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Withlacoochee River Park, Green Swamp & dark skies

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Withlacoochee River Park is a base camp for hiking and bicycling in the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve with one special characteristic — it’s also a “dark sky” park favored by amateur astronomers.

This 500-acre park lies along the headwaters of the Withlacoochee, a sliver of the Green Swamp Preserve managed by Pasco County. It’s six miles from Dade City — far enough from civilization to afford the darkest skies on the darkest nights for amateur astronomers.

Although not a section of the 140-mile-long Withlacoochee River popular with paddlers, you can launch a kayak or canoe here and paddle into a scenic wilderness.

withlacoochee river park withlacoochee river downstream Withlacoochee River Park, Green Swamp & dark skies
The Withlacoochee River is the eastern boundary of Withlacoochee River Park. The Withlacoochee is one of four major rivers that originate in the Green Swamp. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Nor is this park connected to the 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail, a popular rail trail that intersects the river many miles downstream.

But Withlacoochee River Park has its own attractions: multiple nature trails, a paved multi-use trail, an observation tower, an open activity field for amateur astronomers and a scenic, shady campground.

A bonus for backpackers: the park is an access trailhead to the Florida National Scenic Trail as it meanders through the Green Swamp.

There are two Withlacoochee rivers in Florida. The other one is in Madison County on the Georgia state line. They do not connect.

Withlacoochee River Park campground

withlacoochee river park our campsite
Our campsite in Withlacoochee River Park (Site #11) offered dense shade and plenty of privacy. All sites have 20-/30-amp electric and water hookups. (Photo by Bob Rountree)
withlacoochee river campground
This is the view of the rest of the campground from our site. Live oaks offer tons of shade. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Withlacoochee River Park has been on my radar for a few years, ever since I discovered it was popular with amateur astronomers who camp in the park’s activity field on new moon weekends.

The lack of ambient light makes this remote park a favorite of the St. Petersburg Astronomy Club, which has established a base in the park’s Activity Field with electric and water hookups for campers.

The park’s main campground is for the rest of us, and campsites were easy to book. In early March, considered Florida’s peak seaon, I was able to reserve one of the campground’s 15 sites — and that was on a dark skies (new moon) weekend.

When i arrived, there were only about a dozen astronomers in tents and trailers on the Activity Field, and there were only four campsites taken besides mine in the main campground.

withlacoochee park activity field dark skies
The Activity Field at Withlacoochee River Park is set up for amateur astronomers, who gather here on the New Moon for dark skies. No reservations are needed for these events, which are sponsored by the St. Petersburg Astronomy Club. The Activity Field sites have water and electric. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Another primitive camping area, available to groups, was occupied by Florida Trail Association volunteers, who were there to maintain a nearby section of the Florida Scenic Trail in the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve.

The park’s two camping cabins were not occupied during our visit.

withlacoochee river park chapel
This 1840s replica chapel is in the main campground and serves as a community event space. Behind it is one of the park’s two rental cabins. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Trails and other things

I loved zipping around Withlacoochee Park on my e-bike on its two miles of paved multi-use trails and hiking several of 13 more miles of unpaved paths, including a three-mile nature trail. There is also a GPS Orienteering Course.

In the adjacent Green Swamp Preserve (read more below), you’ll discover an additional 65 miles of unpaved multi-use trails. I didn’t explore them all, but my e-bike traveled well despite the occasional ruts.

Withlacoochee River Park is a haven for wildlife, largely due to its proximity to the vast forests and wetlands of the Green Swamp’s wilderness. Birders will enjoy the variety of eagles, hawks and herons. Songbirds are ever-present in winter.

The park is also home to otters, alligators, red and gray fox, bears, wild hogs and bobcats, even the rare Florida panther has been sighted here.

View the park from its 40-foot observation tower, or go fishing in the river from the fishing dock, which is also the launch dock for canoes and kayaks. (There is a 100-foot portage from the parking lot to the launch dock.) Fishing license is required.

withlacoochee river park canoe dock
The park’s canoe dock on the Withlacoochee River is shared with anglers, who are encouraged to fish here as opposed to riverbanks. The dock is a short portage from the parking lot. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

The Green Swamp

I’ve long been curious about the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve. Is it really a swamp, or is there more to it?

The Green Swamp is a vast preserve, cobbled together through various federal and state preservation grants, and it’s managed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Contrary to what the name implies, the Green Swamp is not all swamp. Sure, there are marshes and wetlands, but much of the preserve is on a plateau, 120 to 200 feet above sea level, cobbled together from ranches and farm land.

