The Tampa Bay area offers a diverse mixture of scenery in urban, suburban, rural, agricultural, and natural areas. One of the best ways to experience the full mix is to hike or bike the Suncoast and Pinellas Trails. They’re two of the most popular trails in the Tampa Bay area and with good reason. Each trail is over 40 miles in length, and both have a lot to offer. Here’s what you need to know.
The Suncoast Trail is a multiple-use paved trail that parallels the Suncoast Parkway. The 42-mile trail extends from just outside Tampa northward through Pasco and Hernando Counties until it ends just inside Citrus County. There are seven official trailheads, each with a paved parking lot and restrooms (with the exception of the northernmost trailhead at US 98). Most parking lots are full by sunrise on weekdays and are overflowing on weekends. Morning joggers and cyclists dominate the weekends so the best time to hike is on a weekday.
This gopher tortoise was hanging out at a hilltop rest area.
The north end of the trail features hills, agricultural land, natural areas, parks, and less car noise from the nearby parkway. The southern portion of the trail features waterways, ranches, a wilderness park, and a more suburban landscape. This area has the most trail traffic. Overall, it’s a long trail and even with plenty of shaded rest areas and water stations with cold water coolers, it’s best hiked in sections.
My favorite section also has the most scenic views. It begins at the trailhead parking lot at SR 54 and continues north about 6 miles where it cuts through agricultural land where you can see cattle grazing on a modern ranch. Continuing on, the trail goes into a natural area where it crosses over a couple tributaries and through swamps. From the bridges, I’ve spotted turkey, deer, and river otters near the water. The Suncoast Trail then intersects with a trail entering Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park. The paved Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park Trail continues another 6 or so miles into an 8,300-acre undeveloped tract with a lot of recreational opportunities.
The Suncaoast Trail along the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park boundary.
The Pinellas Trail is a 47-mile linear park and recreation trail that travels north and south through Pinellas County from Tarpon Springs to Saint Petersburg. It was created on the bed of an abandoned railway. The trail connects some of the county’s most scenic coastline, parks, and residential neighborhoods together into one pedestrian-friendly artery. Pinellas is Florida’s most densely populated county so the scenery is mostly urban as the trail passes through backyards, neighborhoods, commercial areas, and downtown districts. The trail can be accessed from almost anywhere along the west coast of the county. There are just too many points of access to list, making it a local trail for a lot of people.
One hiker-friendly feature is that busier sections have the trail divided into a pedestrian lane and a bicycle lane separated by a grassy median.
The Pinellas trail crosses a lot of roads: 10 overpasses and 3 underpasses were created to avoid the busiest roads and intersections. In some spots, the elevation gain from overpasses puts the trail above the trees. From here it’s easy to see the surrounding area. A few overpasses are near the coastline which provides a great opportunity to view the sunset over the gulf waters.
The coolest point of interest is the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary on the Palm Harbor section. Orangutans, chimpanzees, small primates, and birds watch trail traffic contentedly from their home. Signs warn trail goers not to put their hands through the fence.
My favorite section of the Pinellas Trail is the Honeymoon Island Trail Spur (click here for a 360° view). The Honeymoon Island Trail Spur diverges from the Pinellas Trail at the intersection with Curlew Road and follows the road to the west onto the Dunedin Causeway and over the causeway’s movable drawbridge. The entire length of the causeway has free parking and gorgeous beaches on both sides. The trail continues another mile, passing the ferry to Caladesi Island State Park before it ends at Florida’s busiest state park, Honeymoon Island. T’here isn’t any shade, so the best time to make this hike is in the evening because the temperature will be cooler and you can watch the sun set on the water.