1/8/18 – 1/22/18 Alafia River State Park, Lithia, FL.

March 2, 2018

Wildlife viewing and dirt bike riding heaven. 

 

Site 22 W/E; a jug-handle shaped pull-through site.

 

 

The call of the Moorhen was wonderful. 

 

 Egrets flock to the grasses across the lake every evening.

 

 

The shore before the pond - sight of our daily twilight walks.

 

 

Park Description:

 

This is a newer state park less than an hour SE of Tampa and less than an hour NE of Bradenton. This is a destination park for horse and dirt bike riders. There is one 12 site loop “Lonesome Lake Campground” catering to the horse owners as it is on the horse trail and access to the Horse Barn and paddock. The other loop “Alafia Lake Campground” provides 9 pull through alternating with 9 back in sites. All sites are ample and very private. From our site we could see three different osprey nests on platforms built upon visible but unobtrusive power line poles. Sites have more open space than any campground we've seen so far. While at least ½ mile from the one road nearby, we could hear the occasional vehicle, but it was hardly noticeable. More noticeable was the sound of songbirds.

 

 

Sites are well separated.

 

 

About as much space as you will find in a state park campground.

 

 

Biking:

 

The campground is on the the site of a former phosphate mine which was donated to the state. The old excavation sites make for landscape not normally found in Florida, including moderate and steep hills and ponds in a mix of sparse stands of sand pine and jungle-like landscapes. Bike trails include easy to double black diamond difficulty ratings. There are a few flat mixed-use trails to give access to other trails, but horse trails are normally separated from bike trails. There is a large day-use parking area with bike rentals (open weekends only) and bathrooms. On weekends this can be really busy. I saw easily 100 cars there on one Sunday. I think the traffic on the trails dwindles considerably during week days and would highly recommend that those staying at the campground for the week take advantage of that.

 

 Sign post describing trails

 

 

 This is the beginning of a the easy level River Loop and also a horse loop.

 

I biked all the easy trails and found them to be thoroughly enjoyable and varied. The River Loop had some short hills that some people might find a little difficult (though all are short). Another slight obstacle are the half dozen or so small bridges to cover potentially wet areas. These bridges vary in length from short 10 feet or so to a couple that went on for maybe 100 feet. A couple had small curves. The consideration is that while I could traverse them reasonably easily with my hybrid bicycle, I wouldn't want to meet someone coming the other way. In fact, it almost happened to me, but I saw a couple coming just as I was about to start up the ramp. I pulled over and let them pass.

 

 The occasional wooden bridge.

 

While trail maps are available, and there are trail markers at intersections, I and others I met on the trails found that some of the signs were a little difficult to understand (is that sign pointing straight ahead or to the right?).

 

I'm setting off to video the bike trails.

 

 

In fact, the first time I went down the River Loop I took a wrong turn (actually missed a turn) and ended  up on a hiking trail. I didn't know I wasn't on a bike trail. I quickly came to the Alafia river in an utterly jungle-like setting, with an alligator warning sign on the banks. I was very nervous because the trail was literally right on the edge of the river with blind turns around thick saw palmettos. I kept expecting an alligator or wild boar to be lurking around the corner. 

 

 The River Loop starts innocently enough. This is typical of the trail, though other spots are more narrow.

 

 

The trail meets up at the Alafia River.

 

 The trail beside the Alafia River was a little dicey on my bike!

 

 

What is fine for hiking was difficult on my bike, not to mention that I feared evil creatures around every blind bend.

 

On this trail, I had to carry my bike over a fallen palm tree and a stream. I began to think either I was a wimp, or this was not an easy trail. Eventually, I admitted my fears and returned back the way I had come, finding the trail marker where I had erred. However, the setting was so cool, that I returned on foot later with Sandy and our daughter to show them. They would not go further than the first view of the river - despite my efforts to coax them to see the jungle-like setting beyond the first corner shown two photos above.

 

 

It was fun at least looking at the black diamond trails. I did try two blue trails, and while I had mixed results, I really needed a dedicated dirt bike to clear some obstacles (rocks and stumps). 

