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Withlacoochee State Forest: Outstanding Outdoor Recreation

By Florida's Original NatureCoaster™ Posted on December 14, 2017

The Withlacoochee State Forest is the third largest state forest in Florida spanning 164,073 acres divided into several distinct tracts of land throughout Florida’s Nature Coast, including Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Lake, and Sumter Counties.

Within its boundaries are ghost towns, abandoned cemeteries, and evidence of the boom-and-bust life that Florida’s early settlers faced, but the Withlacoochee State Forest’s predominant feature is its namesake river which traverses a 70-mile trek north and west from the Green Swamp in Polk County to the Gulf of Mexico in Yankeetown, twisting and turning through 18 miles of managed, yet untamed forest.

1.1 million people visit the Withlacoochee State Forest each year. They experience “the real Florida,” complete with ancient and newborn trees, wildflowers, birds, plants and animals that thrive in its unique ecosystems.

In fact, the World Wildlife Fund named the Withlacoochee State Forest one of the “10 Coolest Places You’ve Never Been in North America.”

Hollowed out base of a giant cypress tree. A remnant of the logging frenzy that the Nature Coast experienced in the late 1800s. Image courtesy of Florida State Parks.

History of the Withlacoochee State Forest

This native natural wonder was acquired by the federal government from private landowners between 1936 and 1939 under the provisions of the U.S. Land Resettlement Administration. In 1958, a lease-purchase agreement transferred the property to the Florida Board of Forestry. Additional acreage has been purchased from private landowners utilizing funds from the Environmentally Endangered Lands, the Conservation and Recreation Lands, the Preservation 2000, and the Florida Forever Land acquisition programs.

The word “Withlacoochee” is an Indian word that roughly translates to “crooked river,” and the Withlacoochee River is designated as an Outstanding Florida Waterway by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as “worthy of special protection because of its natural attributes.”

The Six Tracts of the Withlacoochee State Forest

Each section, or tract, of the Withlacoochee State Forest is unique, but offering a variety of outdoor recreation options. Camping, fishing, equestrian riding/driving, picnicking, biking and, of course, hiking are great ways to get to know your forest.

The Withlacoochee State Forest welcomes you. A great place to start is the Visitor Center on US 41. Image courtesy of Florida State Parks.

The Headquarters Tract

The Headquarters Tract is a great place to start your exploration of the forest. An awesome visitor center is there, staffed by park rangers who will answer questions and help guide you to the activities you want to do. They know about trail conditions. Brochures and trail maps are available.

The visitor center is open Monday – Friday, except holidays from 8 a.m. – 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. – 4:30 p.m., and is located at 15003 Broad Street, Brooksville, FL 34601. Occasionally they close, so it is a good idea to call 352.797.4140 before you drive there.

With 3 pavilions and numerous picnic tables, this is a great place to start your exploration. A 2-mile nature trail gives visitors the opportunity to view deer, owls, hawks and more. There are four species of southern pine to be seen on the trail: longleaf, slash, loblolly and sand. Practice your identification skills!

The Croom Tract

The Croom Tract covers more than 20,000 acres of cypress and longleaf pine forests and includes 13 winding miles of the Withlacoochee River. No pets are allowed in this part of the forest (except in the Silver Lake Recreation area), but there are over 50 miles of equestrian trails, short and long hiking trails, picnicking, camping, fishing, hunting. The Silver Lake Recreation area is the widest point of the Withlacoochee River. Additionally, there is the famous Croom Motorcycle area which offers 2,600-acres of off-road action for the powersports enthusiast.

Richloam Tract is where the headsprings of the Withlacoochee River hail. It is a large tract that includes the Green Swamp, an important part of Florida’s aquatic ecosystems. Image courtesy of Florida State Parks.

The Richloam Tract

The Richloam Tract contains a portion of the headwaters of this river. With over 56,000 acres, this piece of the forest encompasses pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, bottomland hardwoods and cypress swamp. There are multiuse trails, including bicycling, hiking and equestrian activities.

The Citrus Tract

The Citrus Tract covers more than 50,000 acres and includes one of the largest contiguous acreages of sandhill plant communities found in Florida. This tract supports a thriving population of red-cockaded woodpeckers, and was identified as a Globally Important Birding Area by the Audubon Society in 2011. There are three recreation areas with camping. Enjoy hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, hiking, biking, picnicking and horseback riding and driving.

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The Homosassa Tract

The Homosassa Tract office is located on U.S. 19 six miles south of Homosassa Springs at the fire tower and Burnt Bridge Road. There is a 2.7 mile walking trail, called The Rooks Loop Trail which included in the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.

The Jumper Creek Tract

The Jumper Creek Tract is along the east banks of the Withlacoochee River in Sumter County and offers canoeing, hiking, fishing and biking, and is pet-friendly.

Two-Mile Prairie Tract. Image courtesy of Florida State Parks.

The Two-Mile Prairie Tract

Two Mile Prairie Tract is in Citrus County and offers horse trails, hiking, canoeing, camping and more. The Bear Head Hammock Trail is 8.4 miles long.

Get out and Wander the Withlacoochee Forest Today

Withlacoochee State Forest is a haven for the outdoor enthusiast. Activities include miles of trails for hiking, bicycling, horseback riding and canoeing. Seasonal hunting is available in most of the forest, and fishing is plentiful on Withlacoochee’s many lakes and waterways.

Several campgrounds are available, and feature developed and primitive campsites. The forest also has group camps for organized group excursions.

Silver Lake allows pets on a leash and is the widest point of the Withlacoochee River. Image courtesy of Florida State Parks

Things to Remember:

  • Possession of alcoholic beverages is prohibited where posted.
  • It’s a good idea to have a map and water, along with your cell phone, although reception can be spotty. It’s a BIG space.
  • Make sure someone knows where you are going and when to expect you back in case you get lost.
  • Off-highway motorcycles (OHMs) and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) are prohibited, except in designated riding areas.
  • Removal or destruction of cultural artifacts, plants or animals is prohibited (with the exception of legal game during scheduled hunts).
  • Take all garbage with you when you leave the forest if a container is not available in the area that you visit.
  • Leashed pets are welcome in designated areas. Please check with the area you plan to visit.
  • All horses require proof of current negative Coggins Test results when on state lands.
  • All equestrian riders under age 16 must wear a certified helmet on state forests.
  • Hunting and  Fishing in state forests are regulated by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, according to published seasons, license requirements, etc. Hunting requires a license and permit and is allowed only during established seasons.
Bald Cypress along the Withlacoochee River are quite a sight. Image courtesy of Florida State Parks.

Want Recognition of your Efforts?

The Florida State Forest has programs to reward trail users with cool patches and certificates. Check them out through the links below:

Trailtrotter Program
Explore the Forest on Horseback

Trailwalker Hiking Program.

Stables are available at some locations in the park, making equestrian camping a delight. Image courtesy of Florida State Parks

Whether it’s by bicycle, horse, or foot, visitors to the Withlacoochee State Forest experience the same outdoor elements that early settlers and inhabitants encountered. Enjoy the outdoor   recreation, remembering that state forest trails will serve as wilderness classrooms where people of all ages can explore and learn. The rangers are knowledgeable and are committed to helping you get the most out of this wonderful natural resource.

 

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