So what’s the deal?

withlacoochee river park green swamp west tract Withlacoochee River Park, Green Swamp & dark skies
The entrance to the west tract of the Green Swamp Preserve at Withlacoochee River Park near Dade City. Much of the swamp looks like your average Florida ranch, which it once was, with forests, prairies and wetlands. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

The Green Swamp is actually on high ground, a plateau that sheds its rain runoff into the headwaters of four significant rivers: the Withlacoochee River, the Hillsborough River, Peace River and the Ocklawaha (flows northeast).

Rainwater that doesn’t flow into rivers filters into the Floridan aquifer, which underlies the entire state and provides drinking water for more than 10 million people.

“Because the Green Swamp region is elevated above outlying areas, and the underground aquifer rises very close to the land surface, the region functions as the pressure head for the aquifer,” according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Preservation of the Green Swamp began taking shape after severe flooding in 1960s led to the creation of the Southwest Florida Water Management District as a flood-control agency for the Tampa Bay area.

The initial purchase of land was intended to build dams and create water retention areas under a flood-control plan proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But environmentalists blocked the dam, leaving the accumulated lands in their undeveloped state.

In 1974, as development pressures grew, the state designated 322,000 acres of the Green Swamp region as an “Area of Critical State Concern,” expanding the water district’s management role and fueling the acquisition of more property.

Today, the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve consists of 560,000 acres, nearly the size of Rhode Island. A vast network of unpaved roads offers access for hiking, bicycling, primitive camping and horseback riding.

withlacoochee river park green swamp west map Withlacoochee River Park, Green Swamp & dark skies
Map of the section of the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve adjacent to Withlacoochee River Park. The main entrance to the preserve is a short walk/ride from the park. Download full map here. (Source: Southwest Florida Water Management District)

A 31-mile segment of the Florida National Scenic Trail runs through the Green Swamp preserve, not far from Withlacoochee River Park.

An original segment of the Florida Trail ran through Withlacoochee River Park but was moved deeper into the preserve. There’s still a trailhead in Withlacoochee River Park that connects to the relocated main trail.

On the weekend we camped, the Florida Trail Association was using Withlacoochee River Park as a base camp for volunteers who maintain the connector and the main trail.

Camping in the Green Swamp

Primitive camping is available in the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve for both backpackers and equestrians, but vehicles are not permitted beyond the locked gates at entrances, including the entrance gate near Withlacoochee River Park.

Campers must register with the Southwest Florida Water Management District before obtaining a permit. Details are available online.

Separate sites available for equestrians and primitive camping for backpackers. Designated campsites have picnic tables, fire rings and/or grills.

There are also four campsites along the Florida National Scenic Trail.

Withlacoochee River Park, 12449 Withlacoochee Blvd, Dade City, FL 33525. Phone: 352-567-0264. Camping fees: RV Sites 1-15, $25; Primitive trail sites 1-9, $10; Primitive tent sites A thru G with parking, $15. For reservations, book online at https://secure.rec1.com/FL/pasco-county-fl/catalog.

Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve, 13347 Ranch Road, Dade City, FL 33525. Phone: (352) 796-7211. Open to the public from 30 minutes prior to sunrise until 30 minutes after sunset unless you have a camping permit. Camping: There is no fee for camping, but you must register to obtain a free permit. Register online.

Things to do near Dade City

Downtown Dade City — Like many aging downtowns in Florida, Dade City is undergoing a renaissance with art galleries, antique and trinkets shops, an eclectic selection of restaurants, a brewpub and an Old Florida hotel. For more, go to discoverdadecity.com

Le Garden Bistro — This cozy, family-run restaurant is in downtown Dade City, about 6 miles from Withlacoochee River Park. We took a break from camp cooking one night and had dinner at Le Garden, which is next to The Wine Library. I really enjoyed the Crispy Duck Breast with Wild Mushroom Risotto, which is the best I’ve ever eaten. For more information, go to legardenbistro.com.

Van Fleet Bike Trail — One of Florida’s most popular rail trails, the Van Fleet bike trail runs 29 miles through the Green Swamp. Story by Bonnie Gross: Central Florida’s 29 miles of beauty & solitude

The Withlacoochee River meanders through unspoiled forest in rural Florida but still within an hour of Orlando and Tampa. Story by Bonnie Gross: Withlacoochee River: One of Florida’s longest and most scenic kayak trails

Events near Withlacoochee River Park

Dade City Kumquat Festival — On the last weekend in January, Dade City hosts its annual Kumquat Festival, celebrating a popular local crop. Read more: kumquatfestival.org

Bay Area Renaissance Festival is held in March on an outparcel of Withlacoochee River Park, separate from the campground but within walking distance. For more information, go to: www.bayarearenfest.com

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