Area parks showcase the region’s natural resources

— One thing is for sure about the Tampa Bay area, despite its dense population, it still has a surprising abundance of natural resources.

From scenic waterways, to wide varieties of birds, fish and other wildlife, there is a lot to see for residents and visitors alike. Spotting dolphins swimming in warm coastal waters is a special treat, particularly for those of us from colder climates.

One way to spend time outdoors and sample some of the area’s natural resources is in the parks. State and local agencies have shown leadership and foresight by setting aside thousands of acres for active and passive recreational use.

Clearwater can boast of 110 separate parks, playgrounds, fields and special use facilities, a remarkable amount of open space for a city of 109,000 people. Nearby Largo also can be proud of its beautiful 70-acre Central Park located in the heart of the city.

Several larger regional parks also deserve special mention. They are hidden treasures which take a little effort to find but which are worth the visit. Here are some to put on a list of things to do.

Sand Key Park. It’s easy to miss when driving from Clearwater Beach south on Gulf Boulevard toward Indian Rocks. But just next to the Sheraton Sand Key Resort, across from the Marriott Resort is the 95-acre Sand Key Park, really two parks in one. There’s a beach along the Gulf of Mexico and the park itself which includes an impressive view of Clearwater Pass along with play areas, picnic grounds and a nature trail, to name just a few of its features.

According to park officials, visiting humans can expect to see a variety of visiting birds including heron, roseate spoonbill, great horned owl, anhinga and common moorhen.

Parking is only $5 a day. Or annual passes are good at all Pinellas County Parks.

Fort DeSoto Park. Further south at the extreme end of Pinellas County is the well-preserved site of a military fort established in 1898 for the defense of Tampa Bay during the Spanish-American War. Its cannons never were fired in battle, but they stand as an historic example of weaponry from times past.

The largest of the Pinellas County parks, Fort De Soto Park covers 1,136 acres on five interconnected islands (keys). These keys are home to beach plants, mangroves, wetlands, palm hammocks, hardwoods and other native plants. A total of 328 species of birds reportedly have been documented here over the years.

Parking is $5 a day, or annual county parks passes can be used.

Honeymoon Island State Park. Just north of Clearwater, Honeymoon Island includes 365 acres on a barrier island across the Dunedin Causeway from the mainland. Its rugged, unspoiled beauty appears unchanged as it might have looked hundreds of years ago.

It once was marketed as a honeymoon getaway with thatched bungalows for newlyweds, which since have been demolished. A neighboring Caldesi Island, which was split off from Honeymoon Island in a 1921 hurricane, can be reached by ferry.

Parking is $8; the ferry is $14 round-trip.

Pinellas Trail. One other recreation feature deserving attention if the Pinellas Trail for walking and biking that extends from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs. It is slated to become part of a Coast to Coast Connector, a multiuse trail running about 275 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.

So, these are but a few of the places to enjoy the local natural resources. They may be a bit out of the way, and people may often take them for granted, but they can be worth the visit.

Joseph Santangelo is a former reporter for the Bergen Record in New Jersey and writer for magazines in Connecticut and Massachusetts. He has worked in business, government and community service.

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