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Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve: Hiking the Main Trail

The Main Trail is a 20 mile loop through the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve (LHWP) that passes through three of its seven composing tracts: Morris Bridge, Flatwoods, and Trout Creek. The Main Trail is part of LHWP’s Wilderness Park Off Road Trails System, which totals 35 miles of hiking trails.

I made up my mind to hike the Main Trail in its entirety. I was very interested in the LHWP area and figured the long hike would be the best way to introduce me to its different tracts and to help me better understand how they are interconnected; not to mention I love a good physical challenge.

There are five access points to the Main Trail. I chose the “Hole-in- the-Fence” trailhead located on the Morris Bridge tract. To see the access points and the Trails System map click here. Also, it will help to keep the map handy for reference throughout the article.

Getting Started

Here is what the entrance looks like from Morris Bridge Road:

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If you’re going to hike 20 miles, make sure to give yourself enough time.DSCN2494

Here’s the pay station…DSCN2495it costs two dollars to get in…

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and I hope I see my car again…

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Trail maps are available at the pay station, and I recommend you grab one; because unlike the online printable map, these maps have the wooden post marker locations and other notable landmarks, such as the power lines, which will be seen later.

As I mentioned, there are wooden post markers. They follow the Main Trail, are numbered from 1 to 47, have an arrow painted on them that point you in the right direction, and are even useful most of the time. The first marker at the Hole-in-the-Fence trailhead is #4.

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I hosted my pack and went to the trailhead. There are two paths to take. I took the one to the right since it was labeled “one way” and the other path is labeled “do not enter.” The reason for this is so that a hiker doesn’t get pummeled by an oncoming mountain bike, as there are popular biking paths that spur off of the Main Trail. Don’t forget to sign the trail logbook inside the red stand!

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And the adventure begins…

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Morris Bridge Off Road Trails Section

Right off the bat it can get fairly confusing if your goal is to stay on the Main Trail, as there is a multitude of side trails to explore on the left and right. I had to fight the urge to dive off on a side quest and kept repeating my mantra: “You are here to hike the Main Trail. You are here to hike the Main Trail.” Those side trails were awfully tempting though since I have a compulsion to explore everything, but I knew that every additional step taken this early in the journey is one step that I would wish to have back at the end.

If you take a look at the map, you will see the tangle of trails at the Hole-in-the-Fence Trailhead. If you hike down the Main Trail you will see it acts as a sort of corridor for all the other trails; most of them are marked with signs and have names like Misery, Indian, Gator Bait, and Techno Pig (yes, that is a real trail name). The first trail you will come to is the Fishing Trail. It is a short hike that will take you to the Cow House Creek. I have no idea if the fishing is actually any good.

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These signs were further down the trail…

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It won’t be long until you reach here…

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As you can see, this is a crossroads of trails. On the right side of the photo is an informational booth. It talks about a couple of the clubs one can join that operate within the LHWP, such as Hillsborough volunteer groups and the SWAMP Mountain Bike Club. On the back of the booth is a homemade map of the area…

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Here’s a close up. Notice marker #5 is included on the map.

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From this point forward, I was ready to cruise. I satisfied my initial hiking curiosity about the area and was now ready to make good time. I doubted I had covered more than half-a-mile yet and knew if I didn’t get going I’d be completing the majority of the hike in the heat of the day. It was the middle of September and was still capable of getting very, very hot. I pressed on.

There were a few more marked side trails, but they became less frequent and I was soon moving at a good clip on the open trail…

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I noticed there was a lot of water along side the Main Trail, and even though it wasn’t in danger of being flooded here (notice how the Main Trail is slightly elevated and how the sides dip off),  it didn’t mean it wouldn’t be flooded later on.

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Here is a side trail that had a bona fide, albeit slow moving, creek running over it…

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At this point, it will become obvious that the path is following along a stretch of power lines to the left. Keep on the trail and eventually it will empty out into a power line clearing. You will be greeted by this.

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Okay, got that? Great!

But in case you need a little help, look to the left. You’ll see a Main Trail marker and a tall, green information sign that does not have any information posted on it. The trail continues from there.

At this point, I’d estimate I covered around 4.5 miles. Also, from here, you’ll be leaving behind the spaghetti network of trails and things become much more singular. There will be other side trails along the way, of course, and points where the Main Trail splits with no obvious answer as to the correct path, but as I said, it becomes much more singular and easier to navigate. Let’s continue…

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Beyond the power lines, the trail becomes noticeably more sandy and less of the packed dirt from earlier. The Main Trail, at times, becomes broad and loosely defined, but simply move forward as the different paths converge back together after a short time. In the example below I chose the middle path.

