The most recent hikers lost in Flatwoods Park were found by HCSO’s  Aviation Unit (top) with help from the light from their cell phones.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) rescued two hikers from New Tampa’s Flatwoods Wilderness Park on June 4, a fact that could make those who regularly use the popular 7-mile biking loop wonder: 

How did that happen?

Social media teased the hikers, who were not identified, although some also sympathized with them. 

But hikers, particularly inexperienced ones, getting lost in Flatwoods Park — which has entrances on Bruce B. Downs Blvd. and Morris Bridge Rd. — or even one of the area’s hidden gems, the New Tampa Nature Park (which can be entered off Dona Michele Dr.), isn’t really as crazy as it sounds. 

This past December, an avid hiker made the news when she got lost for two hours in Flatwoods, and had to call the HCSO, which sent in a helicopter to help with the search.  

“It happens now and again,” says Jan Kirwan, the City of Tampa’s conservation parks coordinator. 

Combined, the two parks, which are connected, have more than 31 miles of wilderness hiking trails. While most of the trails are marked, Kirwan says that some are more primitive than others.

HCSO’s Aviation Unit, which is used to assist in rescues and arrests, was able to locate the most recent hikers to get turned around at Flatwoods thanks to their cell phone lights. The aviation unit then directed park rangers to their location.

According to the 9-1-1 call, a man and his friend were on the popular Panther Path, one of the park’s off-road trails, but ended up near a swampy area on the west side of the park towards I-75.

While Kirwan says people can get lost, “If you are familiar with following a trail then you shouldn’t have any problem.” Sometimes, hikers will inadvertently follow an animal trail that bisects the regular trails.

But, if you venture off the beaten path, be prepared.

Kirwan says cell phone service is not always available in the park, and if you are relying on maps on your phone, you could find yourself without any directions. It’s always smart, she says, to have a compass on hand.

Mostly, however, inexperienced hikers sometimes find themselves misdirected when they try to stretch their trip out.

“People don’t realize how dark it can get,” Kirwan says. “It’s not like there are lights out there, and under the trees there’s not much moonlight that gets through. It looks very, very different in the dark.”

That’s why the hours of the park are generally dawn to dusk. The recent hiker rescue began with a 9-1-1 call at 9:24 p.m., after the park had closed.

While neither Flatwoods or the New Tampa Nature Park are advanced hiking areas, they are a step up from, say, Lettuce Lake Park off Fletcher Ave., which is only 240 acres. Lettuce Lake, Kirwan says, is more of a gateway park into the wilderness parks in New Tampa, which offer a plethora of trails and wildlife.

“You see a lot of bird (watchers) in the morning, and there’s plenty of other animals like deer, turkeys, hares and wild hogs,” Kirwan says. “It should be a fun little hike. Just remember, it’s always good to let someone know where you’re going. Then, if you don’t get back, they know where you were.”

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