 

 A Black Diamond loop. The initial drop is much steeper than appears in this photo. It is > 45 degrees.

 

 Side view of Frank's loop. One wrong turn and you are swimming with the gators. (As one rider joked, if you fall off no one will find you under the green scum).

 

Which brings me to the biggest obstacle on the trails – other riders. All the easy trails are two way traffic, even though they are only one rider width wide. That means that someone has to pull over. To add the dilemma there is a good many riders decked out in their bike riding outfits traveling at a unreasonable speed considering the two way traffic. The good news is that in many places like the Sand Pine loop, the vegetation is low enough that you can see the heads of people coming giving ample time to adjust. But there are enough thick areas to make in a little nerve racking.

 

It wasn't all drama. The trails were so pretty that I went out every time I could and brought Sandy and Steph walking to see some of the trails. I have no photos, but the Sand Pine loop reminded me of the bike trails in Provincetown, MA. 

 

 Sandy and Steph looking out to one of the ponds.

 

The canopy over the beginning of the multi-use trail. The campground is just beyond the fence. 

 

 

 

Nature:

 

There is one pond within site of some of the campsites, and another pond a short bike or walk away. Site # 6 on the Lonesome Lake loop has a beautiful view. The ponds are teeming with birds and a few alligators. In the late afternoon many tens of egrets would congregate in the tall grasses on the far, western, side of the lake. The afternoon sun would just like up the grasses and egrets!

 

 

 The author photographing the birds. 

 

 

 We saw this female beside the shore on our first trip to the pond. See her back. Can you see at least one more back to her right? Babies?

 

 

Also, our daily observations included watching the Black Bellied Whistling Ducks who are fun to watch eat. They do a little hop and dive straight down, completely submerging under the water. While they would always be huddled together, the Moorhens were pretty much solo creatures and shyer, but their beautiful quacks let you know they were there. I thought they sounded similar to a loon.

 

 

Black Bellied Whistling Duck coming in for a landing:

 

 

 

 

 

 

And.. the duck has landed.

 

The ducks were often found in the same place every morning and evening.

 

 This photo caught them in full preening mode.

 

 Late afternoon brings the best light.

 

 Having a nice stretch.

 

Sometimes they actually sat still - on the lookout for the gator? 

 

Watching them dive and dry off was fun. 

 

 

 

 

Watching their interactions and flights can be fun and funny.

 

 

 Hey, Hey, Hey! - One bird leaving disrupts another. 

 

And while alligators are getting to be almost commonplace to us, this was the first time we saw one sitting in the middle of the pond. We watched him float so slowly toward us that we could barely detect movement. We also saw a little one directly off the shore in the weeds and a couple larger ones in the water at the other pond.

 

The Moorhens were very tough to photo as most of my photos they look like spots across the pond or they are tucked into the weeds. This is the closest I got on a small pond near the bike trail.

Moorhen. 

 

 

Anhinga takes flight. 

 

 

The strangest thing we saw was the sheer volume of vultures. Every day we would see a few tens of vultures circle like a dust devil from the eastern shore of the pond. They would rise up, circling closer and closer, coming over the campground and then circle back to the other shore. Then in three straight nights we saw the numbers of vultures increase significantly to the point where we estimated hundreds of them coming out of the woods. It was the most bizarre thing I ever saw. There were so many of them you literally couldn't count them. Swarms of them extended the length of the lake from the campground off to the distance in the east. We later found out that this is a seasonal occurrence where they congregate in this one area.

 

 

 

Speaking of vultures, ever day we would see osprey flying into their nests within site of our camp. One morning I got up to see three vultures in the nest. Ugh.

 

Last word on nature. While having a campfire with our new friends Pat and Shelly, Sandy hear a noise in the woods. “Something's walking there!” she exclaimed. I shed my flashlight in that direction and followed a good sized armadillo walk along the edge of our sight for 20 feet or so before going back into the woods. This was the first one either Sandy or I have seen.

