festivals.

It has 10 primitive campsites with a community fire pit in a remote area of the park. There are four restroom buildings, four shelters with grills and tables, and two picnic pavilions with individual grills and fireplaces.

There's a pier for freshwater fishing, an observation tower, a boat ramp, bicycle paths and a nature trail.

Camping permits are required and available on site or by calling (727) 861-3038 or 929-1260.

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