Hiding in Tampa, this "secret" rails to trails project / multi-use paved trail could just be about perfect!
by Dana Farnsworth, Outdoor Travels
One would think that an eight-mile long road would be a hard thing to hide. The Upper Tampa Bay Trail is an eight-mile paved recreational trail that has first class facilities and beautiful scenery. One would think that everyone, at least in the area, would know about it. One would think... I'm embarrassed to say that although it's located less than 15 minutes away from this avid biker's work place, I just recently discovered this wonderful trail. I’ve actually went out of my way, traveling hours by car and airplane to ride all sorts of rail trails and paved multi-use trails during the last several years. For some reason, during all of my trail research, I never stumbled upon the Upper Tampa Bay Trail. If my biking buddies knew about the trail they had been silent on the subject.
The UTBT is located in the residential northwest Tampa area. Currently the trails runs along the west shore of Channel A from a hard to find trailhead off Memorial Highway, past Waters Avenue, Linebaugh and then due north to Gunn Highway, Ehrlich Road and ending as of late 2004 at Peterson Road Park. The current eight miles make up the first three phases of a four-phase project. Eventually the Upper Tampa Bay Trail will extend seven to eight more miles connecting to the 41-mile Suncoast Trail (see our review) at its southern terminus on Lutz-Lake Fern Road. This trail segment is under study to determine the best route and could be built as soon as 2010.
One day while playing on the internet I stumbled across a map from Hillsborough county that outlined the county’s plan for developing bike lanes, multi-use paths, equestrian and mountain bike trails, etc (see link above). A solid red line was the indicator for a paved multi-use trail. As I poured over this map, I recognized many of the trails I frequent, but up in the high left corner was a solid red line that didn’t look familiar. I was startled at how close it was to where I worked. What was this "Upper Tampa Bay Trail". My proud self thought that it couldn't be much of anything since I wasn't aware of it. Still, I was curious. I made it a priority to find this mystery trail.
I'm a completist - I like to ride from one end of a trail to the other if at all possible. That's why I went out in search of the minor trailhead at the southern terminus. My first attempt to find the Memorial Highway Trailhead failed miserably, (it’s really hard if you don’t live in the area). Actually, it may have not been a miserable failure as what I did find that day was the nearby short Town and Country Greenway (another trail I was unaware of). I spent a lunch hour the following day driving around in search of this elusive trail. I began to feel like Magellan in search of new worlds - city map spread out all over the car, directions strewn about; I was going to find the trailhead if it killed me!
I can’t really tell you what I expected to find. I figured that it would be a nice convenient ride for me. As I finally stood at the gorgeous full-service Waters Ave. trailhead, I had to call my wife to tell her how amazing the facilities and the scenery were! I didn’t expect the level of attention and development that was put into this trail. By the way, I suggest starting any ride from the southern end of the trail at the Waters Trailhead instead of the Memorial Highway trailhead. The Waters facility sports very nice restrooms, ample parking and water and sport drink machines.
The UTBT Trail:
Phase II in the south was built along the western bank of Channel A that was constructed in 1967 to reduce flooding in the area. The channel worked, but unfortunately at the same time, it was an environmental disaster. The sides were constructed too steep for any non-flying native animal to reach the water, too steep for many types of vegetation to grow and too steep for people to access the water for recreational purposes. In 2002 Hillsborough county received a grant to reclaim Channel A and right all of the wrongs.
The west shore was graded back, Cyprus trees and other native vegetation were planted and a four mile section of sinuous paved multi-use trail constructed along its wading bird populated green banks. This section is unique to Florida’s other paved trails in that it amazingly has curves and slight grades. Much attention and detail was built into the supporting infrastructure as well. Most road crossings are equipped with convenient hand rails on each side that I use to keep from unclipping from my pedals while waiting for the crossing signal. There's also a gorgeously constructed wooden bridge spanning peaceful Rocky Creek in a seemingly rural landscape that is in reality only a few yards from busy Linebaugh Avenue. Then there is the pretty hills of north Tampa. Yes, I said hills! In the "flat as of a slice of Swiss cheese" landscape that is Florida, small rolling green hills curiously dot this section. I was also surprised to learn that what I was looking at turned out to be the prettiest reclaimed landfill I have ever seen! It’s really nice, believe it or not!