 

Things to do near the park:

 

There are shopping plazas in Fishhawk about 10 miles away, with the ubiquitous Publix and a Winn Dixie grocery stores. Along the way we ate at a 3 star Barbecue joint named Woodfire. There were not many other dining options (strip mall Thai), but the road through Fishawk gets increasingly busy after about 15 miles eventually getting to the Tampa area in about 35 miles. Ybor City and the famous Columbia restaurant is about 45 minutes from the park and the Tampa airport is about 55 minutes.

 

 Massive beef ribs at Woodfire. That is one rib!

 

 

The Columbia franchise has restaurants in St Augustine and Sarasota that we have been to and love, but the original in Ybor City (the Cuban neighborhood within Tampa), is the largest and most interesting. Their menu states that this is the oldest restaurant in Florida (1915), and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world! It grew over time through additions until it took over the entire block accommodating 1700 people. Inside the rooms are small and intimate except for the bar which is truly grand. Those without dinning reservations fill the seats at the bar. All the seats seemed to be occupied with people eating. Tables surround the rectangular bar with more diners. The restaurant seems to be awash in waiters and room managers keeping an eye on the service. While the food may not be 5 star, it is very good and the ambiance at any of the restaurants are worthwhile. I think my favorite is still the one at St Armond's Circle in Sarasota because there is plenty of outside dining and the walls that curve around the corner building are open to the Bentlys, Ferraris, and people going by.

 

 

The bar at the Columbia. 

 

 

As opposed to fine dining, our favorite place to go outside the park was Goodson Farms Strawberry Market. We hit it by happenstance on our way to Sarasota. Driving by miles of strawberry and cattle farms we came upon this farm stand. We stopped in to find that they sold strawberries in various sizes, from a quart to larger. But! They also had a long serpentine line of partitions in front of a two window counter selling strawberry shortcake! While Sandy indulged, I was not feeling so hungry and opted for the strawberry shake. Neither of us were disappointed. The blended strawberries and ice cream shake was maybe the best shake I've ever had. And I am not a strawberry shake lover (chocolate on the other hand...). Sandy's shortcake was topped with so much whipped cream I don't know how she balanced it over to the outside picnic tables. One can also opt for ice cream and strawberries or the big kahuna strawberry shortcake and ice cream. Sandy did indulge on our planned return trip, calling it dinner, while I had another shake with a Cuban sandwich, which was surprisingly good. But, hey there were bike rides on either side of these indulgences. At least that's my story.

 

 Goodson Farms.

 

 Goodies from Goodson Farms.

 

 

A young girl and her shortcake. mmmm.

 

Road Trip to Sarasota.

 

Our close friends Dave and Joann Wells took us to the Ringling Museum, which includes their home, circus museum, and his art collection in a massive facility which built expressly for his art. The grounds of all this were part of their property and were beautiful too on Sarasota Bay.

 

 The Ringling winter home.

 

 

 

 

 

 Large Banyan trees grace the grounds leading up to the house.

 

A statue gets absorbed by a banyan tree.

 

 

Ringling Art Museum. 

 

 This was my favorite painting.

 

 

Can you imagine building something this grand just to hold your hobby (art collection)?

 

 

 

Ringling Circus Museum.

 

 "The Human Cannonball"

 

 

The midway. 

 

 Inside just one side of the Big Top

 

 

 

People we Met:

We met the nicest fellow campers here that I hope will be lasting friends. Shelly and Pat were great campfire companions and we loved hearing about their adventures. Sean and Tanya are full timing it with their two daughters and are active in sharing their experiences in multiple social media outlets. We met Ark and Tina at the pond at twilight as the four of us were there to see and photograph the many birds. All three of these couples shared their blog sites with us and we are enjoying reading past and future posts. We love hearing about other campgrounds and getting their recommendations. The hard part is keeping track of the recommended campgrounds!

 

To see our current location and more recent posts, follow us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sandbilladventures or just search sandbilladventures on Facebook.

 

And we're off to Manatee Springs - to be continued...

 

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We are Sandy and Bill embarking on a journey we thought of for years, but pipe dream? Nope. We are doing it - while we are able to. While it is hard for us to leave our family, we feel we need to do this now. 

 

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