Weedon Island Preserve
There is nowhere else you can get out into the wild while being so close to a major city like St. Petersburg. People have been enjoying Weedon Island Preserve's bounty for close to 2,000 years. Nomadic peoples found this estuary rich in game and shellfish and developed an advanced culture that produced sophisticated pottery, which can still be appreciated today at the preserve's nature center.
It is the preserve's waterways, the same bays and lagoons the Native Americans found so appealing, that still draw thousands of visitors each year. Paddlers can meander down the southern trail, which begins at the fishing pier (a great place to hook snook, redfish or trout) and winds its way through the mangrove islands for four miles, at one point skirting the open waters of Tampa Bay. But paddlers need not worry about boat traffic – the preserve is a no-combustion motor zone, which means the only way in or out is through arm power.
Which is just fine with Russell Farrow, a paddling guide from nearby Sweetwater Kayaks, because the quieter you travel, the more birds you'll see.
Count on seeing great blue heron, snowy egret, roseate spoonbill and the occasional osprey hunting the grass flats. If you plan to visit, make Weedon Island your first stop of the morning, that way you will leave enough time for the other natural wonders the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area has to offer.
If you are up for a night-time adventure, check out one of the biggest and oldest outdoor outfitters in Florida, Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure, which runs kayak and canoe trips including full-moon tours at Weedon Island Preserve.
Boyd Hill Nature Preserve
After a morning paddle, you'll be looking to cool off on the trails of Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, located on the shores of St. Petersburg's Lake Maggiore. A favorite getaway for trail runners and day hikers, Boyd Hill is a wilderness oasis in one of Florida's most densely populated areas.
This 245-acre preserve has three miles of nature trails and boardwalks that will give you a glimpse of how the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area, and most of Florida, must have looked when the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto first gazed upon its shores.
Start your hike in a hardwood hammock, then continue on through the sand pine scrub and pine flatwoods. The trail also skirts the willow marsh and lakeshore, where you'll see a large variety of water birds, before returning to the starting point.
The preserve, part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, is a great place to come, sit and listen. In the middle of the afternoon, it is not uncommon to hear hawks cry and owls hoot as they move through the treetops.
Perhaps they are drawn to the Birds of Prey Aviary, which cares for animals that can no longer survive in the wild. But Boyd Hill provides a home to more than just birds. Because there are five unique ecosystems packed so tightly together, Boyd Hill is an outstanding example of biodiversity.
Some come to see the viceroy butterflies, whose orange wings seem to light up in the sun as they dance across the willow marsh. Nearby Lake Maggiore, which keeps the ground rich and moist, feeds thick forests of ferns that in turn provide a home to a variety of lizards and snakes.
The flatwoods and scrub have a beauty all their own, harkening back to an age when the Florida peninsula, and the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area, was twice its present size. You'll find box turtles and gopher tortoise here, as well as more butterflies (90 species to be exact).
It is easy to lose track of time sitting on a bench in the shade, but there is still more to do before the sun sets.
Brooker Creek Preserve
Wind down and relax in one the largest continuous wilderness preserves in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area.
Brooker Creek Preserve Environmental Education Center, so named for a small, meandering stream that bisects the property, spans some 8,700 acres of pine flatwoods and freshwater swamps. Home to dozens of threatened and endangered species, Brooker Creek is also a favorite field trip for school-age students who take advantage of the preserve's state-of-the-art environmental center.
Roughly seven miles long (north to south) and one-half mile wide, Brooker Creek lies in the middle of one of area's fastest-growing suburban locales. But officials have taken great care to preserve the natural integrity of this wilderness, and as a result, it is not uncommon to see white-tailed deer, wild turkey, bobcat and even otters.
The preserve also has a 1.5-mile, self-guided hiking trail that begins at the end of Lora Lane, located a half-mile east of East Lake Road. A small footbridge spans the creek and will keep your feet from getting wet.
The trail off Lora Lane is open from sunrise to sunset, 365 days a year. Four other designated hiking trails start at the education center, ranging in length from .7 miles for beginners to four miles for seasoned hikers. There is no better place to wind down at the end of the day. As the sun goes down, you are bound to hear the barred owls calling:
Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?
Just sit back and watch the sun set over the pine trees, thankful that you are here.