You may have a hard time remembering you are still in St. Petersburg. Smack dab in the middle of the city, nestled along the western shores of Lake Maggiore is a remnant of Florida’s natural terrain. Boyd Hill Nature Preserve is 245 acres of protected land that serves as a vibrantly diverse “Central Park” to our great Sunshine City. Standing on the boardwalk, facing the lake, adolescent alligators sunbathe in the foreground, while the Trop and the St. Petersburg skyline peak over the trees in the distance. It’s a surreal feeling, but also calming and only fitting that such a colorful city would have such unique park as its centerpiece.
Once called Lake Maggiore Park, the preserve was renamed after Boyd H. Hill in 1958. Hill was a St. Petersburg park superintendent with a vision of a nature trail that balanced the city, a place that could be a perpetual postcard to the lush, wild Florida of old.
Like many, I had no idea what was hiding in Boyd Hill Nature Preserve until I mustered the effort to finally quench my curiosity and make a visit. My wife and I packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for ourselves and our toddler, and plenty of water bottles, and headed south down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The Environmental Center greets guests with educational exhibits, including the award-winning The Ripple Effect: Understanding Nature’s Connections, which prepares you for the flora and fauna you will see in the five distinct ecospheres in the park: Swamp Woodlands, Willow Marsh, Lake Maggiore Island, Pine Flatwoods and the Sand Scrub Trail. We grabbed a park map and hit the roughly 6 miles of interconnected trails.
Our first stop on our trek was the Bird of Prey Aviary. Nineteen injured feathered friends, including a bald eagle, hawks, owls and even vultures, rested and rehabilitated in their spacious enclosure under the shade of large oak trees. In the dappled sunlight you could see the tram pavilion, where daily trips are provided for guests who would like to move at a quicker pace. We had the stroller in tow and planned to navigate the trails on foot.
We started walking east on the main trail toward the Swamp Woodlands. A boardwalk ran along a creek that curls this way and that under the shade of red maples, bay and sugarberry trees. We scanned the forest floor for a large box turtle and ducked under spider webs. All the dangers of Old Florida were alive and well in this adventurous landscape.
Before getting to the next boardwalk, on the left side of the main trail was a gray stone bridge, which seemed to lead to a magical land. Recent controlled burns had left tall pines completely blackened and bare, which were quite striking against a bright blue sunny sky. This spot was instantly a family favorite. We ate sandwiches sitting on the mystical bridge.
Next on our hike was the Willow Marsh boardwalk portion of the trail, which is further north along the coast of the lake. Fiery orange viceroy butterflies flit above lizard-tail ferns. Tall leather ferns loomed over the boardwalk, and the mucky mud bubbled a prehistoric breath. In the distance my young son pointed a chubby finger at a roseate spoonbill treading through the marsh. We couldn’t help but to expect a roaming dinosaur to crawl out of the history books in this setting. American alligators took the cue.
We made a quick jaunt out to Lake Maggiore Island. It is a tiny island in the greater lake. A clearing shaded by live oaks provided a panoramic view of the sparkling lake. Black and white anhinga stood like statues drying their fanned wings. The grace of their curved necks in the pause of their pose felt like they were in a peaceful prayer.
We cut past the Pine Flatwoods that continued down the coast and aimed straight for Wax Myrtle Pond. The pond was flanked by two larger-than-life armadillo sculptures, made of silver bumpers, old gears and other scrap metal. These keepers of the pond were created by the genius local artist Paul Eppling, who passed away in December. We took pictures with the bigger of the two armadillos, and I thought of how Eppling would live on in these memorable moments.
Finally on our tour was the Sand Scrub Trail. Getting deeper inland the terrain changes drastically. Lush, broad-leaved forest turns to spare, low turkey oaks, wiregrass and pops of purple wildflowers. At this point on the trail, our toddler’s cheeks are flush red and we are wiping the sweat from our brow. Thankfully there were shaded pavilions replete with water coolers for a much-needed refueling.
With the sun hanging lower in the sky, we were in the center of the park, planning to call it a day. I carted a tired toddler to the car and let the peaceful respite sink deep.
Boyd Hill Nature Preserve is located at 1101 Country Club Way South in St. Petersburg. For more information, including hours of operation and cost of admission, please visit www.stpeteparksrec.org/boyd-hill-nature-preserve.html.