Natural beauty draws people outdoors

MANATEE — Growing interest in Manatee County’s natural beauty and its wealth of hiking, biking, horse riding, canoeing and kayaking opportunities reflects a national trend in which Americans are hitting the trails.

Hikers seek exercise, stress relief, inexpensive family fun and earth-friendly forms of transportation. “We’ve seen a very large upswing in people seeking solace and solitude, and a desire to reconnect with the natural places that make Florida sacred and special,” said Charlie Hunsicker, director of the Manatee County Natural Resources Department, which oversees 15 preserves comprising about 30,000 acres.

The state, too, offers 2,500 miles of trails that crisscross public land, and the 1,400-mile Florida Trail, a congressionally designated National Scenic Trail.

County officials and developers of Lakewood Ranch have met recently in hopes of reaching an agreement that would provide an extensive new system of trails in East Manatee. Hunsicker and developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. hope to form a partnership to plan multipurpose hiking and equestrian trails from Rye Preserve and Lake Manatee State Park south to the Sarasota County line.

They have been discussing how trails might intertwine with land set aside for Florida Power & Light’s Bobwhite-Manatee Transmission Line Project. Another trail still in the planning stages would follow FPL railroad tracks being used by the Florida Railroad Museum, south from Willow to a spot near the Gamble Mansion in Ellenton, Hunsicker says.

Hikers are already testing two new trails, one connecting Robinson Preserve — 487 wild acres adjacent to Perico Bayou — with Anna Maria Island; and the other near Palmetto, linking the Manatee County Fairgrounds with Emerson Point Preserve. Enjoying the fresh air

The county’s green ways and trail coordinator, naturalist Sandy Koi, is charged with helping to open preserves to residents and visitors and to promote a conservation and stewardship ethic.

“It’s pure and simple exercise, it’s healthy,” she says. “Walking, anything, it gets you moving. Just getting out, people just don’t get a chance to see nature anymore.”

The land that makes up Robinson Preserve was originally destined for what happens to so much gorgeous wild land in Florida: houses and golf courses.

But the county was able to buy the land at a discount, and today it hosts a variety of unique flora and fauna, including a nest of federally protected bald eagles, with two offspring.

Butterflies abound and native plants, such as the beach sunflower, bloom in prolific and casual disarray.

The preserve’s trails attract nature lovers of every age and interest. “Isn’t it awesome?” said Monica Costello, 44, of Bradenton, who was pushing Ryan Costello, 22, in a wheelchair toward the paved section of trail at the preserve.

“Since they paved this, handicapped people come. We like to get out for the stimulation and fresh air.” People were riding bicycles, skateboarding, hiking, bird-watching and fishing. Some were vacationers from colder climes.

“I loved it; it was good,” said Zoe Fitzgerald, 10, of South Hampton, N.H., who was visiting grandparents a few weeks ago in Bradenton. “We saw some spiders.” Eventually, there will be a new visitors’ center, storage for canoes and kayaks and primitive camping offered at the preserve, which differs from a park.

“Parks are where active recreation, with organized sports teams, can take place, their principal purpose is to serve the recreational needs of the public,” explained Hunsicker.

“Our preserves’ principal purpose is to preserve the habitat of important plants and animals in the county while providing passive recreational access to these special places, including hiking, biking, canoeing and kayaking, bird-watching, picnicking and other low-impact activities.”

The county and state also operate dozens of parks, some of which offer extensive trails. Lake Manatee State Park, 15 miles east of Bradenton on State Road 64, is made up of 550 acres adjacent to Lake Manatee.

Its six miles of trails are increasingly popular with visitors, said Donald Moraski, a volunteer at the park who helps maintain the trails.

“People probably want to get back to nature, see what’s out there, and they’re getting more fit so they want to do a little more, walking, exercise and seeing nature,” said Moraski. “Visitors, we get all different kinds — young, old, some want heavy exercising.

“The Gopher Trail is thicker and gives you more exercise, the other is mostly packed sand, which is an easier walk,” he added.

Also popular with hikers is Myakka River State Park on State Road 72, nine miles east of I-75. Outdoor lovers enjoy its more than 39 miles of hiking trails. One of the oldest and largest state parks, Myakka protects one of the state’s most diverse natural areas.

The Myakka River, designated as a Florida Wild and Scenic River, flows through 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pine lands, according to the park Web site. Visitors view wildlife from a boardwalk that stretches out over the Upper Myakka Lake, then they can take to the treetops with a stroll along the “canopy walkway.”

Nature-based tourism

Last year, the state’s tourism marketing arm reported that 65 percent of Florida visitors included nature-based activity in their travel plans, according to a Visit Florida official.

“This is peak hiking season for us, when most people are visiting Florida,” said Judy Trotta, program director for the nonprofit Florida Trail Association, based in Gainesville.

“This is a way to make sure the public realizes that, and gets out and gets healthy on the trail.” Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, Inc., developers of Lakewood Ranch, won an award last year for the community’s 159 miles of well-designed, multi-use trails.

The award came from American Trails, a nonprofit organization based in Redding, Calif., and honored communities that serve as models for quality, presenters said.

“When we survey buyers and residents, trails and the interconnected park systems have consistently ranked as No. 1 in terms of Lakewood Ranch residents’ opinions of what aspects of the community are of most importance to them,” said Todd Pokrywa, vice president of planning for Schroeder-Manatee Ranch.