In this last of a series of articles about great places to horseback ride in Florida during the winter, I describe my favorite place to ride in the Tampa Bay area: Alafia River State Park. Opening to the public in February 1998, Alafia River State Park is a relatively new addition to the Florida State Park system. This 6300-acre park, with about 12 miles of shoreline along the South Prong Alafia River, offers something very unique to the area: it has hills.
How can there be hills in flat South Florida? Before being donated to the state in 1996, the land was mined for phosphate. The land has been reclaimed, and the hills and many lakes are all that remains of the former Lonesome Mine, named for nearby Fort Lonesome, the location of a frontier U.S. Army outpost.
As a result of many hours of hard work by clubs and individuals, Alafia River State Park offers outstanding horse, mountain biking, and hiking trails that wind through the unique topography that offers some of the most radical elevation changes in the state of Florida. Canoeing, kayaking, and fishing are popular activities in the South Prong Alafia River, as well as in the many reclaimed lakes. Camping, picnicking, and wildlife viewing are also available.
Alafia River State Park offers about 20 miles of marked horse trails that have wonderful views and scenery. While the trails are fairly well-marked, it is easy to get turned around, so make sure you bring a trail map with you (available at the main entrance, trailhead, or from http://www.floridastateparks.org/alafiariver/parkphotos.htm. The blue trail is a perimeter loop and is highly recommended. However, staying north of the powerline is suggested because the scenery is better, and you won’t run into as many mountain bikers. The yellow trails are island loops. Green trails run east and west, and white trails run north and south. Many trails are suitable for wagons, carts, or carriages. These fun trails have grass, sand, or dirt footing with occasional roots and rocks and wind through wooded areas, around lakes, and up and down hills. The lakes are too steep-sided to water your horse, but there are occasional creeks. In addition, water tanks are located at the northern parking area/trailhead and near the developed facilities.
While out on the trails at Alafia River State Park, you are sure to see plenty of wildlife such as foxes, squirrels, deer, and alligators. The park is teeming with both water and land birds. Even though the land is reclaimed, you will pass through many habitat types such as pastures, mixed forests, pine flatwoods, oak and hydric hammocks, scrub, and bottomland, swamp forests. A large grass area for day-use parking is located off of County Road 39 at an entrance with a self-pay station, about a mile north of the main entrance to Alafia River State Park. While day-use parking for your rig is also available if you enter through the park’s main entrance, accessing the trails from the northern parking area/trailhead is recommended.
There is a new campground that has 30 developed campsites that can be accessed using the main entrance to Alafia River State Park. The campground continues to be improved, and camping with your horse is permitted. Water and electricity are available at every campsite, and the campground does not offer much shade. There are poles available for running picket lines, you can bring portable corrals for your horse, or horses can be tied to trailers.
Because of the great trails, many competitions, including off-road trail runs, mountain bike races, and equestrian events, are held at Alafia River State Park during the fall, winter, and spring. Ranger-guided trail rides are available the third Saturday of the month from October through April (bring your own horse). Make sure you have current negative Coggins papers for each horse with you when you come to the park. Alafia River State Park is located on County Road 39 between County Roads 640 and 672. County Road 39 can be reached from the north using State Road 60 and from the south taking U.S. 301 to County Road 674. To find out more about Alafia River State Park, go to http://www.floridastateparks.org.