TRADE THE SOUNDS OF THE CITY FOR WHISPERING WIND IN THE PINES

photography by Jason Stephens

All too often we think adventure requires traveling a great distance to some remote location miles from our homes. But, really, adventure is much closer than you think. There are numerous natural resources that await adventurers within an hour’s drive of our beautiful city. A great place to start is Colt Creek State Park.

Twenty miles north of downtown Lakeland, Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve is a 110,000-acre preserve that is managed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The preserve stretches across Polk, Lake, Pasco, and Sumter Counties. It’s divided into five tracts: Colt Creek State Park (5,067 acres), East Tract (51,149 acres), Hampton Tract (11,052 acres), Little Withlacoochee Tract (4,446 acres), and West Tract (37,350 acres). The landscape consists mainly of pine flatwoods, cypress domes, open pastureland, and sandy ridgelines. And it is breathtakingly beautiful.

 

HISTORY

The 5,067-acre parcel known as Colt Creek State Park was a joint purchase between the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and Polk County Natural Resources division from the Overstreet family on May 31, 2006. The land was purchased primarily because of the huge role that it plays in the Green Swamp floodplain; the water that flows off of this land eventually feeds into four of Florida’s major rivers: the Hillsborough, Withlacoochee, Peace, and Ocklawaha. This land purchase became the 160th state park in Florida.

Prior to the purchase, the Overstreets used the land to raise beef cattle, to grow and harvest pine trees, and for hunting. In the 1990s, the family dug several large pits to mine for limestone. There are places in these pits that plunge to over 50 feet in depth, which is deep enough to reach the aquifer. This allowed water to flow up through the soil, creating natural-looking lakes that provide habitat for various species of birds, plants, and other animals.

Thanks to the efforts of the three purchasers along with the managing agency, the Florida Park Service, this land has been
preserved for our enjoyment. If you’re wanting to break away from the ordinary city life and experience Florida in one of its most natural states, chances are Colt Creek State Park has just what you’re looking for. With over 12 miles of trails, three lakes, and three primitive campsites (one suitable for groups), this park has something for everyone.

The picturesque, multi-use trails that stretch across pine flatwoods, past cypress domes, and open pastures are accessible by horseback, foot, or bicycle. Most of the trails are hard-packed and covered with grass, but there are also soft-sandy and muddy areas, so a mountain bike is ideal if you go that route. Each trail is marked with a color swatch, known as a blaze, painted on the trees along the path and appearing every hundred yards or so. There are also numbered trail markers that correspond to the numbers on the trail map you will receive when you enter the park. Colt Creek is a popular wildlife viewing area, so there’s always a possibility of catching a glimpse of a white-tail deer, bobcat, Osceola turkey, fox squirrel, raccoon, or alligator. It’s also a great location to do some bird watching. In a year-long study conducted by the Lake Region Audubon Society, there were over 150 species of birds identified within the park.

If hiking, biking, or horseback riding aren’t for you, check out one of the three lakes on the property. These lakes offer numerous activities and contain several species of freshwater fish such as largemouth bass, bluegill, bream, shell cracker, and catfish. For the fisherman, there is a dock that extends 75 feet out over Mac Lake, which is the largest of the three lakes. Fishing is not limited to the dock, however, so feel free to bank fish at any of the three lakes, or hand launch a boat, canoe, or kayak in Middle or Mac Lake. Electric trolling motors are permitted, but gas motors are not and must be removed from your boat before entering the park. Fishermen are expected to follow all State of Florida fishing regulations, so make sure you’re familiar with those. They can be found at myfwc.com/fishing/freshwater/regulations.

For those who like to get out and sleep under the stars, Colt Creek offers two primitive campsites that are located along the Flatwoods Trail. The closest is two miles from where you will leave your vehicle. These campsites have no water or bathroom facilities and are accessible by foot, bike, or horseback only. There is a primitive campsite that is accessible by vehicle for organized youth groups only. Camping here allows you the opportunity to do some serious stargazing. Since there is little light pollution here, you will likely be able to see many more stars than you can in the city. For optimal conditions, try to plan your adventure during a new moon, and look for clear weather conditions. Another advantage campers have at Colt Creek is early morning access to the trails which will greatly increase your wildlife viewing opportunities as most species of wildlife are much more active around the first and last light of the day.

Looking for a place to picnic, have a party or gettogether with friends and family? Colt Creek has four pavilions that can be reserved in advance or used on a first-come, first-served basis if they are not already reserved. The largest pavilion is screened in and has attached restroom facilities. It’s located right by the Mac Lake dock and nature trail.

If you’re looking to trade the everyday sounds of the city for the whisper of the wind through the pines, add Colt Creek State Park to your summer road-trip list. You’ll be glad you did!

PARK INFORMATION

16000 SR 471, Lakeland, FL 33809
office: 863.815.6761
cell: 863.661.8196
floridastateparks.org/park/colt-creek
Open 8 a.m. to sunset, 365 days a year
Entrance fee is $4.00 per vehicle – maximum of eight people per vehicle

GO PREPARED

Ensure that you have plenty of water for the amount of time that you plan to spend in the park, as well as sunscreen, insect repellant, proper footwear, camera/binoculars, fishing gear, and a field guide. It’s also never a bad idea to carry a protein bar or some trail mix, as they’re a good source of energy should you need it. For a more detailed list of items that could be beneficial to your time in the park, check out this site: rei.com/ learn/expert-advice/family-camping-checklist.html, where you will find a printer friendly version of the checklist on that page as well.