Summer is right around the corner, making it the right time to get outside and explore some of the hidden gems Mother Nature has
polished to perfection in the Tampa Bay area.
Shuttle from Fort DeSoto Park, Tierre Verde
Accessible only by boat, Egmont Key is located at the mouth of Tampa Bay just southwest of Fort DeSoto Beach. It's the perfect day trip to enjoy a secluded beach, and for snorkeling, shelling, fishing or just relaxing. In 1898, as the Spanish-American War threatened, Fort Dade was built on the island and remained active until 1923. The island is now a state park and protected wildlife refuge (the southern end is a bird sanctuary) and you can still visit the lighthouse that has stood here since 1859. Catch the Egmont Key ferry at 10 and 11 a.m. daily through Sept. 7 from Fort DeSoto Park; cost is $20 roundtrip. An optional snorkeling tour is available for an additional $20 and includes gear.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
249 Windward Passage, Clearwater
This fall, the major Hollywood 3-D movie "Dolphin Tale" is expected be released to much fanfare across the country. The star of the film is Winter, the charismatic tail-less dolphin who resides at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Winter's heartwarming story of human friendship and rehabilitation using a prosthetic tail is expected to draw visitors from across the country once the movie debuts in September. Buzz around town is that the aquarium will be a mob scene for months. Why not avoid the crowds and schedule a visit to see Winter now? The Clearwater Marine Aquarium has plenty to offer families, including daily animal interaction programs, sea turtles, sharks, river otters, stingrays and more. As a matter of fact, it's one of the top marine animal rescue and rehabilitation facilities in the state.
Skyway State Fishing Pier
Skyway Bridge on I-275, St. Petersburg
North Pier Bait Shop: (727) 865-0668
South Pier Bait Shop: (941) 729-0117
When the new Sunshine Skyway bridge was built over Tampa Bay connecting St. Petersburg with Bradenton, the old bridge was turned into the world's longest fishing pier. Rubble from the demolished middle section of the bridge was used to create an artificial reef which attracts many species of fish including snook, tarpon, grouper, black sea bass, Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, cobia, sheepshead, red snapper, pompano, and more. Almost as good as the fishing are the spectacular views of the Gulf and Tampa Bay. Snacks, drinks, bait, and fishing supplies are available. You don't need a fishing license, and rod rentals are $8 a day. The pier is open 24 hours a day year-round; for parking and entrance fees check out the web site.
Mountain Biking at Alafia River State Park
14326 South CR 39 in Lithia
Considered one of the top mountain biking locations in Florida, Alafia River State Park offers more than 20 miles of off-road trails ranging in skill level from beginner to advanced. The 6,260-acre park is a former phosphate mine and provides a diverse landscape to challenge even the most hard-core athletes. All of the trails are clearly marked for skill level: green circle is beginner, blue square is intermediate, black diamond is difficult, and double black diamond is advanced. The trails are set-up as multiple loops and are one way. Lots of technical sections with steep grades and banks, roots, rocks and tight turns make this a popular destination for advanced off-roaders. For detailed descriptions of the trails, check out the SWAMP Club web site at
Paddling at Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve
Located at the mouth and south of the Little Manatee River in south Hillsborough County, Cockroach Bay's shallow waters and extensive mangrove islands make for exceptional paddling. Rookeries abound here offering excellent bird watching opportunities. For the paddler in a canoe or kayak, there are two marked trails that begin at the boat ramp and wind you through the mangrove islands and the bay. To the north, the Snook Trail offers a 1 to 1-1/2 hour paddle. To the south, the Horseshoe Crab Trail offers a 2-1/2 to 3 hour paddle. Pack a lunch and picnic on an island or pack your fishing gear and try fro redfish, snook or sea trout. Bring your own canoe or kayak, or rent at Canoe Outpost on the Little Manatee River in Wimauma.
