Sometimes it’s nice to explore your own backyard. This county park has been on my to-do list for a while.

A loud rustle from the swamp stops us. A Great Blue Heron has just landed on a cypress tree a few feet from the boardwalk.

The bird is easily five feet tall: all legs and neck, with a dagger of a bill and yellow eyes. It scans the fluorescent green water for food.

Lettuce Lake Park, just 20 minutes northeast of downtown, is one of the bird’s largest remaining habitats in Tampa.

Lettuce Lake Park great blue heron

The swamps of Lettuce Lake Park. Squint at the middle of the photo and you’ll see a Great Blue Heron curled up on itself on the branch. Sorry I couldn’t get a shot to show how magnificent these birds are.

Exploring Lettuce Lake Park

Here, 240 acres of swamp, forest and floodplain are crisscrossed by about two miles of paths lined with pine needles and dirt. The hum of the nearby highway is almost ignorable.

Lettuce Lake Park is Florida at its Florida-est: palm trees, alligators, pot-bellied men with ripped sleeves playing frisbee, snakes, chatty seniors, birdwatchers sporting ponytails and community radio t-shirts.

Lettuce Lake Park pathway

Paths paved with pine needles criss cross through the park.

Lettuce lake park palm

Extreme Palm Close-Up!!!!

The coolest part of the park is a 3,500-foot wooden boardwalk that weaves through the cypress swamp.

Lettuce Lake Bark baordwalk

The boardwalk slinks through the swamp under the shade of oak trees.

Lettuce lake park boardwalk

As you walk, look for snakes, gators and giant snails in the swamp around you.

Here’s where we saw the Great Blue Heron. A few minutes later, we joined a group admiring a rat snake wrapped around a branch a few feet from the boardwalk. It was easily as tall as me.

Further on, a woman walking in the opposite direction warned us about a cottonmouth snake coiled in a tree stump near the trail.

“Those are the mean ones,” she said before walking on.

lettuce lake park kayak

The bony knees of cypress roots poke out of the green swamp water.

The boardwalk travels through the swamp, over canals clogged with water lettuce, and past the knobby stumps of cypress forest.

As we walked we saw snail shells as big as my fist in the bony tree roots. I swear I heard the grunt of an alligator from somewhere in the bush. Most visitors see gators during their visit. We weren’t as lucky.

The boardwalk ends where the river begins. The swamp opens up to the brackish waters of Lettuce Lake River. There’s a bench to rest and watch the passing kayakers.

Lettuce Lake Park cypress trees

Kayaks are available to rent at Lettuce Lake Park.

At 11am on a Saturday morning we had stretches of the park to ourselves. Around 1pm, the families arrived. The sound of owls hooting in the trees was replaced by kids going gaga over the turtles sunning on rotten tree branches near the boardwalk.

The Great Blue Heron was long gone the second time we passed its perch.

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