THONOTOSASSA - It's a bit of a secret, one held closely among equestrians wrung out of rangeland by the concrete squeeze of urbanization.
Secreted in the midst of three of northeastern Hillsborough County's most occluded asphalt arteries, this 1,500-acre expanse of live oak canopies and primordial scenery has preserved for the mounted a sugar-sweet bit of unspoiled Florida.
There is no signage to point the way to this nondescript gate to the northernmost two miles of the Tampa Bypass Canal. One either stumbles upon it through luck, referral or curiosity.
But regardless of which of these bring to you to the grassy parking area and the fence opening widened no more than a horse requires for passage, you'll have arrived at one of the crown jewels of the Southwest Florida Water Management District's (Swiftmud) stable of recreational lands.
Oddly, those who deign to explore the 10 miles of trails winding through the Jefferson Equestrian Area would be in dire need of scuba equipment were it not for a fortuitous stroke of last-minute intervention.
This thickly wooded wetland ecosystem and thousands of acres connected to it were once doomed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' (USCOE) Four Rivers Basin flood control project, conceived after Temple Terrace and Tampa were inundated by a flood-stage Hillsborough River during Hurricane Donna in 1960.
The post-Donna USCOE plan called for the construction of a structural reservoir encompassing 13 miles of the river and the wetlands surrounding it. Luckily, the value of natural wilderness floodplains as wildlife habitat gained serious recognition before the Corps fired up the bulldozers.
The alternative was to construct the Tampa Bypass Canal, an engineering marvel that serves the practical purpose of managing the water elevation in the Hillsborough River by diverting it into the canal, where it is eventually released into Tampa's McKay Bay.
The Bypass Canal not only prevented destructive flooding while sparing the wild lands, but it also created a unique recreational resource.
The canal serves as the western boundary of the Jefferson Equestrian Area. Its high, grass-covered banks - designed to contain the Hillsborough's surplus in the event of rain or storm surge - now make for an elevated perch from which to observe wading birds, turtles and alligators.
Also populating the Bypass Canal are anglers, who ply the canal for catfish, bluegill and largemouth bass.
Today, the Jefferson Equestrian Area is one among eight mixed-use recreation areas spread across 16,000 acres of what is now known as Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Park (LHWP).
The other LHWP sites are Trout Creek Park, Morris Bridge Park, Sargeant Park, Dead River Park, the Oakridge Equestrian Area and the Off-Road Loop Trail.
In what is widely considered a model of interagency cooperation, most of these were constructed as the result of an agreement among Swiftmud, USCOE and Hillsborough County.
The parks are leased and managed by the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department and the balance of the recreation areas are managed by Swiftmud's Land Use and Protection group.
The trail system in Jefferson is a series of four short loops, all of which connect to the area's signature trail - the Hillsborough River Trail. Remarkably, each of the four loops traverses a slightly different ecological community, offering visitors the opportunity to experience everything from sand scrub to interior wetlands.
But it is the Hillsborough River Trail that enchants. Winding through a jungle-like forest of cabbage palms, massive live oaks and gum trees, the thick canopy above the trail provides cool respite from an unblinking Florida sun.
Those desiring to observe wildlife are rarely disappointed. Deer and hog abound on the grounds, while hawks, ospreys, vultures, owls and at least one pair of bald eagles make their nests in the forest's towering arbor.
The reptile demographic also is well-represented. In addition to the aforementioned alligators, box turtles, gopher tortoises and several species of serpent - venomous and non-venomous - make their homes in this diverse habitat.
These creatures find additional refuge in the swampy lowlands surrounding Cow Creek, a natural creek linking the Hillsborough River to the Tampa Bypass Canal. A unique feature of Cow Creek is that it flows both east and west, depending on which of the two waterways has the highest water level.
The Hillsborough River Trail ends, fittingly enough, at the Hillsborough River. Cypress knees jut from the wet, loamy soil just off of the trail, their curious occurrence serving a purpose not fully understood by science.
But serve they do the immense bald cypress trees from which they grow. These throw thick shadows across the river's silent, molasses flow. It is as if the end of the trail leads to the beginning of time.
Although the designation "Equestrian" is fully descriptive of the area's intended clientele, the Jefferson Equestrian Area also is open to hikers. Cyclists and motorized vehicles are strictly prohibited.
Among the hiking public one might encounter here are geocachers, devotees of the orienteering-driven treasure hunting pastime. The area is home to several caches, including an interesting multistage cache leading to the riverside terminus of the Hillsborough River Trail.
Those who choose to explore the area on foot should understand that there are sections of the trail that would disappoint hikers looking to stay high and dry.
Although the short trail loops are usually passable by foot, keep in mind that the area also serves as a flood plain for the river.
Flood plains are dotted with water retaining basins connected by low-lying terrain over which some segments of the trail pass. In times of high water elevation, Swiftmud closes the Jefferson Equestrian Area to horse and hiker alike.
Most importantly, hikers here should bear in mind that equestrians should be given wide berth if encountered along the trail.
The preferred way to extend this courtesy is to move 10 feet off of the trail and remain relatively still as horse and rider pass. Do not approach the horse unless the rider gives permission; otherwise, feel free to exchange pleasantries and trail information in a calm tone.
All visitors are required to sign in on the clipboard located near the main gate kiosk. The sign-in sheet provides Swiftmud with a record of the number of people using its recreational lands and provides valuable data for maintenance planning and the acquisition of future recreational wilderness. And remember: pack it in, pack it out.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Jefferson Equestrian Area
DIRECTIONS: Travel approximately a quarter-mile east of I-75 on Fowler Avenue. Turn north on Jefferson Road. Travel one block to entrance gate.
HOURS: Open sunrise to sunset. Closed during high water.
FACTS: Equestrian and foot travel only. Angling is permitted. No restroom facilities or potable water available.
INFORMATION: Call Swiftmud at 1-800-423-1476 or visit www.watermatters.org.