Walking the Weekiwachee Preserve
In Florida, mining for limestone began during the First Spanish Period. Construction began on the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine utilizing locally mined coquina in 1672. It is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States.
Mining has been a part of the Nature Coast’s history also. Large tracts of land near the Gulf of Mexico were mined for limestone in the 1900s, with reclamation, environmental resource/stormwater management, and federally delegated dredge and fill permit programs now regulating production and land use.
What becomes of these mines once the lime rock is gone?
South of Aripeka is a reclaimed lime rock mine that was called Sun West. Today, SunWest Park is a waterpark featuring a manmade beach along a deep, blue lake with several water amenities. There are picnic tables, showers and restrooms, and a regulation volleyball court, all run by Pasco County Parks and Recreation. A wake board park is run by an independent company on site. Kayak rentals and a large aqua water course are part of the fun. Festivals, family outings, and even professional volleyball tournaments happen at SunWest Park. It feels like an attraction.
In Spring Hill, the Weekiwachee Preserve is a very different example of what a reclaimed lime rock mine can look like.
Driving out to experience this 11,206-acre preserve for myself, I was full of anticipation for the beautiful lakes and wide-open spaces I had seen on the Facebook Group, Friends of the Weeki Wachee Preserve. Although I had heard of the Weekiwachee Preserve, I was unsure about its entrance location or its amenities.
Southwest Florida Water Management District Manages Weekiwachee Preserve
I began this adventure by visiting the website for the Preserve, which is owned and managed by Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) today. It directed potential visitors to the entrance at 2345 Osowaw Boulevard, in Spring Hill and offered a downloadable a trail map. In hindsight, the Georeferenced Trail Map was a better representation of the park.
There are several miles of trails (5.5 miles of open trails and 4.2 miles of forested trails). After starting out on what was essentially a paved road through a forest, the first marked trail on the left is where this hike began.
Along this path, to the left were many cypress trees interspersed with pines and an oak or two, which suggested swampy conditions. The trail was built upon a road that had obviously been traversed by large rock trucks over and over. Tightly packed lime rock and shells were consistent with little vegetation. To the right was a more open sandhill ecosystem. A Queen butterfly flitted about, refusing to stop and pose for a proper photo.
Ahead was a trio and then a man walking a dog approached and passed by on his way out. It was silent – peaceful and serene. There was no indication of the WalMart Supercenter about a mile away as the crow flies. Just nature and nature lovers.
Water so Blue and Clear
Bodies of water appeared in the near distance. The first lake/pond we came to was so clear. Tiny fish were flitting about in an inch of water. Larger fish were meandering about in more depth and the deep blue water was ensconced by reeds, with a cattail bravely standing tall along the shore.
The sky was a bright blue. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Long pants and a hat, as well as closed toe shoes covered me. Whenever checking out a new outdoor path, it is good to wear clothes that protect from the unknown.
The trio in front ventured off onto another path and solitude reigned. Wiregrass grew along both sides of the path fanning out to each of the ponds and lakes ahead – a massive field broken by deep, azure lakes.
Look for the Little Things
Amidst the wiregrass, there were tiny purple flowers that looked like orchids – in fact, they were Grass Pink orchids and no amount of trying would get a decent picture to share with you, but take a minute to see one by clicking here. They are stunning and tiny, nearly hidden in seas of golden green wiregrass atop lime rock pebbles and sand.
Along with the grass pink orchids, were tiny daisies, brown-eyed Susan’s and even goldenrod interspersed with the wide-open preserve that lay ahead. The area was flat and easy to traverse, with bikers occasionally going by and a couple of other hikers enjoying the preserve on a Tuesday.
The wind was there, but not powerful. It leant a nice breeze to cool the brow, but drinking water was very important to enjoying the experience. The Weekiwachee Preserve is not a place where you can stop and fill up your water bottle or buy a soda. This is a place where you are isolated from society and can enjoy immersion in nature. Planning is imperative to an enjoyable hike.
At one point, there was a wonderful picnic table with a roof. It was a welcome respite to have some shade for a break. There were several geocaches in the rafters of the table, which added to the fun.
Great blue herons, a wood stork, several seagulls, and some egrets that graced us with glimpses of themselves along the hike.
And a hill to climb. It was quite steep, but not too long, so the climb to get a birds-eye view was worth it. To see the many deep blue lakes with the khaki wiregrass fields and white trails around us. Several palmetto trees and a hardwood or two grew atop the little hill. Their trunks had been burned and showed the signs of surviving a controlled burn in a managed preserve.
The water in these former lime rock pits is so blue, it is worth a visit just to see that color. It’s almost a Caribbean blue in some places, and crystal clear – breathtaking.
The day of visiting the Weekiwachee Preserve, the weather had been dry for several weeks so the ground was hard and there weren’t any puddles. Observation showed, however, that the Weekiwachee Preserve is primarily a swampy ecosystem, delivering spring water to the gulf, while cleaning surface water in the many marshes, and providing flood protection to protect Hernando Beach, Spring Hill and Weeki Wachee residents from flooding due to tropical storms and hurricanes.
Don’t Worry about the Bears in the Weekiwachee Preserve
There are Florida black bears who reside in and traverse through the Weekiwachee Preserve, as well as its northern counterpart, the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area. They have limited range due to the proximity of US19. I have never seen one, although many locals and visitors have. Several years ago, Florida Fish and Wildlife believed that four black bears are isolated in this region. Those bears don’t want to eat us. They are reclusive and would rather not be seen. In fact, Floria black bears are herbivores, preferring berries for their diet.
So, no bear encounters, several biker encounters, a few hiker encounters, and a whole lot of quiet peaceful space was experienced in the Weekiwachee Preserve on a 2.5-mile hike of the very south end of the Preserve. It is a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle of life without a big drive but be sure bring plenty of water if you are going to walk around the lakes. There are very few trees.
Lime rock mines are still operating in Brooksville and many parts of Florida. The laws have changed a bit, requiring mining companies to restore the land that they disturbed to get the materials that they take from the earth. Sometimes the reclamation is extensive and sometimes nature just slowly takes back over. The Weekiwachee Preserve is a nice example of that.
Things to Know before you visit the Weekiwachee Preserve
- Location and parking: 2345 Osowaw Boulevard, Spring Hill, FL 34607
- No entry fee.
- Hours: Dawn to Dusk daily
- 2nd and 4th Saturdays, visitors may drive into park through Osowaw entrance and park at end of paved road, where kayaks may be launched and there is a handicapped port-o-let.
- Size: 11,206 acres
- Trails: 5.5 miles of paved and unpaved biking/hiking trails and 4.3 miles of marked woods trails
- Fishing and Boating (no gas engines) are allowed on Preserve lakes, but banks can be unstable. No boat ramps are available.
- No swimming is allowed
- Pack in plenty of drinking water. Sunscreen, bug repellant, and hats are a good idea.