In the late afternoon, when the sunlight grows golden, the three primary users of Alafia River State Park may cross paths, discovering that the miles of trails, ponds and scenic vistas can be as inviting to hikers and horseback riders as they are to off-road bicyclists. ¶ This once-barren stretch of land was scarred by huge draglines decades ago. Excavators plowed the earth for phosphate rock they could convert into fertilizer to nourish crops and lawns.
The mining operations dramatically changed the topography of this place — once called Lonesome Mine in reference to a community to the south named Fort Lonesome — and surprisingly created the foundation for one of the area's hidden gems.
Cytec Industries donated the land to the state in 1966, and those topography changes resulted in challenging off-road bike trails in a state where hills are hard to find.
The 6,260-acre Alafia River State Park on County Road 39, south of Lithia, may be best known for its mountain biking trails, but it also offers camping, fishing, picnicking, canoeing, a playground and, unknown to most, an extensive network of horseback riding trails, complete with a barn for overnight housing of horses.
Cyclists who visit the park can use three color-coded loops: green for beginners, blue for more advanced riders, and black for the most skilled riders, who will undoubtedly be challenged by the steep climbs and sharp drops. The park provides wash-down facilities for the bicycles and riders alike.
Equestrians can enjoy 20 miles of marked trails that wander by lakes, creeks, open vistas and woods. Riders will be stunned by the beauty of the diverse terrain. Just north of the park's main entrance is a parking lot with an unloading area, or you can unload in the camping area.
After a day of riding, you could head to campsites around a loop designed with the horse and rider in mind. Horses can be tied off in the campsite, allowing for grooming and care.
Afterward, riders can stable their horse in a nearby barn.
Hikers and bikers also can take advantage of the campground area. The roomy sites, which include water and electricity, can accommodate everything from a tent to a bus-sized RV. While there is not a lot of shade, the park staff has allowed vegetation to grow between the sites, so you have some privacy from your neighbors.
By foot, bike or horse, Alafia River State Park beckons anyone with a love of nature and an explorer's heart.