Little Manatee River State Park

Occasionally we all need mental health days, and I’ve found the best cure for stress is a long nature walk with my little dog, Belle. Recently, during a particularly challenging period at work, I decided to drive out of the city to clear my mind. We were meandering down US 301, a few miles south of Big Bend Road, when Belle began to get restless. I saw a sign for Little Manatee River State Park, so I thought, “Why not?” and decided to check it out.

What a delightful surprise. This is definitely the little park that could cure the blues.

I went in to register at the Ranger’s Station ($5 entry fee) and to get maps and information. While I was having a cordial conversation with the staff, Belle started barking excitedly. Coming through the entrance was a horse trailer with REAL, LIVE HORSES (this is a big deal for a city dog). I knew then this was not going to be your ordinary Sunday walk in the park.

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Camping (primitive & full facility)

There are secluded camping areas nestled in the pine forest away from the busier areas of the park. Full RV campsite and hook-up are provided at 34 campsites. There are even two ADA-accessible campsites. Each site is equipped with electricity, water, a fire ring and a picnic table. The park offers full showers, restrooms, washers and dryers to registered campers.

I was really impressed how native Florida plants and wild flowers were planted between sites to give each camper maximum privacy. Belle is happy to report that well-behaved animals are also welcomed.

Little Manatee River State Park is well-planned, well-maintained and very welcoming.

I give this outdoor experience two thumbs up. Belle gives it four paws.

Check it out!

Hiking trails

As it happens, Little Manatee River State Park also is known for having the best hiking trails in the area. Belle and I set out that morning, determined to walk all 6.5 miles of the maintained footpaths. The trail winds through a diversity of habitats, coming out on the river several times. Your walk will give you a good perspective the camp’s facilities, including well-designed canoe launches, primitive campgrounds and screened meeting rooms.

Biking

There are also paved roads that make a loop around the park. Many people bring their own bikes, but you can rent one at the Ranger Station for two hours ($5) or all day ($10).

Bird and Nature Watching

Throughout the year the park is home to songbirds, insects and wildflowers. While I was there, the purple beautyberries were brilliant and summer butterflies were abundant. I do recommend wearing insect repellant, especially in the summer. Unfortunately, I didn’t plan ahead, and I had several chigger bites as souvenirs when I got home after my walk.

Horseback riding

It turns out that this park has more than 12 miles of dedicated riding trails, not shared with bikers, pedestrians or dogs (sorry, Belle). If you want to take your steed on vacation, this is the place. There are four equestrian campsites available for rent, complete with stalls, hitching posts and full hook-up.

If you want to ride, but don’t happen to own a horse, Kathy and Robert Wolfe bring their very well-behaved horses to the park several days a week. (Go to: www.BornToRide09.com or call 941-812-1980.) They organize guided rides by reservation for private groups. You and your friends will be paired with horses suited to your experience level, whether that’s walking, trotting or cantering.

Kathy positively glowed about the park’s equestrian trails. They feature a wide variety of scenery from shady forests to open fields. There are small “creek crossings,” hills, lakes and lots of photo ops.

Fishing, Canoeing and Kayaking

Boating and fishing on the Little Manatee River are the big draw. This part of the river is still quite pristine and relatively narrow, but the currents are seldom strong. That makes it great for freshwater fishing. Bass, bream and catfish are abundant.

Upcoming Events:

Saturday Guided Nature Walks, 1 p.m. most Saturdays, a leisurely ½-mile hike along the Oxbow Trail covering four distinct habitats. Meet the ranger in the parking lot near the picnic area.

Saturday, Oct. 11, 2-10pm, the 2nd Annual Back 40 Music Festival features live music, food and drink, arts and crafts, and entertainment for the whole family.

October 18, Friends of Little Manatee River Mystery Map gives riders, paddlers and hikers a chance to match the trail time of a “mystery” person to win cash and other prizes. You’ll maneuver through a set of themed challenges that test your skills and your brain as you complete the course.

Friends of Little Manatee Poker Run (January) is a traditional poker run where participants follow a trail, collecting poker cards in hopes of turning in the best hand and winning a prize. The trails may be on land for hikers and riders, or on the river for paddlers.

In addition to great campsites, the park has a beautiful outdoor amphitheater with a sound system and screen for multi-media presentations, making it especially attractive for organizational outdoor retreats.

Little Manatee River State Park 215 Lightfoot Road, Wimauma, Florida 33598. (813) 671-5005 Park’s Website

Florida State Park Reservations 1-800-326-3521 or Reservations Website

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