Shortly after this point, Phase II intersects with Phase I. This section differs from Phase II in that it follows an abandoned railroad corridor through suburban Citrus Park. While Phase II is a purpose built Greenway project, Phase I and adjoining III from Wilsky in the south to Peterson Road is a true rails to trails project and the difference is obvious. From the intersection, the trail has a new personality – it’s straight, like a rail line would be. Although the channel and the curves are no longer present, the trail is still very pretty and enjoyable as many sections are shaded with a canopy of trees.
Reaching Gunn Highway, the trail travels over the busy roadway with a very nice and well-thought out pedestrian bridge. The trail currently ends a couple miles north of the Gunn overpass at Peterson Park, but not before it travels past a trailside watering hole (Ballyhoo Grill) at Ehrlich Road that has become my favorite trailside potation stop. Nothing motivates me more than the promise of a cold beer or two reward!
The mile or so north of Ehrlich is decidedly rural in appearance. It’s really strange to cross a busy intersection and within a minute or two be cruising by all manner of livestock. Goats, cows and chickens really add an element of charm, as well as odor to this suburban trail. The trail ends (for now) rather abruptly at Peterson Road Park that is incidentally, besdie a goat pasture.
While Phase II is newer and has had less time to hide from me, the older Phases I and II remained a secret kept from me for some time. I couldn’t be happier to have accidentally “found” this trail as it has become my current favorite Florida paved trail to ride. A combination of scenery, facilities, trail landscape, available quality stops for food and “refreshments” and a very manageable 16 mile round trip ride is really hard to beat. When the UTBT is connected to the Suncoast Trail in the north (perhaps by 2010), a paved corridor of over 60 miles will then be created – it will be kind of hard not to get noticed at that point. I think even I could find a trail that long.
Trail Length/Surface: 8 miles are currently completed; non-motorized paved trail.
Outdoor Travels Rating: 4 bikes out of 5 for pleasant scenery, great facilities and convenience to stores, bars and restaurants.
- 16 mile round trip is an enjoyable distance for a short ride
- Will eventually connect to the Suncoast Trail
- Convenient to many businesses and watering holes like: Ballyhoos bar/restaurant on Ehrlich and Dagwoods Sport Bar near the Waters Ave. Trailhead
- Facilities are very nice
- Cold water along the trail
- Scenery is VERY nice considering it's in suburban Tampa
- Easy access at several places
- Memorial Trailhead is hard to find as no (including the county's maps) show Memorial Road correctly - as of this report.
Nuts & Bolts
- Activities: Biking, skating, walking, jogging, equestrian fishing and I suppose one could canoe/kayak as well
Directions: Forget finding it unless you live around there. BUT, if you insist, try taking Hillsborough Ave. west passed the airport, Memorial Highway and Sheldon. Turn right onto Pistol Range Road. Follow Pistol Range Road until it ends at Memorial Highway/Montague St. Take a right onto Memorial Highway/Montague St. Trailhead is a short distance on the right.
Directions: From Tampa, take Waters Ave west to Hanley Ave. Head north on Hanley Ave, Hanley becomes Wilsky Blvd at Linebaugh. Cross Linebaugh, the trailhead is on the left/west side of Wilsky Blvd., before the on ramp to the Veterans Expressway.
- Ehrlich Road at Altaloma Street Trailhead - Parking.
Directions: From Veterans Expressway, take the Ehrlich Exit to Basswood Ave (1/2 mile). Make a right on Basswood Ave, the second street will be Altaloma, make a left, the trailhead is on the left.
Contact: Planning and Growth Management Department
601 East Kennedy Blvd., P.O. Box 1110 Tampa, Florida 33601-1110
Lots of great photos to give you a good idea of what riding here is like!
click on any picture above for a larger view
Help Keep Outdoor Travels A Free Informational Source!
By clicking through the links of these great outfitters when you want to purchase new gear, you'll not only receive the best pricing, you'll also be helping Outdoor Travels pay the bills. We certainly appreciate this simple gesture!