South Florida Museum
201 10th St. W., Bradenton
Plan an entire day for a visit to the South Florida Museum, the largest natural and cultural history museum on Florida's Gulf Coast. There's something for everyone at this complex which includes Bishop Planetarium and Parker Manatee Aquarium. The Bishop Planetarium, featuring one of the most advanced all-digital projection systems in the world, presents astronomy programs the whole family will enjoy. The Parker Manatee Aquarium, part of Florida's manatee rehabilitation network, is home to Snooty, the oldest known living manatee. On the museum's second floor, you'll find the Environmental Wing focusing on Florida's ecology and bio-diversity, and from Memorial Weekend through July look for Tampa Bay Estuary Program's 20th anniversary photo exhibit "Tampa Bay: 20/20" on display.
Tampa Electric Co.'s Manatee Viewing Center
(813) 228-4289 or http://www.tampaelectric.com/manatee/
When Tampa Bay water temperatures drop into the 60s, hundreds of manatees gather in the warm waters discharged
from TECO's Big Bend Power Station in south Hillsborough County. Signs tell the tales of various manatees who have made
the center their winter home, and the viewing platform offers an astoundingly clear view of the endangered sea cows. Or stroll
along the boardwalk hugging the banks of the canal as it passes through mangroves and slash pine. You can see waterbirds
and wildlife, and be rewarded with more views of manatees at the end of the line. New this year is an expanded gift shop, and
an exhibit on mangroves. January 2011 marks the 25th anniversary of this popular, FREE attraction.
Around the Bend Nature Tours
(941) 794-8773 or http://www.aroundbend.com/
Curious about the creatures that inhabit local waters? Here's your chance to get up close and personal through Dip Netting
Adventures offered by Around the Bend Nature Tours every Wednesday evening in the grass flats of the Manatee River in Manatee
County. Wade into the river wearing close-toed shoes and use a dip net to skim the water, snatching up small fish and crustaceans.
After you've had a chance to examine and identify the sea creatures, they'll be released back into their watery homes. It's a great
way to learn about the interdependence of marine life in our local waterways. Dip netting excursions cost just $15 and are suitable
for the whole family.
Bird watching at Fort DeSoto Park
(727) 893-9185 or http://www.pinellascounty.org/park/05_ft_desoto.htm
Fort DeSoto Park may be best known for its beautiful beaches, but that's no surprise to the thousands of birds that use it as a rest stop during their fall migrations. The park's popularity with feathered visitors has made it a favorite for bird watchers as well. More than 300 species have been sighted at the park in southern Pinellas County, which has nearly 20 prime bird watching locations scattered about. Among the favorite fall visitors are wood warblers, thrushes, flycatchers and orioles. Wintertime shorebirds include red knots and black-bellied plovers. Download a guide to birding at the park at
Bicycling at Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park
Grab your bicycle and helmet and head out to the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park in southern Pasco County. The 8,000-acre tract of land features a 6.5-mile paved bicycle trail that connects to the Suncoast Trail - which starts in Tampa and goes north to Hernando County. For a more measured journey, stick to the Starkey Trail as it wends its way past pine forest, live oak, cypress and palmetto scrub, giving you a taste of classic Old Florida scenery. You'll see a wide array of birds and might even spot a deer, fox squirrel or gopher tortoise during your ride.
Kayaking one of the Tampa Bay area's many waterways
Strap your kayak on to your car or head to one of the area's kayak rental facilities to enjoy an afternoon of peaceful paddling. Tampa Bay's watershed offers a tapestry of aquascapes from which to choose, including mangrove tunnels and quiet lagoons, the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and cypress swamps and hardwood hammocks. Depending on your route, you might spot dolphins and manatees frolicking in the water, or alligators and turtles sunning themselves along river banks. And no matter where you go you'll see an abundance of waterbirds, such as egrets, herons and ibises.
Check out our list of EcoTour Operators for kayak rentals
and the Paddling Tampa Bay section for downloadable trail maps.