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See the mucked up soil? That’s a sign of wild hogs.

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Apparently I have to watch out for a bridge.

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And when I got there I was scratching my head as to why I had to be so alert. Maybe it has something to do with sleeping trolls underneath. Not a hundred percent sure.

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I heard cars coming from my left nearby. Look at the map and you’ll see this section of the trail runs along Morris Bridge Road. Eventually, the Main Trail curved close enough to the road to see the cars speeding by.

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Soon I came upon marker #18. It’s somewhat significant because, according to my map, it marks 5 miles from the trailhead.

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Nearby is the River Overlook Trail. I didn’t go down it, but later found out it’s a half-mile hike. I also found a small pavilion with a noble and dramatic osprey painted on it. I decided it was a good place to eat lunch.

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Press on a little further and the path will wind itself to the Morris Bridge Park parking lot, which is a popular park for launching canoes and kayaks into the Hillsborough River. When I reached here I felt like I knocked off a large leg of the journey, emerging back from the wilds and into the civilized parking lot. There were a few cars scattered around.

Across the street in the other parking area were restrooms.

Morris Bridge Section

This part of the hike can be somewhat confusing. It seems the Main Trail continues forward, but that is not the case. It is important to note the below sign.

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This sign is really saying get ready for a road walk. A 0.4 mile road walk, not a 4 mile road walk as I misread the first time I went through here. Note the tiny, tiny decimal point in front of the 4.

Walk to the road and hang a right. It doesn’t matter which side of the road you walk on. I prefer walking against the flow of traffic so I can see all the crazies and cellphone-yacking-idiots coming my way. Giving me extra precious seconds to leap into the thicket as they obliviously pass by.

Despite that, it was fun crossing the Hillsborough River on Morris Bridge.

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The 0.4 mile hike looked something like this…

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The Main Trail picks up on the left side of the road, clearly marked with a #20.

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This is a short leg of the journey, lasting for about a mile and a quarter. Still, it was memorable. I heard rustling to my left and managed to snap this picture.

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I saw three deer total, two of them I managed to photograph. We stared at each other for a while. When I tried to get closer they quickly bounded away. I watched as their white tails flicked up and down over the wooded

Here’s a couple more pictures of this stretch of trail…

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Notice the lighting has changed. That’s due to the noonday sun.

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Soon, I came upon Flatwoods Park. It is most popular for its 7 mile biking loop. The Main Trail empties onto the black pavement.

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Flatwoods Section

Marker #24 is left of the yellow sign in the above picture, outside of the frame. This section of the hike takes place inside of the bike loop and features tons of twists and turns. I found it to be the most difficult part of my 20 mile hike.

There are a few reasons for this. It was getting hot. I was feeling fatigued. Water was a problem. It flooded out certain sections and I had to work my way around them. (I suspect this part of the trail is impassable during the rainy season).

Parts of the trail were difficult to navigate as the trail markers only vaguely pointed me in the right direction. I walked off into the woods a few times on what I thought was the trail, learning soon that it wasn’t. This mostly occurred when the Main Trail crisscrossed with a ranger service road, or momentarily joined a service road, and unclearly picked up again further down. However, my moments of being lost never lasted long.

The hike was very enjoyable. The landscape took on a different hue and the trail kept me on my toes. There were prairies, tall pines, and oak scrubs, just to name a few.

From marker #24 to #37 is about 4 miles; marker #37 being the point at which the Main Trail emerges back onto the bike path on the other side.

To continue the hike, take a left on the bike path and follow it all the way to the water station.

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Make sure to fill up your bottle with the ice cold water. The park rangers make sure the jugs are always full. Notice marker #25 behind the water station towards the right side of the picture. For some reason the arrow on the marker points straight back into the woods. That isn’t even close to where the Main Trail is; instead take a right and follow the bike path a short ways. The Main Trail will be on the left by marker #26.

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Get ready for the windy trail, cutting back and forth and intersecting with the ranger service roads. Throughout the hike, I noticed seashells on the path. I assume they were brought along with the fill used to create the trails.DSCN2563

In some places the water got a wee high.

DSCN2564There were many places that have been burned out. I assume it was a prescribed burn in the not to distant past. A lot of the low shrubbery was gone.DSCN2566

And in other places it began to grow anew.

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Burn marks on the side of a tree.

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The trail cuts to the left in front of a beautiful view.

DSCN2571It  goes across a service road which means I need to take a couple minutes to find the trail again.DSCN2574  Hogs.

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After four miles, I came out on the other side at marker #37.

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The trail went across the bike path and into the woods. I hiked down the trail for a short distance and found a problem. The trail was completely submerged.

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There was no way to hike through it because I didn’t know how far the water extended and bushwhacking was out of the question.

So I took out the map. I noticed the Main Trail, for a short time, followed alongside the bike path. I thought it was worth a try to go down the bike path and see if there was a place to jump back on. I was in luck.

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Marker #38 was right alongside the bike path and I was able to climb back on the dry Main Trail.

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I really enjoyed this section, it was wide and elevated. Water was on either side, yet not a drop was on the trail itself. Soon, I passed the Panther Trail, which is a trail that leads to the Bruce B. Downs access point. I, of course, stayed on the Main Trail.

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After another half mile or so, the Main Trail went underwater again. A little creek ran across the trail and emptied onto the lower land to the left. Luckily, it was shallow, and even luckier, somebody had scattered a few rocks in a line to tiptoe across. I was able to make it to the other side without getting soggy socks. I was stoked.

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I pressed on and finally came to a new leg of the journey: Trout Creek Park.

Trout Creek Section

This is the last and shortest section of the Main Trail loop. This section offers views of roaring traffic, loops throughout the edge of the woods, and the crossing of the Hillsborough River.

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It was fantastic hiking across this bridge; pretty views abounded on each side. Also, do you notice the seemingly open patch of grass at the end of the trail, as if exiting a green tunnel?

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That’s because the trail emerged from the woods into the clear. Straight ahead was a hill and I couldn’t resist climbing it, even though the Main Trail looped back into the woods.

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I was greeted by I-75 at the top, where I displayed my spectacular camera skills by covering a corner of the lens with my finger.

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I climbed back down, got back on the path, looped around the water pump…

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And reentered the woods.

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Shortly after getting back into the woods, I came across the same deer I saw earlier in the hike, but I wasn’t fast enough on the trigger to get a picture. They quickly saw me and bounced away through the woods.

This section of the trail had some fun twists and nature. My favorite section was hiking under this old gnarled tree branch.DSCN2605

And there’s the tree…

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This was the last section of trail that was actually in the woods. To complete the  entire loop, the rest of the trail would have to be out in the open.

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On a gravel road…

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But here’s the good news: there is still something fun to see! The service road leads right to the Hillsborough River, and river’s dam serves as the bridge to get over to the other side!

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Here’s a look to the left…

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And a look to the right…

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And a look straight ahead… (okay, maybe slightly angled to the left)

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Although you won’t see a marker here, this is officially marker #0 for the Main Trail. From this point forward and all the way back to the Hole-in-the-Fence trailhead, it is only 1.5 miles.

On a side note: it’s important to make sure the gates and dam are open to cross before you set off on your hike. They close during the evenings at a non-specific time and also if the dam is in use. I didn’t even think about checking ahead for my own hike, luckily it was open. If it wasn’t, I would have had a long hike back.

I was thankful the journey was nearing its end. It had been a fantastic experience that showcased some of Tampa’s beautiful nature, and it was great knowing that this fantastic hike was available so close to the city, but main reason I was glad that the hike was nearing its end was because the end of the hike looked like this…

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And it was hot. And my legs were tired. My head hurt too. (Grumble-mumble-wumble).

But then my spirits were lifted! I found marker #1. It seemed significant to me, even if it was sort of in the middle of nowhere. Here’s a picture!

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Along the left is a road, and beyond the road is a series of trail openings poking in and out of the woods. That is the Bayshore Trail, part of Trout Creek Park, and not part of the Main Trail. Eventually, the Main Trail took me away from the gravel and the hot sun, but first I was entertained by Ted the Turtled (that’s what I named him). He was  fun little guy walking around in the open.

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The trail led to a road that travels through Trout Creek Park and then empties into Morris Bridge Road, directly across from our starting point.

 I quickened my pace down the road…

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I crossed the street, climbed down the slope to the Hole-in-the-Fence parking lot, and marched back to marker #4, completing the hike. Also, my car was still there. So that was a plus.

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Wrapping Up

I completed the hike in about 5 hours, making it roughly a 4 mile an hour pace. While not in great shape, I’m also not in poor shape, and I could only recommend this hike for somebody of decent stamina and hiking experience. If you don’t fall into that category but would still enjoy a hike, I’d recommend the shorter trails that spur off of the Main Trail, starting at the Hole-in-the-Fence trailhead.

For more information about the Main Trail, check this great resource.

For anybody with further questions about the hike, feel free to shoot me a message! I can say with all confidence that it was well worth it. It gave me that awesome satisfactory feeling of accomplishment. As always, keep on exploring!